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Stray Dog (Akira Kurosawa) 1949


    Stray Dog, Akira Kurosawa’s 1949 film noir, transposes the bleak outlook that dominates so many American entries in the genre to postwar Tokyo. Like in many Kurosawa films, the characters often complain about the unbearable heat that permeates their environment as if it were actively trying to oppress them. The dust in the dirt streets kicks up like it was sand in a desert and when rain finally falls after what seems like an eternity of dryness, it absolutely pours down on this world, but offers only a temporary reprieve from the intensity of the city’s air. The film follows Murakami (Toshiro Mifune), a rookie homicide detective who has to get down and dirty with the lowlifes of the city after a pickpocket steals his gun on a crowded bus. Stray Dog is a police procedural that expands itself to make sweeping statements about the social meltdowns that redefined its country after World War II. Clearly, there’s the suggestion that the newly urbanized nation’s industrialization has taken it farther away from nature, but even more evident is the implication that the vice is a side effect of his disconnection from old values. This treatment might sound a bit didactic, but Kurosawa makes this world come alive without sacrificing excitement or his stylization of the setting. When Murakami goes at the end of a long day’s work to his partner’s simple house in the country, the mood and cutting style are noticeably changed, making the viewer realize just how overly busy the city life is here. The only thing one could complain about in this dichotomy between new and old lifestyles is that the youngster Murakami seems to have come from the old school of thought. He’s bound by a sense of honor that is outmoded in the world he inhabits. He’s clearly a heroic figure, but his lack of complexity in somewhat stultifying, especially in comparison with the gray morality that other noir heroes have.


    Still, despite any thematic simplicity here, the technical proficiency that Kurosawa exhibits in Stray Dog makes it well worth watching. The policemen’s desperate race to capture the “stray dog” who has Murakami’s gun before he turns rabid plays out as a series of invigorating set pieces. The most impressive one is an extended, wordless sequence that occurs near the start of the film where Murakami silently and persistently tracks an accomplice of the pickpocket as she goes about her day. Her attempts to slip away from him are played for laughs, but they’re also grippingly exciting. The subsequent bit where Murakami attempts to look desperate enough so that he might attract an arms dealer is almost as well done. The close-up of Mifune’s darting eyes that’s superimposed over the scenes of tawdry city life remind us that he’s always alert, even as the actor undergoes a physical transformation that convinces us that he’s becoming one of the masses. His immersion in the grimy subculture (and simultaneous loss of innocence) is credible enough that it changes the tone of the film as it goes along. Mifune’s performance is far more natural here than usual, and his expressions subtly chart his character’s gradual comprehension of the harshness of the world that surrounds him. Even if he still feels responsible for the crimes that the man with his gun is committing, his idealistic perception of the world changes because the aggressive sleaze that fills it is so undeniable.


* * * 1/2 


Jeremy Heilman