#9 in my ranking of Akira Kurosawa’s filmography.
One of the earliest buddy cop movies, pairing up a young police officer with a more seasoned one, essentially Lethal Weapon but postwar Japanese, Straw Dogs is basically a police procedural about the search of a lost police pistol. What makes it really work is twofold: the cleareyed view of postwar Tokyo (largely captured by Kurosawa’s assistant director Ishiro Hondo, in charge of the second unit direction) and strong character work that goes into every character in the film. Kurosawa would later deride the film a bit, feeling like it was an empty technical exercise. I would agree to some small degree in that there is no real thematic core, but the motifs common in his work are here. In addition, the character work is so strong that that’s enough of a core on its own.
Rookie cop Detective Murakami (Toshiro Mifune) appears before his superior officer in shame. He had been pickpocketed on a bus on his way home, having his gun stolen from him. His superior is surprisingly unconcerned by it, but Murakami is consumed by guilt for his failing. If he’s determined to figure out where the gun went, his superior directs him to try and figure out who did it using the police archives on known pickpockets, a search that leads him to a picture of the woman who was pressed up next to him on the bus. What follows is surprisingly delightful. Murakami, with the help of another officer, finds the girl Ogin (Noriko Sengoku) and follows her all day. The fun comes from the fact that Murakami is terrible at hiding himself, and she knows he’s following her the entire day. As night comes, Ogin settles into a sake bar with Murakami waiting outside because he won’t drink, and, out of a sense of shared humanity, she buys him a beer and gives him a clue to look for gun dealers in the slums.
The following sequence is most of the footage filmed by Hondo, going deep into some of the most dangerous parts of Tokyo, usually without Mifune, and it’s really interesting to watch, providing a kind of cinema verite feel to the film that seems to fit more comfortably with Italian neo-realism rather than Kurosawa’s output that heavily used sets. After several days of wandering the streets in disguise, sleeping where he can, and looking for the familiar face of the man who took his gun, he gets approached by a young man asking him if he wants a gun. Arranging a meeting at a restaurant with a girl with a white flower in her hair whom he arrests, making a scene in the process, and finding out that this girl had had his Colt pistol and was going to receive it back from the person she had rented it out to that evening in that restaurant. At a dead end, and with news that the gun was used in a robbery of a young girl that ended with a bullet in her shoulder and 40,000 yen stolen, Murakami’s superior teams him up with Detective Sato (Takashi Shimura).
The most prominent motif of the film is a continuation of the ideas in The Quiet Duel, the conflict between two different ways forward for the Japanese youth in the face of the collapse of the Japanese Empire at the end of World War II. This really manifests in the contrast between Murakami and the target of the investigation, the almost entirely unseen Yusa (Isao Kimura). Through the girl, the pair track down the gun dealer Honda (Reizaburô Yamamoto) at a major Nippon League baseball game and pick up the ration card of Yusa, the one who received the gun. The bulk of this movie really is the police work, and it’s effective, but what makes it worthwhile is the combination of Mifune and Shimura.
Shimura had been in Kurosawa’s movies from the beginning with a part in Sanshiro Sugata. Mifune made his mark a bit later by taking over Shimura’s movie Drunken Angel, the two pairing up together again is really effective. Shimura is the older man who has seen the way things work in law enforcement, and MIfune is the overly earnest young cop. Shimura leads Mifune in a paternal-like relationship, including a visit to Shimura’s small rural house just outside of town. The two really do develop a palpable relationship over the course of the investigation as Sato guides the less experienced Murakami into finding new places to investigate, including a girly show and a geisha house. The investigation ends up setting them on separate paths with Murakami sitting in the apartment of Yusa’s girlfriend Harumi (Keiko Awaji) while Sato follows the final tracks of Yusa. The contrast between Murakami and Yusa rises to the surface here (being subdued for vast swaths of the film, degrading it from theme to motif in my mind) with both the police officer and the murderer (having performed a house burglary that led to the death of a woman he shot) experiencing the same kind of robbery on their return from war (being robbed of their knapsacks on the train), but they went in opposite directions. Murakami decided he couldn’t descend into immorality, so he became a police officer while Yusa simply decided to embrace the immorality of crime, ending with his current spree with Murakami’s stolen gun. That Yusa is using Murakami’s gun fuels his motivation completely, making him feel partially responsible for every crime Yusa commits despite Sato telling him that if it weren’t his Colt it would be someone else’s Browning.
The finale finds Murakami alone with Yusa having shot Sato, putting him in the hospital. Murakami is alone and has to follow the clues to figure out which of several young men, all dressed similarly, is the one he’s looking for. The showdown is tense, the tensest thing Kurosawa has put together since the early showdown in Sanshiro Sugata, as Yusa has to use his final shots and Murakami has to face him down without a weapon himself. It’s the culmination of all the little ideas of the film and the character’s journey in one sequence, and it’s great. It elevates everything that came before it. It’s not deep, but it is effective.
So, considering the heights that come later, I can see how Kurosawa would be dismissive of this. However, for a police procedural, this is really quality stuff. Acting from Mifune and Shimura are great. The character journey is clear and complete. The tension of key moments is palpable. The motifs are strong and interesting with the added benefit of extending ideas Kurosawa had been toying with in his previous films. After the pleasant surprise of The Quiet Duel, Stray Dog is another wonderful entry in Kurosawa’s early career.
6 thoughts on “Stray Dog”
Good review, you covered a lot of stuff I was going to bring up.
This is a powerhouse performance by Mifune and Shimura gets to play a little against type (He’s always always the ‘older’ man) getting to show competence and experience instead of conflicted weakness. (Shimura grew on me as an actor but for a long time, I didn’t appreciate him)
I do want to talk about guilt here as I feel that’s a major theme. The inability to forgive yourself for failure ties in quite well with post-war Japan. Guilt and shame is a major part of their culture, to the point where death and maiming of yourself can be viewed positively by some sub-cultures as a way of atoning. Several characters give Murakami ‘outs’ to ease his guilt and he can not or will not take them. It’s an interesting character trait and one that Mifune leans into wonderfully.
I also admire Murakami’s absolute goodness, he’s very much a white knight, a paladin in both the classic and more modern sense.
I think this is Kurosawa’s first ‘great’ film after already having some near-greats already in his career.
Kurosawa really is one of the best writer/directors who found ways to include strong thematic material in his films dramatically. No speeches, just characters going through actions that feed a central idea.
I wish more modern filmmakers would study Kurosawa.
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