It’s 1949, Japan. The United States is still occupying the country and enforcing a censorship over the film industry that literally abolishes the samurai movie as a genre. Lots of American movies have flooded the industry and it’s here that filmmakers such as Frank Capra and Orson Welles impacted a new generation of directors, chief among them being Akira Kurosawa. In 1949 he debuts “Stray Dog”, a detective crime drama.
The story follows young rookie detective Murakami (Toshirō Mifune) whose gun is stolen from him on a bus. Ashamed and humiliated, he begins his search to find his missing gun by immersing himself in the criminal underworld, as well as the poverty of post war Japan, exposing a gun racket. Unfortunately, he’s unable to locate his specific gun. He’s later assigned to a homicide case involving the very gun that was stolen from him, causing him to feel the full weight of responsibility for the crime. He’s teamed with veteran detective Sato (Takashi Shimura) and together they attempt to find the suspect and recover the missing weapon.
The acting in this film is superb and the two stars are both among Kurosawa’s favorite actors (one or both of them is in nearly every single one of his films). Toshirō Mifune as the headstrong rookie is intense and believable. The more crimes that are committed with his gun, the more he feels his pain and guilt. It’s easy to sympathize with his character. He believes everything that happens is the result of his own carelessness that one day on a bus. Takashi Shimura is, as always, excellent as the aged detective. He has a definite mastery of the part of the experienced warrior. He doesn’t take everything quite as seriously as his partner, but still knows how to handle every situation that comes their way. It’s the classic experienced/rookie cop duo, and there’s a great dynamic between the two actors. Their relationship is brought the foreground in one particular scene where Sato invites Murakami over for dinner.
This is an earlier masterpiece for Kurosawa and in a few ways it almost seems as if it was an experimental film for him. There are a number of unique shots and sequences that may have seemed different at the time, for instance, the extensive montage of Murakami scouring the underworld. There’s a juxtaposition of his eyes on crowds as well as a number of interesting tracking shots, including one of the sun through a matted roof, not unlike a shot from “Rashōmon”, a film that would later give Kurosawa international recognition. This montage sequence goes on for quite some time and seems to serve as a showcase of what happened to a lot of people after the war.
One of the main themes of the film is the direction the youth take after they come home from war. The suspect and Murakami were both soldiers and they both had their knapsacks stolen from them on the train as they returned from service. While one became a cop, the other became a criminal. The duality of the two characters is something that’s displayed visually towards the end of the film, resulting in a mesmerizing shot at the end of the climax.
One of the reasons this film doesn’t feel quite as dated is because of the way its shot. Nearly every scene was filmed on location and is held in deep focus. This means that everything is in focus, be it in the background or the foreground. This makes the picture quality seem especially crisp and clear.
“Stray Dog” is no slouch in the action department, either. Kurosawa proves that he can master suspense as well as any director in one of the most memorable scenes in the film. Murakami realizes that in the train station one of the passengers is the suspect. At this point, the viewer has no idea what the suspect looks like, as his face has not yet been revealed. Murakami frantically looks around at all the passengers as his voice over narration is constantly telling him not to panic and be calm. His guess is as good as the viewer’s and the tension builds to a nearly crippling level. Only after the scene is over do you realize that you haven’t breathed.
Akira Kurosawa did far more than just samurai movies. If you haven’t seen “Stray Dog”, see it. It’s an excellent crime drama that’s a perfect example of another one of his contemporary classics.