Happy Birthday Akira Kurosawa!

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Takashi Shimura and Toshiro Mifune in Stray Dog (1949)

Stray Dog (1949) was the ninth film made by Japanese director Akira Kurosawa and I think it’s one of his very best. Like many of my favorite Kurosawa films, Stray Dog features no rogue samurai or mad emperors and it’s set in modern Japan instead of feudal Japan, but it does contain many of the major themes that Kurosawa enjoyed exploring in his work throughout his long career. Stray Dog began life as a novel that the director wrote after being inspired by the crime fiction of French author Georges Simenon, but when Kurosawa adapted his novel for the screen his work took on a life of its own. Stray Dog was transformed into one of the best noir thrillers made in the late ’40s and it’s one of the director’s most compelling films.

The film stars a very young and incredibly handsome Toshiro Mifune in one of his earliest roles as Murakami, an ex-solider turned rookie detective in postwar Japan. The aftermath of the war and the American occupation has taken its toll on the Japanese people who were literally baptized by fire and have been reborn in a cruel and often brutal representation of the modern westernized world. With little food and even less hope, many people have naturally turned to crime in an effort to survive. Others like Detective Murakami are attempting to forge a new life for themselves out of the destruction, but it isn’t easy. After starting his new job Murakami has his gun stolen by a thief (Isao Kimura) who uses it to commit terrible crimes. Guns are a rare commodity in postwar Japan and Murakami’s shame at loosing his weapon forces him to hunt down the criminal so he can retrieve his weapon with help from an older and wiser detective named Sato (Takashi Shimura). This hunt will take them through the war torn city streets of Tokyo’s criminal underworld made up of shanty towns, black markets and seedy night clubs.

Stray Dog takes place during an unprecedented heat-wave and you can literally feel the steam rising from the city streets. Akira Kurosawa enjoyed using the effects of the changing weather such as falling rain, snow storms or the blossoming spring in his films to represent the changing moods of his characters and to signal important events. In Stray Dog the hellish summer heat almost becomes a character of its own.
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One of the movies most remarkable qualities is the way in which the film makes use of Tokyo’s battered and burned exteriors to create an unsettling mood of destruction and desperation that haunts every frame. It presents a part of Japan that was rarely if ever seen in previous films of the period. Some of the credit for the look and feel of Stray Dog must go to Ishiro Honda who worked as a second-unit director on the movie. Honda is mostly known to western audiences as the director of Godzilla (1956) but before becoming a filmmaker Ishiro Honda served with the Japanese military during WW2 and the experience left him deeply troubled. His firsthand knowledge of the firebombing of Tokyo and a visit to Hiroshima after the war left psychological scars on Ishiro Honda that he never fully recovered from. Honda often seemed compelled to revisit the trauma he had suffered in the films he created later on. During the making of Stray Dog Akira Kurosawa asked Ishiro Honda to explore the ruins of post-war Tokyo and film whatever he saw there. Honda made exceptional use of his personal observations and experience while he was shooting and almost everything that he caught on camera was used in the final cut of Stray Dog.

There’s just no getting around the fact that the aftermath of WW2 and its effect on the people who survived it is what really fuels Kurosawa’s film. Tohsiro Mifune’s detective is an ex-soldier but the criminal he is chasing is also an ex-soldier. Both men survived similar circumstances but afterward they followed very different paths. The detective and the criminal are both “stray dogs” trying to find their way in a new and unfamiliar world that has risen from the ashes of war. As a filmmaker Kurosawa’s sympathies seem to be with no one and everyone. You’ll find very few cookie-cutter bad guys or good guys in the movie. I think that’s a reflection of what postwar Japan was experiencing at a very trying time. The examination of their previous alliances and adversaries is mirrored in Kurosawa’s film. The complexity of the characters that populate Stray Dog is something that you don’t often see in crime movies made during the ’40s and that’s just one of the reasons why it’s so rewarding. Stray Dog is one of the most nuanced film noirs I’ve seen but it’s also one of Kurosawa’s most style-conscious efforts.
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The film is full of perfectly composed interior shots as well as lingering close-ups that seem to focus on the most mundane things in unexpected ways. Police procedures are meticulously depicted in the film, but unpredictable moments such as a wonderful dance number and a baseball game, keep the movie exciting. There’s an intimacy between Kurosawa and his actors that is reflected in the way the director’s camera lingers on their warm limbs and sweaty brows. It could be argued that women are often reduced to background characters in Kurosawa’s work but Stray Dog features a remarkable performance from Keiko Awaji as a beautiful but troubled showgirl named Harumi. Like many of the best femme fatales, Harumi isn’t given as much screen time as her male costars but she’s unforgettable as the criminal’s feisty girlfriend.

Stray Dog isn’t my favorite Akira Kurosawa film (that would be High and Low) but if you’re looking for the perfect film to watch while celebrating Akira Kurosawa’s 100th birthday today, I highly recommend giving Stray Dog a look. It’s a thrilling viewing experience and arguably the director’s first true masterpiece which makes it the perfect introduction to his body of work. It also features Kurosawa’s longtime collaborator, the great Toshiro Mifune, in one of his best roles. Mifune is so beautiful in Stray Dog that he’ll take your breath away. Few male actors have looked as good as he does in a white linen suit. You’ve been warned!

Stray Dog airs on TCM today (March 23rd) and it’s currently available on DVD from Criterion.
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“A stray dog sees only what it chases.”

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