Stray Dog (1949)
“Bad luck either makes a man or destroys him,” Police Inspector Nakajima says midway through Stray Dog. One of his junior detectives, Murakami, played by Toshiro Mifune, has lost his pistol. Dazed by heat and exhaustion, he lets his guard down in a crowded streetcar, where a female pickpocket lifts the gun right out of his suit jacket. And so Murakami stands in front of the boss with his head bowed, ready to be castigated and thrown back jobless into the street. Instead, he’s assigned to track down the gun dealer who has his pistol. The case could redeem him, but to crack it Murakami must immerse himself in the criminal underworld of bombed-out postwar Tokyo.
Stray Dog marks a turning point both for Kurosawa as a filmmaker and for Japan as a nation. Filmed just four years after World War II, it takes the desolate and lawless environment of Occupied Japan as its prime subject. Ostensibly a police drama, the film covers the effects of poverty and war as much as the habits of criminals and policemen. These elements converge on the character Yusa, an impoverished veteran who buys Murakami’s pistol. Embittered by his wartime experiences, he turns to crime out of despair, without hope that the money he steals will raise him from squalor. When Murakami visits Yusa’s family, he is shown the tiny shack where the thief lives. “I’d hardly call it a room,” his sister says, “It’s so makeshift.” Yusa’s shack stands for the makeshift world created by firebombs, food rationing, and cheap weapons, cobbled together by misguided determination and desperate hopes.
Stray Dog also marks an important place in Kurosawa’s early collaboration with Toshiro Mifune. The actor caught his first leading role with the director only a year earlier with Drunken Angel. In playing Murakami, Mifune would further refine a trademark role: the bumbling, emotionally volatile youth, at once a misfit and still eager to please authority. But while this kind of character gives an opportunity for a wide range of emotions, it makes for a rather implausible homicide detective. At times Murakami even begs his suspects for clues. Yet if Murakami’s credibility as a cop wears a bit thin, the character also subtly inverts the noir trope of the cool, cynical gumshoe.
Mifune’s volatile performance is balanced by another Kurosawa regular, Takashi Shimura, who plays Murakami’s partner, Detective Sato. Sato reigns in the junior detective’s crusading instincts, offering himself as the voice of hard-won experience. This rather conventional master-pupil relationship is enriched by Shimura’s relaxed and confident screen presence. Kurosawa would revisit this dynamic a number of times using the same actors, but it is surprising to see it so well-formed in such an early stage in his career.
Throughout the filming of Stray Dog, Kurosawa marshaled his superhuman attention to detail in order to portray the Tokyo underworld as realistically as possible. His camera lingers on crowded streets teeming with shiftless, haggard people selling ration cards, guns, and sex. These scenes have an almost documentary feel to them, which is natural given that many were filmed in actual black-market stalls. Kurosawa also experimented with camera techniques to make the film more true to life. In key scenes, he resorted to filming at a distance through telephoto lenses in order to get more spontaneous performances from the extras. Kurosawa would later use this technique extensively in masterworks such as Seven Samurai.
Kurosawa regarded Stray Dog as a small failure. It is true that the film’s message, that one must choose right no matter what the circumstances, is driven home a bit too didactically. And yet it still remains one of the director’s better early works. The bleakness of post-war Japan is captured so masterfully that it prevents the message from becoming trite. Both Kurosawa and Mifune were still developing their talents, and would later revisit the same themes and characters that shortly would bring them world renown. While Stray Dog merits viewing on its own, it is particularly exciting in view of what Kurosawa was to do next. — Matt Spencer