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Stray Dog

Stray Dog

By Arpad Lukacs • March 10th, 2013
Static Mass Rating: 5/5
STRAY GOD (MOVIE)
Toho

Original release: October 17th, 1949
Running time: 122 minutes

Country of origin: Japan
Original language: Japanese

Director: Akira Kurosawa
Writers: Ryuzo Kikushima, Akira Kurosawa,

Cast: Masumi Miyazaki, Issei Ishida, Rie Kuwana, Mai Takahashi, Hiroshi Ohguchi

Stray Dog

Heatwave. A rotten Summer in a rotten city and a rotten case. Such a brief description is more than enough to recognise the world in which this story is taking place: film noir. Although normally associated with Hollywood, Japanese director Akira Kurosawa was one of the filmmakers overseas who created works along these distinct lines, a prime example of which is his 1949 police drama Stray Dog. To add to the film’s landmark quality, it’s also considered an early example of a “buddy cop film” that’s since become a widely recognised genre. Tracing genre origins is only one thing we can do with this film though, Stray Dog also offers great relevance within a cultural context of its time in post-war Japan.

Kurosawa doesn’t hesitate to get started promptly; when rookie detective Murakami (Toshiro Mifune) has his pistol stolen on a crowded bus in the film’s opening, we have what will drive the plot until the climax right away. It’s almost tempting to label his pistol as a MacGuffin, but this object isn’t a passive plot device as it later goes on to become a murder weapon in the hands of a criminal. Driven by guilt and shame, Murakami searches for his weapon obsessively while strolling the backstreets of a Tokyo still recovering in the aftermath of WWII. When it becomes evident his stolen weapon made its way into the world of crime, he joins veteran detective and family man Sato (Takashi Shimura) in tracking down and gradually getting to know the perpetrator who remains faceless until the film’s climax.

The first half of the two-hours of running time gives an insight into life in post-war Japan while following the plot through destitute and struggling parts of the city as well as a great sequence taking place at a baseball game. A gun dealer they’re looking for is keen on baseball, but so is all of Japan. Thousands of people gather in a massive stadium to witness the game that was ironically introduced to the country by an American; but the Japanese couldn’t part with the most popular national sport before, during or after the war.

Stray Dog

The film gets even more interesting when they find out that the new owner of Murakami’s gun is a young war veteran named Yusa who’s living an aimless and frustrated life. This is the point in the film when Kurosawa begins to draw some clear parallels between Murakami the cop and Yusa the criminal. In the aftermath of a war that was lost along with much of the national pride, Stray Dog contemplates between two options as to how Japan can go forward. Murakami – in a conversation with Sato about “après-guerre” or post-war generation – says that he’d been close to making bad decisions that would’ve taken him towards a life of crime, but he “deliberately chose another way” when joining the police force.

In spite of starting from the same place, the two men differ greatly; Yusa’s violent nihilism is in high contrast with Murakami’s preference to slowly rebuild the country and leave the past behind. Yusa’s character is nevertheless constructed as a victim whose only flaw is his weakness that transforms into rage in the wake of his own inability to get back on his feet. Although he has temporary power with Murakami’s gun, he has fewer bullets after each crime and with that, his inevitable downfall rapidly approaches. The heatwave is finally over with thunderstorm and heavy raining and soon after Murakami has to face the distorted mirror image of himself to take back his gun.

The film’s post-war commentary wrapped into a suspenseful and atmospheric film noir makes it the unforgettable gem that it is. Almost every scene is memorable in its own right; Yusa’s dancer girlfriend Harumi (Keiko Awaji playing the film’s femme fatale) trying on a beautiful dress he purchased for her on stolen money as the first thunderstorm kicks in, Sato’s encounter with Yusa in a hotel on the same night or the aforementioned scene in the stadium during the baseball game are just a few to mention. Stray Dog is a gripping police drama with great visuals and superb acting, but it has even more than that on offer. At its core, the story of Murakami and the road not taken speaks to a post-war generation and encourages looking to the future instead of the past.

Stray Dog

Arpad Lukacs

Arpad Lukacs

Arpad is a Film Studies graduate and passionate photographer (he picked up the camera and started taking stills just as he began his studies of moving pictures). He admires directors that can tell a story first of all in images. More or less inevitably, Brian De Palma has become Aprad’s favourite filmmaker.

Then there’s Arpad’s interest in anime. He was just a boy when he saw Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind on an old VHS and was hypnotised by the story of friendship, devotion and sacrifice. He still marvels at the uncompromising and courageous storytelling in Japanese anime, and wonders about the western audience with its ever growing appetite for “Japanemation”.

Have a look at Arpad's photography site, and you can follow him on Twitter @arpadlukacs.

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