Stray Dog (1949)

“Bad luck can make a man or destroy a man.”

‘Stray Dog’, written and directed by Akira Kurosawa in 1949, is a noirish police-procedural set in a sweltering heatwave in 1940s Tokyo. Murakami, played by Toshiro Mifune, is a cop who has his gun stolen and used in a murder. Together with his partner, played by Takashi Shimura, he digs into the underworld of the city to stop the thief from killing again. It struck me watching this film that this and the Ozu’s 1953 ‘Tokyo Story’, give two very different depictions of the after-effects on Japanese culture of the Second World War and American occupation. Ozu’s movie takes a cue from traditional Japanese culture presenting a minimalist, meditative study of family life, Kurosawa, by contrast, fully embraces western culture both in the genre and documentary style of the film, but also in his use of locations and set-pieces such as the hunt for the killer at a baseball match. These seem to highlight the tensions in Japanese society at the time between the pre-war traditions and the post-war, westernised reconstruction. Both movies are also tied up with the role of the man in Japanese society: of fathers and grandfather, and, in ‘Stray Dog’ of the surrogate-paternal relationship between the two main characters. As much as you can see the western influence on Kurosawa however, you can also see how aspects of this movie, and other Kurosawa films such as ‘Seven Samurai’ translated back into American culture. The depiction of a young, impulsive cop and his world weary, family driven partner became such a staple of the genre that it almost becomes a cliché. In this film I can see the beginnings of a narrative device that shaped films such as ‘Lethal Weapon’ and ‘Seven’. Highlights are the baseball scene, shot with a long lens both to give the actors some distance from the camera and to enhance the realist, documentary look of the film. I was also struck by the climax: Murakami and the killer, the ‘stray dog’ of the title, fight in the mud following a cathartic thunderstorm. Gradually it becomes impossible to see which is which – and it is clear that this is the intention: to blur the line between the killer and the cop. It’s a powerful commentary on a how generation copes with returning from a war to find their whole country, it’s culture and tradition, has changed.

Would I recommend it? Yes, again it’s Kurosawa and he’s one of the more consistent of directors – his sense of movement and his way of meticulously framing each scene is flawless. Watch in a double-bill with ‘Tokyo Story’ to get a true sense of the contrast.

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