Stray Dog (1949)
“A stray dog sees only what it chases.” – Detective Sato
Film noir’s birth place of America, origins from grimy American detective novels, spread quickly through the fabric of American film from the early 1930’s towards the end of the 1950’s, spawning a theme of dark thoughts, slick characters and broken deals. Even Europe caught on, idolizing American cinema and its stars. Noir even reached across the Pacific ocean and into the mind of Japanese director Akira Kurosawa.
The film opens with Murakami (Toshiro Mifune, Kurosawa’s favorite muse), a rookie cop, sweltering in the Tokyo summer, cramped on a bus when he notices his pistol’s been stolen. He unsuccessfully chases after the culprit and returns to the police station, confessing his misfortune to his commander. Vowing to find the thief and retrieve his gun, he sets out desperately into the bombed-out, post-war Tokyo, which exposes his naivete quickly, leaving him frustrated. His commander then pairs him with veteran detective Sato (Takashi Shimura) when it’s revealed the stolen gun has been used in a murder, beginning a frantic manhunt into the seedy underworld of Tokyo. Their relationship forms the backbone of the story, showing the wise master teaching the impatient, youthful student the ways of the world, the ways of solving a murder. It may have served as the model for Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt in “Seven.”
As they uncover clues and dig out the truth from various witnesses, they discover the gun has transferred up the crime chain, landing into the hands of an unstable serial killer. The more we learn about the murderer, Yusa, the more we learn of the similarities between him and Murakami, the difference being their chosen professions. Finally with the help of Yusa’s girlfriend, they are able to track him down, with a stirring chase scene into a beautiful, soft meadow, the bullets and murderous pursuit creating a marvelous contrast of imagery.
This is one of Kurosawa’s earlier works but we can see the artist’s trademark style of shooting scenes intimately and in open spaces, trusting his ability to incorporate the landscape and actions of his characters to deliver his film. This film isn’t sugar coated with glamorous gangsters lit in lustrous black and white but with a gritty look showing us the underbelly of war torn Tokyo, the working class and poor serving as a backdrop and political commentary. We see and feel the tension of the missing gun throughout the film while the characters constantly wipe the sweat off their faces from an oppressive heat wave, the dirt and grime visible on their white suits, the pits beneath their arms. Film noir is embraced by a young, ambitious Kurosawa, who only a year later would film his landmark masterpiece “Rashomon.”
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Tags: Akira Kurosawa, Brad Pitt, film noir, Morgan Freeman, Rashomon, Stray Dog, Takashi Shimura, Toshiro Mifune