Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Starring Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Keiko Awaji
Akira Kurosawa was truly one of the great directors of Japanese Cinema. After Stray Dog, Kurosawa released the following films and in this order: Rashomon, Ikiru and Seven Samurai. Unfortunately with the great success of these three films, Stray Dog is often a forgotten gem in the Kurosawa filmography. However, it is a film that a Kurosawa fan or a film noir fan cannot miss. Criterion has released this classic film on DVD.
Detective Murakami, played by legendary Kurosawa leading man Toshiro Mifune, is having a very bad day as the film opens. On an extremely crowded trolley, Murakami has had his police issued Colt revolver stolen. Japan at this time is still occupied after the war and guns and ammunition are very scarce. Murakami is feeling extremely embarrassed for he hasn’t been on the force very long and is worried how this appears to his police chief and colleagues. His colt was fully loaded with seven bullets.
The police chief assigns veteran Detective Sato, portrayed by Takashi Shimura, to assist Murakami in recovering his weapon. As they are searching for the weapon, murders begin to surface. The bullets recovered from the victims are tested in the crime lab and they come from Murakami’s Colt revolver. One by one the seven bullets from the revolver are being used. The time frame has been established: the two detectives must get the gun back before all seven bullets are fired.
The search for the weapon eventually takes the men into the sordid underworld of Tokyo. Murakami and Sato search the black markets, the yakuza gangs, night clubs with beautiful show girls and geisha establishments. One particular dancer Harumi may hold a piece of vital information about the thief. They find clues with the discovery of a rice rationing ID card. The very presence of this rice rationing card further establishes this story at the end of World War II, when Japan is still occupied and the residents of Japan are struggling to put their lives together.
Murakami and Sato’s search takes them to a Tokyo Giants game. Locating a suspect at the game is particularly difficult as it is summer and virtually everyone is wearing white pants and white t shirts. They enlist the help of the peanut and snack vendors to be on the lookout for one of their suspects. This segment of the film hold many of moments of suspense as the anxious Murakami scans the thousands of faces for the one man he is seeking.
The weather of Tokyo at the time this story takes place is almost a character in the film itself. It is unbearably hot and Murakami often sweats right through his suits. Sato is seen constantly wiping his brow with a handkerchief. The humid and sticky weather makes everyone involved in the story highly uncomfortable and emotionally edgy. Near the end of the story, a rain falls to bring some relief to our characters. I feel that Kurosawa used the change in weather also to indicate upcoming emotional relief for Murakami and Sato and their search for the thief.
To reveal how the story resolves itself would be a disservice. The viewer needs to take this journey alongside Murakami and Sato without the benefit of the knowledge of the outcome.
I was reminded several times during Stray Dog of an Italian neorealist film The Bicycle Thief. An important element of that film that made the story impact the viewer even more intensely was the setting for the story. There were not any sets built for The Bicycle Thief; the story unfolded in the poverty stricken areas of Italy. The worn streets, trolley cars, homes and businesses of Tokyo after the war set a crucial mood for this crime story to unfold. The pacing of Stray Dog is very reminiscent of a Hitchcock film, such as Strangers on a Train. The combination of these two influences and Kurosawa’s own impeccable style make Stray Dog a classic film that cannot be missed.
The cinematography implores the use of lots of heavily contrasted blacks and whites and an abundance of shadows. Kurosawa uses more dolly shots and montage sequences in Stray Dog. The use of these techniques is a departure from his traditional style and I found it enjoyable to see Kurosawa expand his style in this film.
Toshiro Mifune portrayal of Murakami is excellent. This is not the same brazen and confident Mifune fans are familiar with. He instead plays a troubled, shy and anxious new cop eager to correct a wrong that has occurred. Takashi Shimura, familiar to Kurosawa fans from his starring role in Ikiru, turns in another fine performance. He is the perfect counterpart to Mifune’s Murakami. Where Murakami is anxious and inexperienced, Shimura’s Sato is confident and knowledgeable.
Fans of classic film noir and fans of Akira Kurosawa simply cannot miss this classic film.
Stray Dog is presented in its original full frame aspect ratio. Criterion has done another fine job in restoring this film to look as good as possible. There are a few instances of imperfections they were unable to correct from the original source material. This film looks as good as is technically possible today.
Stray Dog is presented in mono in its original Japanese language with subtitles. Kurosawa utilized the natural sounds of the open environment in which he set this movie very well and they are well preserved and presented in this DVD. I did not notice any occurrences of hiss or crackle.
The Bonus Features
There are several bonus features to enjoy on this DVD release of this classic film. Kurosawa film scholar Stephen Prince provides an informative and thorough commentary track. He provides interesting historical information about the time the film was set in and information on Tokyo’s legendary black market. My only complaint is that on occasion, Prince can be a little too “highbrow” and academic in his references. His commentary is informative but needs to be more relaxed and reflect his film fan side along with the academic side.
There is a 32 minute segment of the documentary film series on Kurosawa entitled It is Wonderful to Create”. The episode included is the one devoted to Stray Dog. It was interesting to learn that Kurosawa first wrote the story as a novel and then adapted it to film. He was greatly influenced by the crime novels of Georges Simenon. The information contained in this documentary is incredible for the Kurosawa fan. Interviews with his editor, art director and Kurosawa himself make this a perfect inclusion on this DVD presentation.
There is an essay included by Terrence Rafferty on the film and an excerpt from Kurosawa’s memoir Something Like an Autobiography on the making of Stray Dog.
All things considered, a fantastic presentation of a fantastic film.
Overall (Not an Average) 9/10
The Movie 10/10
The Video 8/10
The Audio 9/10
The Bonus Features 10/10
Overall (Not an Average) 9/10