Monday, February 1, 2010

#79: Stray Dog (Akira Kurosawa, 1949)

Released: October 17, 1949

a.k.a.: Nora inu

Director:
Akira Kurosawa; Screenplay: Akira Kurosawa and Ryuzo Kikushima; Cinematography: Asakazu Nakai; Music: Fumio Hayasaka; Producer: Sojiro Motoki; Studio: Toho

Cast: Toshiro Mifune (Detective Murakami), Takashi Shimura (Detective Sato), Keiko Awaji (Harumi Namiki), Eiko Miyoshi (Harumi’s Mother), Fumiko Honma (Tub shop woman), Isao Kimura (Yusa), Minoru Chiaki (Show director), Ichiro Sugai (Yayoi Hotel Owner), Gen Shimizu (Police Inspector Nakajima)

I started out this countdown with two popular films at positions much lower than were probably expected. Particularly in the case of Act of Violence, which many consider to be a preeminent film noir, I knew that the ranking would certainly be disagreed with by many readers. But I’m guessing that this, Akira Kurosawa’s Stray Dog coming in at #79, will probably be the first to elicit complete dismay. Stray Dog, which Kurosawa released in 1949, is generally viewed as being the first film from the Japanese legend that can justifiably be given the label masterpiece. To be certain, it is wonderful filmmaking, and is interesting to watch Kurosawa being so directly-influenced by American cinema of the era. I stop a bit short of calling it a masterpiece, but it does flirt with such a distinction.

Even more important than the potential disagreement with its ranking, the entry of this Japanese-made movie is significant for this entire project. It is the first non-English film to enter the countdown, and shows that my definition of what is and is not film noir is much more expansive than the conventional “1941-1958 made in the United States” category. Its inclusion should be an indication that there are a number of foreign films that can, and most certainly will, find their way into this countdown as it continues. In my opinion, such an expanded definition only serves to make a project like this even more interesting.


Stray Dog is set in the postwar Tokyo, but if one can ignore the exotic locales and scenery, it plays very much like a Jules Dassin or Anthony Mann police procedural. At times, it almost feels like Kurosawa is following the playbook laid out by such American filmmakers, right down to the western film score. The central story of a rookie cop (Toshiro Mifune) searching for his stolen police-issued Colt pistol is at times annoyingly over-dramatic. As Detective Murakami scrambles to find his lost gun, he begins to learn details of his pistol being used in murders and crimes committed soon after it was stolen. Working with seasoned homicide detective Sato, played spectacularly by Takashi Shimura, the pair chase down leads in search of the weapon. With each new crime attributed to Murakami’s colt, the young officer feels more and more responsible for the carnage. Sato attempts to console, while at the same time helping him recover the gun, and a relationship develops between rookie and veteran.

Despite often being labeled as his first masterpiece, I personally don’t think it’s quite vintage Kurosawa or approaching his best work. Watching it, though, it is obvious that the man directing is completely confident in what he’s doing. What remains most impressive to me is how the pace of the story actually moves quite leisurely, and for the first two-thirds never appears to be in a rush, and yet Kurosawa is able to maintain tension throughout. Kurosawa is also able to portray everything about Tokyo in the late 1940s as incredibly harsh. The heat seams unbearable, as attested to by subtle techniques like Sato’s constant fanning and wiping of his brow. The entire community is obviously still recovering from the destruction of the recently completed war. Like American films that focused on the reentry of soldiers back to civilian life, a similar theme is played out here with returning Japanese soldiers.


The main, and really only, complaint I have concerning the story is that I have problems feeling much connection to a detective who has his gun lifted by a pickpocket and then is reduced to tears multiple times in the investigation to recover it. Mifune’s acting in these situations is too exaggerated for me, giving key sequences an overly melodramatic tone. I much prefer the controlled, steady performance from Takashi Shimura. Mifune seems to be the one that receives the bulk of the praise in any film he stars in – and in most cases, rightfully so. Here, I think Shimura turns in the most praiseworthy performance.

Stray Dog is, in my opinion, very good but not quite great Kurosawa, showcasing the legend on the cusp of his string of classics. In terms of “greatness,” that term that means different things to different people, this one might rank higher than three quarters of the films placed above it in this countdown. In terms of my own personal preferences, I think this is its ideal ranking. Most importantly for the purposes here, it shows that noir is more than just a fixed period in American cinema. It flourished elsewhere too.

10 comments:

  1. Stray Dog was Kurosawa’s 10th film, and not the work of a novice. For me it is one of the great noirs.

    Kurosawa's exploration of the nether world of post-WW2 Japan not only parallels the American noir theme of the returning soldier’s re-integration into civilian society, but also has a deep philosophical dimension. Two men’s different responses to a chance event underlie the story of pursuit tempered by empathy, and the realisation that the pursuer could as easily have been the pursued.

    Kurosawa uses the weather brilliantly to build an atmosphere charged with frustration, and most impressively in an erotic night club scene where exhausted chorus girls slump to the floor backstage breathing heavily their skin glistening with sweat.

    Indeed the female protagonists are drawn deeply and sympathetically.

    A masterpiece.

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  2. Tony - I didn't mean to imply that this was the work of a novice, because it's clearly not. It's just that the Kurosawa that I prefer would come after Stray Dog.

    Excellent response, as usual, Tony.

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  3. Have not seen this one yet Dave, I have a copy but have still have not watched it. Actually, comes every weekend this is one I consider but always opt for something else. This has gotten good reviews for Tony (above0 and from our good friend Sam, so I ready need to get on the ball and watch it.

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  4. Not dismay at all Dave, but a cause for celebration in fact, although I'll admit I'd have this much higher, as it's a bonafide Kurosawa masterpiece, and often appears deservedly on lists of his greatest films. It does of course qualify here in a most persuasive way, and it showcases Kurosawa's genre craftsmanship. Both Mifune and Shimura are excellent and Nakei's cinematography and Hayasaka's music are exceedingly memorable.

    Your countdown has certainly kicked into high gear with this choice and review, the latter of which by the way is your high watermark for this venture. I was riveted by this piece.

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  5. Dave, my local library has a copy of this but when I rented it either their Criterion disc was defective or my player was having a bad day. So my not seeing it isn't for lack of trying, and your review inspires me to try again.

    In any event, my own experience with the Nikkatsu Noirs confirms your comment about the genre's global sweep and I definitely recommend the entire box to you. As for Kurosawa, I can see him showing up possibly twice more on your list.

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  6. John - Definitely worth seeing... Kurosawa and noir are two great things to be attached to any film!

    Sam - Thank you very much for the compliments! We definitely have some great films coming up, as things are get even tighter in terms of ranking movies the further the countdown progresses.

    Samuel - I have the Nikkatsu Noirs waiting to be watched. Since I couldn't get to all of them, I did opt to just keep them out of the countdown. I'll swing back around get back to them afterward, hopefully.

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  7. Dave, a very nicely written post. TCM will be showing a slew of Kurosawa films during March--the well known as well as obscurities--including this one on March 23. I'll be watching, as I haven't seen this one yet and Kurosawa is in my pantheon. I wonder if we can expect to see "Drunken Angel" in the countdown. It was made about the same time as "Stray Dog," also stars Mifune and Shimura, and I would say definitely qualifies as film noir.

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  8. R.D. - Thanks for stopping by. I was not aware of the Kurosawas being shown on TCM in March, so thanks for the heads up! I normally roll through the TCM schedule each week and set the DVR for anything that interests me. Then, luckily, I also have a DVD recorder so that I can keep some of the films that aren't available on released DVDs.

    Keep stopping in on the countdown... we're moving toward some classics.

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  9. I think that it is one of the most important movies filmed in Japan, I was talking with a friend about it, and he said me that The film was remade as Nora Inu starring Tetsuya Watari as Murakami and Shinsuke Ashida as Sato. The location was changed from Tokyo to Okinawa.!!!22dd

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  10. Akira Kurosawa style is so astounding, he is the best Asian director ever born, I wonder if someone can surpass him.

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