Stray Dog(1949)

“He felt he would suffocate on the bus. A baby was crying. The cheap perfume of the woman next to him was nauseating.” This voiceover is heard almost three minutes into the film as we see Toshiro Mifune’s young detective Murakami squashed together with fellow passengers(standing room only) on an overcrowded bus hurtling through the streets of Tokyo.

Toshiro Mifune as Detective Murakami.

The scene is extremely claustrophobic and he looks like he is suffocating in the heat and can’t bear the fellow passengers crushing him. The opening scene of the American Noir Pickup On South Street(1953)which shows Candy(Jean Peters)and Skip(Richard Widmark)on a crowded train always reminds me of this scene.

The film is set in post-war Japan during an oppressive heatwave and features director Akira Kurosawa’s regular lead actor Toshiro Mifune in the third of sixteen films that the pair would make together. Mifune delivers one of the best performances of his career as the sweat soaked, hotheaded, rookie detective Murakami. When Murakami’s police gun is stolen from him while travelling on the bus he immediately gives chase and doesn’t stop trying to track it down.

Unfortunately the pickpocket evades him and Murakami will later discover that his gun has moved on from the pickpocket who snatched it and been passed into the criminal underworld. Murakami becomes guilt ridden and has to swallow his pride,report the theft of his weapon and ask for help in his search to retrieve it – as well as seek his own redemption in the process.

Murakami and Sato are on the case.

Help and support arrives in the form of detective Sato – played by the terrific character actor Takashi Shimura, who is at his best here as the wise, laid back and slightly weary veteran detective . Mifune and Shimura had first worked together that same year on Kurosawa’s medical drama The Quiet Duel and the work wonderfully well together.

Stray Dog was the precursor of the buddy cop genre where two officers whose personalities couldn’t be further apart are teamed up and develop an unbreakable bond. If you love the likes of the Lethal Weapon films then you owe thanks to Akira Kurosawa and this film.

Stray Dog is such an exciting and tense film and has some striking photography courtesy of Asaichi Nakai. There’s strong performances from pretty much everyone in the cast, even people who feature for a small amount of screen time manage to make a real impression. The film was mostly made on sets with some second unit footage shot on location in the Tokyo streets by Kurosawa’s friend and assistant director Ishiro Honda, who would himself go on to become an acclaimed film director and make the likes of Godzilla(1954) and Mothra(1961). This is also possibly the sweatiest film ever made. Everywhere you look on screen people are trying to cool off in any way they can and are irritated and worn down by the unending heatwave encroaching on their lives.

Kurosawa also shows us a side of Japanese life which we don’t see too often in other films, that of the nightclubs, the dancehalls and the police force. The film rarely lets up on its intensity and thrills, but there are some more quieter and poignant moments to be found – such as the grief stricken husband of a woman murdered by a man using Murakami’s stolen gun breaking down and sobbing in his wife’s little vegetable garden. In this moment we see (as does Murakami)the terrible impact such a crime has on the loved ones left behind.

Interestingly Sato seems quite distant during the breakdown scene which to me indicates he has seen so many similar moments throughout his career and that due to his experience with the aftermath of such crimes he’s become partially hardened against them. Sato tries to get Murakami to understand that he cannot keep getting so personally involved in every case or it will break him apart, but the older detective also knows he can’t just expect him to heed his words, it is something that can only come in time when bitter real life experiences force him to keep a distance in future. 

The finale in the field is tense and surprisingly deeply moving as we find ourselves unexpectedly feeling a sliver of pity for a loathsome murderer. If the film has a message it is that crime is a destroyer and a waste all round and there are only losers caught up in such a life. The lives of both the victims and perpetrators of crime are either ended or forever altered as a result of criminal activity. It’s always best to choose another path to walk down in life instead.

When he began writing the script for Stray Dog, Kurosawa was inspired by the works of Maigret author Georges Simenon and by Jules Dassin’s American Noir The Naked City(1948). The similarities between Stray Dog and The Naked City are clear to see. Both films have a documentary look and feel about them and both focus on just one of many such stories taking place in the big city. Strangely enough Kurosawa didn’t regard Stray Dog very highly for some years declaring it to be “too technical”, but he had changed his mind by the 1980’s and spoke much more warmly about it.

While I love Kurosawa’s Samurai epics such as Throne Of Blood, Seven Samurai and Rashomon, I’ve always been drawn far more to his intimate and somewhat less acclaimed dramas such as The Quiet Duel, No Regrets For Our Youth, Drunken Angel, The Idiot, Scandal, High And Low and Ikiru – featuring a career best performance by Takashi Shimura as a terminally ill man finally taking the time to see and appreciate the world around him. Stray Dog is one of the best of these and I think it also acts as a perfect gateway film to use to introduce someone to Japanese cinema.

Whenever I finish watching this one I’m always left feeling sad that we never got a film series focusing on more cases handled by Sato and Murakami. That the film leaves audiences wanting to spend more time with these characters is a credit I think to Akira Kurosawa, Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura.

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