Kerberos Panzer Cops!
Mamoru Oshii's Stray Dog is a puzzling movie. What should be a gritty, revenge-soaked sequel to The Red Spectacles, Oshii's paranoid, dark, and neurotic predecessor film, Stray Dog turns out to be exactly the opposite—light and breezy, full of hope and second chances, touting an almost utopian existence.
Calling this new direction "disappointing" would be selling it short, but it certainly is surprising.
Facts of the Case
At the end of the 20th century, the Metropolitan Police choose to establish an elite anti-crime unit in response to the growing tide of civil disobedience and crime plaguing the city. This group, composed of highly trained officers, was called the Anti Vicious Crime Heavily Armored Mobile Special Investigations Unit, and they imposed their own brand of marshal law upon the city armed with heavy machine guns and battle "reinforcement gear."
As the self-proclaimed "Watchdogs of Hell" (AKA the Kerberos) slowly took over the city, the punishments doled out to criminals became more and more violent, their brand of justice more vengeful upon the city. Public criticism grew, and eventually the government intervened, calling for the Kerberos to disarm.
But the Kerberos were not so willing to simply relinquish their control. Branded as outlaws, the Kerberos rioted, leading to a situation known as the "Kerberos Uprising." Hoarded up in abandoned buildings, the government swarmed around them for weeks, in an attempt to force the Kerberos to stand down. At the center of the uprising was Koichi Todome, leader of the Kerberos, who rallied the troops to fight back.
The Kerberos were eventually defeated, and the government arrested the surviving members. The only Kerberos to escape, coincidentally, was the leader, Koichi. Now, three years after the riot, a young Kerberos member has just been released from prison, burning with suppressed rage. His name is Inui, and Koichi was his mentor.
He sets off to find Koichi, filled with unanswered questions. Why did Koichi flee? Why did he abandon his troops? Inui's motives are unclear even to himself—does he simply seek answers from Koichi, or revenge?
His journey takes him to the mainland, where he meets a young girl named Mei, who for a time was living with Koichi. Now, he has vanished again. Together, they set off across the countryside, following the trail after Koichi.
However, Inui's intentions may be misguided, even manipulated by unseen forces. For they are not the only ones looking for Koichi—he is, after all, a political enemy, a constant threat, and a bomb waiting to go off, and there are those who would give anything to find his location…
Mamoru Oshii's Stray Dog is the second film in the Mamoru Oshii Cinema Trilogy, the first being The Red Spectacles and the latter being Talking Head. This film almost acts as a bridge between the paranoid dystopia of The Red Spectacles and the technical insanity of Talking Head, and by a monumental landslide, is the simplest and easiest to get one's head around. Unfortunately, this does not mean Stray Dog is a better film.
While The Red Spectacles is dark, brooding, and paranoid, Stray Dog in stark contrast, is light, uplifting, and pensive, almost bewilderingly so. It acts as a prequel to events in The Red Spectacles; here, we learn how Koichi spent his exiled years, and some of his motivations behind returning to the city.
Shigeru Chiba (as the always-sunglassed Koichi) gives a mellow, calmer performance this time through, and relinquishes the starring role of the movie to none other than the director. Stray Dog is an excellent vessel for Oshii to show off his immaculate directorial style—and show off, he does. The film has an organic fluidity, a beauty to its cuts and movements that goes beyond the subject matter. It seems to offer an alternative, a prelude to the madness to come, simply in the framing, the camera positioning, and the long takes. There may be less subject matter in Stray Dog, but it is handled with the skill of a master.
To offer up a comparison for illustration, Stray Dogs is thematically and visually reminiscent of Takeshi Kitano's films, such as Kikujiro, Kids Return, or the beach sequence of Sonatine, where simple visual poetry, and a poignant lack of dialogue, manage to convey a disarming sense of natural joy; a carefree, whimsical pleasure evoked in response to the violence and drama that surrounds the characters. And, just like in Kitano's films, this peace is fragile—violence has the potential to erupt without warning at any time.
But the film isn't necessarily a great one—a good film, certainly, but nothing great. It seems much more a companion piece and less a sequel, in fact, all the films in the Mamoru Oshii Cinema Trilogy appear to be loosely linked in metafictional themes only. In their own way, they are all experimental. Considering Oshii's work, this film is definitely a deviance from the norm, an experiment in something new. There is less paranoid desperation—there seems to be almost a sense of utopia—and the philosophical ruminations are less edgy, less desperate. Unfortunately, not a lot happens. There is some beautiful music, some beautiful visuals, directed with a keen style, and the occasional gunfight and comedic moment. Everything in between is pleasant enough in a whimsical sense, but Stray Dog lacks the depth and substance of The Red Spectacles and Talking Head. The film is sweet and pleasant enough, but less satisfying than its companion pieces.
This is a great looking film. The transfer is immaculate, with no edge problems, solid black levels (save for a few grainy indoor shots), and wonderfully mellow greens and blues. Bandai has done a good job with this one. The transfer does appear overly soft at times, but it fits with the elegance and whimsical subject matter, and is not detrimental. The landscape shots are fantastically composed and look gorgeous. The occasional large tear or white spot crops up from time to time, but they number in the half-dozen and are hardly problematic.
Though not an issue in any meaningful sense, the aspect ratio for the film is slightly peculiar, and I offer it merely as something quizzical. When displayed on a normal television, the transfer appears normal, because televisions customarily crop off the left and right edges of an image by their design (those plastic edges cover up part of the screen). However, when the image is viewed in its entirety (a widescreen television, a computer screen, shrunken down, etcetera), the corners of the aspect ratio are turned in, rounded down to smooth edges, making the entire image a rounded rectangle rather than sharp-edged. It is a peculiar thing indeed, and I must confess never having seen it before.
Unlike the other two films, Stray Dog was recorded in stereo and makes good sweeping use of its dynamic range (albeit only two channels). The sound is fantastic, with excellent bass response and a crystal-clear score by longtime Oshii collaborator and trilogy-composer Kenji Kawai, who scored Oshii's Ghost In The Shell, the Patlabor series, and, perhaps most famously, scored the haunting music for the horror film Ringu, re-made in North America as The Ring. The soundtrack for Stray Dog is simple yet profound; a classical guitar and piano score that lilts on the breeze and flows organically throughout the picture, reminiscent of a Jo Hisaishi score. Those interested in the score should remember that the Mamoru Oshii Cinema Trilogy is available bundled in a handsome box set and comes with the Stray Dog soundtrack on CD as an extra.
The subtitles are mostly problem-free; occasionally they take liberties in the "grammatical sense" department, but nothing too atrocious, really. Like the other films in the trilogy, the only extra included with Stray Dog is the original Japanese theatrical trailer, thoughtfully subtitled into English.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I wish there was more to this movie. Widely considered a lame duck, Stray Dog was panned by most of Oshii's fans and those looking for a decent sequel to the bizarre Red Spectacles. I myself felt slightly cheated—albeit in a whimsical, enjoyable way—but hey, surprises are what these films are all about. I shouldn't be surprised.
The action sequences feel forced, almost lame. They lack any solid "oomph," and almost feel tacked on, almost as if the film catches itself at the very end, and tries to let the bullets fly in a desperate attempt to satiate the masses.
You can't really skip over this film—it's a trilogy, after all, and it sure is a pretty, beautiful film, but it definitely has the least to offer out of the three.
This is not a revenge film, nor is it an action film; like The Red Spectacles, Stray Dog is a hard film to categorize and classify. Though nowhere near as compelling, strange, exciting, or entertaining as its predecessor, Mamoru Oshii's Stray Dog is still a good enough film—just not a great sequel.
It still asks confounding, challenging questions, it still has underlying themes of discontent and strife, but all the sunshine and friendship and beaches has a…peculiar way of mellowing things out.
Indeed, Stray Dog is a mellow movie; but really, when you think about it? There is nothing wrong with that.
Hey—at least there's no explosive diarrhea in this movie. Case dismissed!
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