Judge Dan Mancini's keen detective work led him to a startling conclusion: Akira Kurosawa made good movies.
Bad luck either makes a man or destroys him.
Stray Dog (Nora Inu) is an entertaining policier, fascinating because, while inferior to Kurosawa's best work, it gives us an intimate view of a director on the verge of greatness. Kurosawa would make only one more film—1950's Scandal (Shubun)—before coming to the attention of the entire world with Rashomon. Artistically, things are happening in Stray Dog. A profound sensibility is taking hold, and a unique visual style is gelling. Sure, there's the interminable eight-minute montage of the hero's persistent city search, and a scene at a baseball game that runs a skosh long. They're stand-out moments in the film, yet so unlike the narrative and visual leanness of Kurosawa's masterpieces. But those weaknesses are balanced against Toshiro Mifune's power, Takashi Shimura's warmth, and the gritty and realistic view of the mean streets of urban Japan in the late 1940s. Most significant, though, is how Kurosawa uses a straightforward genre like the police procedural to say something deep and true about Japan's floundering postwar generation, the young men betrayed by the empire's militarism but wary of Western pap, rudderless, scared, and pissed off. Stray Dog has all the hallmarks (and fun) of a genre programmer, but anyone watching closely can see Kurosawa is up to something far more profound.
Facts of the Case
Murakami (Toshiro Mifune, Throne of Blood) is a police detective—newly discharged from the army after World War II and still wet behind the ears—whose Colt pistol is pickpocketed from him on a crowded bus, then used in a series of crimes. With victims of his firearm mounting, the young cop is wracked with guilt and becomes more and more obsessed with finding the perpetrator. As he and his partner/mentor, Sato (Takashi Shimura, Ikiru), do meticulous leg-work, Murakami discovers the criminal, Yuro (Isao Kimura, Seven Samurai), is a young man much like himself, a war veteran struggling to find his way in a world suddenly transformed by defeat and American occupation. Personal choice is all that separates them.
Stray Dog was made and is set during the American occupation of Japan, a period of intense social upheaval for the country. Crime and black-market bartering were rampant as humiliated soldiers returning from the front overloaded the country's fragile, almost non-existent economy. Moreover, the empire was gone and Japan fumbled its way toward democracy while the populace tried to assimilate the Western clothing, music, film, and general self-indulgence now readily available. It was all in stark contrast to the austere existence—rooted in the feudal traditions of fealty and self-sacrifice—the empire had demanded of them during the previous two decades of militarism. This cultural and psychological uncertainty is what drives Murakami and Yusa, the central figures of the film. The young men, cop and criminal, are opposite sides of the same psyche. In fact, Yusa's screen time amounts to only a few minutes, but we experience him as a complex character rather than a one-dimensional murderer because Kurosawa deftly encourages us to apply Murakami's earnestness and naïveté to him as well, and the payoff is an anguished emotional collapse at film's end expertly performed by Isao Kimura.
The striking biographical similarity between Murakami and Yusa is meant to rule out environment and circumstance as the primary catalyst for Yusa's behavior. Kurosawa doesn't dismiss Yusa's hardships outright, but refuses to excuse the man's criminal behavior because of them. What separates the men—as explicitly stated a number of times by Murakami's immediate supervisor, as well as his mentor, Sato—is personal choice. Murakami himself reinforces this notion. During his police interview of Yusa's sister, he's taken aback when she tells him her brother was devastated by the theft of his army knapsack, which contained all of his worldly possessions. In an environment with little hope of gainful employment, and in which government-issued rice ration cards are necessary for daily sustenance, the crime left Yusa angry and disillusioned. Murakami later reveals to Sato that his knapsack was stolen, too, and that he came dangerously close to resorting to thievery in order to ensure his own survival, but instead pursued and acquired his job as a police officer. Yusa's response to his circumstances, then, is understandable but not inevitable.
Kurosawa was born in 1910, near the end of the Meiji era (1868-1912), which saw the end of feudalism, centralization of power under the emperor, modernization, and militarization. People of Kurosawa's generation had a unique view of the social changed forced upon Japan by her defeat in World War II. They felt little nostalgia for the empire whose hubris had brought on their cultural humiliation, yet they distrusted the sometimes garish excesses of Western culture, and were a generation too young to wish for the return of pre-Meiji feudalism. In Stray Dog we see Kurosawa wrestling with this conundrum of his generation. The fact he offers no simple solutions—calls to either retreat into traditionalism, or fully embrace Western modernity—is the first sign of his emergence as an important artistic voice in Japanese cinema. Kurosawa recognizes the dynamic potential for human autonomy inherent in Western democracy, but worries such freedom may drive the culture into a decadent narcissism that erodes memory of or respect for tradition. Individual agency, then, must be exercised with an eye toward the self-sacrifice celebrated in traditional Japanese culture.
This postwar wrestling with the intersection of nature, nurture, and choice forms the foundation for the enlightened, humanist reinvention of the samurai code of Bushido that would distinguish the jidai-geki (period films) of Kurosawa's most artistically productive and expressive period. Film's like Seven Samurai (1954), Throne of Blood (1957), Yojimbo (1961), and Sanjuro (1962) are set either in the Sengoku period (1490-1600) or the beginning of the Meiji era because those times of civil strife parallel the postwar upheaval through which Kurosawa actually lived. As historical settings, they were ideal for commenting on life in Japan in the 1950s and '60s. So, Stray Dog is quite useful in providing a contemporary (at the time of its production) context for reading the director's later, greater films.
Stray Dog is also technically artful in its own right, demonstrating much of the visual flair that would distinguish Kurosawa's masterpieces. Produced in the late '40s, it predates the director's use of the scope frame and of telephoto lenses to flatten the visual plane, but his distinctive triangular compositions—actors carefully blocked to express psychological harmony or dissonance—are there, as are his dynamic use of foreground, middleground, and background compositional elements (in deep focus), and precise and intentional camera movement.
With the exception of two scenes, Kurosawa's impeccable sense of narrative pacing is also on display in Stray Dog. A scene in which Murakami, undercover as a destitute war veteran, scours Tokyo's black market for his stolen Colt, lasts over eight minutes, taxes one's patience, and is a self-indulgent anachronism in Kurosawa's body of work. Some critics have defended it as an artful demonstration of Murakami's tenacity, saying Kurosawa is allowing his hero to literally wear down the audience's resolve. The problem with that theory is that the scene immediately follows an extended set piece in which Murakami relentlessly tails a female thief who won't give him information that might lead to the gun's recovery. He's on her heels all day long as she moves about the sweltering city. By day's end, she's so exasperated, she relents and tells him all she knows. The montage is expertly constructed, funny, narratively significant, and entirely successful in demonstrating Murakami's dogged resolve to recover his stolen pistol. There's no artistic need to subject the audience to eight minutes of Toshiro Mifune strolling in the crowded black market, beaded in sweat. The black market footage was shot by Kurosawa's assistant director and close friend, Ishiro Honda, who would have his directorial break-through five years later with Gojira (Godzilla). Shot in Tokyo's actual black market, with a very real criminal element on hand, Honda was required to move about in disguise with a hidden camera. It's possible Kurosawa felt obligated to use as much of the footage his friend had risked his neck to acquire as possible, even if it meant a little artistic compromise. And as much as the sequence fails on an artistic level, it's fascinating from a historical perspective; this is, after all, actual footage of Japan's illegal postwar underground economy.
A scene in which Murakami and Sato trail a gun-dealing black marketeer to a professional baseball game also has pacing problems, though not to the extent of the black market scene. Because the setting contains an important turn of plot and some clever police work by the duo, it doesn't drag quite as much, but the frequent inserts of the game take on a predictable editorial rhythm and begin to feel forced by scene's end. On the accompanying commentary track, Stephen Prince explains that the Occupation government censors were reluctant to allow film content that emphasized the Westernization of Japan, but were always lenient when it came to the inclusion of baseball (whose popularity in Japan pre-dated the war). This leniency may account for Kurosawa's over-use of the baseball footage, since Westernization was a central theme of the film and his array of visual motifs for expressing that theme would have been otherwise limited. Anyway, if you're a baseball fan (as I am), sitting through footage of Japanese teams of the '40s has its own peculiar charm, especially in little things like the umpire calling "Play ball!" in English at game's beginning.
In addition to its themes and the technical precision with which it is executed, Stray Dog's teaming of Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura gives a glimpse into Kurosawa's later masterpieces. The director's films are never better than when these two actors share the screen with one another. Something about their contrasting styles—Mifune's passion and explosive energy versus Shimura's earthy emotional honesty—makes them an ideal duo, especially when Shimura plays mentor to Mifune's evolving hero. Kurosawa had already teamed them in his two previous films—Drunken Angel (1948) and The Quiet Dual (1949)—but Stray Dog is the first time we get the partnership fully formed and in perfect balance, quite similar to their pairing in Seven Samurai (though Murakami is far more cool-headed than Kikuchiyo, Mifune's character in the later film). Even if you could not care less about the film's sociological content, visual artistry, or genre storytelling, it's still worth watching just for the fun of seeing these two great actors share the screen.
Stray Dog is the earliest of the Kurosawa titles yet released by Criterion (or anyone else in Region 1, for that matter), so the sources are understandably limited. The restoration work here is phenomenal, all things considered. The full screen image has moderate contrast—blacks are never quite solid, but whites are often gorgeous. Minor source damage like fine emulsion scratches is evident throughout. No major damage remains, however. Detail is as sharp as can expected, aided immeasurably by Kurosawa's use of deep focus throughout the film. The aforementioned black market and baseball scenes are of significantly lower quality than Kurosawa's first unit stuff, but that's to be expected since Honda was undoubtedly using a smaller film stock, especially for the hidden camera material.
The audio is also consistent with Japanese films of the era. The movie's original optical mono track has been restored. Hiss is minimal throughout, except in the film's coda where it's fairly thick. Kurosawa's use of naturalistic sound is, like everything else he does, precise and intentional, and this disc reproduces the source with all the clarity current technology can muster.
A new set of English subtitles has been provided by Linda Hoaglund, who delivered one of a dueling set of subs, along with Donald Richie, for Criterion's release of Throne of Blood last year. Hoaglund is known for foregoing literal accuracy in order to capture subtleties of tone and vernacular. Slang like "helluva" pops up in Stray Dog, and characters sometimes preface their dialogue with "Say," as though they're chumps or dames in John Huston noir from the '40s. The effect might've felt too pandering to Western audiences except Kurosawa was aware of American film noir when he made Stray Dog, and was clearing riffing on it visually. Hoaglund's trading of period Japanese slang for period American slang also reinforces the film's emphasis on the Westernization of Japan. Subtitle purists (who speak Japanese) may be annoyed, but I found Hoaglund's work here artful and entertaining. For those of us who don't speak Japanese, I doubt we're losing anything substantive, yet we're gaining a more thorough experience of Kurosawa's humor, for instance, which is never lost in translation. I had the opportunity to screen Stray Dog, with Hoaglund's subs, last summer when it was touring museums and art houses with a number of other Kurosawa flicks. The house was packed and the crowd was thoroughly entertained by the subtitles' crisp verbal wit and attitude.
Supplements are light but substantive on this single-disc release. Stephen Prince, author of The Warrior's Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa, provides a commentary that delivers on his usual standard of excellence (he's previously provided tracks for the Criterion releases of Red Beard and Ikiru in addition to Wellspring's release of Ran). His screen-specific track for Stray Dog thoroughly dissects Kurosawa's themes and methodology. Also on tap is a 32-minute episode from the Toho Masterworks television series called Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create. Each episode of the show deals with the genesis and production of a specific Kurosawa film. They're well-produced and have become standard issue with Criterion's recent Kurosawa releases. This one, however, doesn't offer much substance if one has already listened to Prince's incredibly thorough commentary.
The 16-page insert booklet that accompanies the disc contains details about the video and audio restoration and transfer, a new essay by film critic Terrence Rafferty, and an excerpt about Stray Dog from Kurosawa's book, Something Like an Autobiography.
Kurosawa and Criterion: great movie, great DVD. Need I say more?
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary by Stephen Prince
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