“Stray Dog,” Akira Kurosawa’s intriguing 1949 film that is alternately a detective story, a journey into film noir and a Japanese post war social commentary opens on January 6 at Film Forum and runs through January 14. The film inaugurates Film Forum’s four week retrospective honoring the late Japanese director’s centennial year.
“Stray Dog” is a unique police procedural in that it has a social, as well as moral, conscience. Kurosawa adapted the screenplay from his own unpublished novel. Kurosawa’s novel, in turn, was influenced by the work of French mystery writer Georges Simenon whose detective, Jules Maigret, solved cases based more on knowledge of societal conditions and psychology than by following clues.
Toshiro Mifune, Kurosawa’s frequently cast lead actor, plays Murakami a young detective who feels a sense of personal shame when his gun is stolen from him on a crowded bus. He goes undercover on an obsessive search for the perpetrator, leading him through a heat-wave-engulfed Tokyo. The nearly 10 minute sequence compresses many days’ worth of Murakami’s search of the seamier side of town. Partly shot with a hidden camera in a very rough section of post war Tokyo, the sequence uses dissolves, shots of Murakami’s walking feet and close ups of his eyes. We see what Murakami sees which is multitudes in a bad part of town on sweltering days where there are many “needle in a haystack” like possibilities as to the identity of the gun thief. We are shown the larger social issue at hand: Murakami catching the gun thief will solve one problem but will not heal society as a whole.
Murakami’s problems around the missing gun soon intensify making him more and more desperate to find the thief. Murakami’s sense of responsibility reminded me of Kingo Gondo, the main character in Kurosawa’s film “High and Low.” “High and Low,” made 14 years after “Stray Dog,” was Kurosawa’s second detective film (“Stray Dog” being his first) and also starred Mifune in the lead. Like Murakami, Kingo Gondo is very principled. He must decide between a business deal and the life of his chauffeur’s child. “High and Low” plays on January 22.
“Stray Dog” was Kurosawa’s ninth film and came out only a year before his international success “Roshomon,” which plays on January 28. In “Stray Dog” the director’s eye for composition is readily apparent as is his eye for casting. Takashi Shimura, also part of Kurosawa’s excellent “stock company” of actors, plays Murakami’s higher ranking officer and mentor, Sato. As parallels between Murakami and the gun thief become apparent Sato cautions Murakami about identifying too closely with the thief. Ultimately “Stray Dog” is the story of a detective trying to solve a crime. In the process, he comes face to face with himself.
“Stray Dog,” director Akira Kurosawa, Janus Films, 122 minutes