Stray Dog

Takashi Shimura and Toshiro Mifune in Akira Kurosawa's STRAY DOG

“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  Kurosawa adapted the screenplay from his own unpublished novel.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

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About unpaidfilmcritic

Up until 2009 Seth Shire spent nearly two decades in the New York film industry as a post production supervisor of feature films. Highlights include working on the films of Martin Scorsese, James Toback and Spike Lee. Since leaving the film industry Seth has expanded into new and varied areas where he has found a great deal of satisfaction. Seth currently teaches in the Sociology Department of CUNY Queens College. His courses include "Mass Media and Popular Culture," "Introduction to Sociology," and "Sociology of Cinema" where he is a very popular teacher. Seth is also the film critic for "Town & Village," a Manhattan weekly newspaper, a position he has held for the past six years. Seth gives back to his community through volunteer teaching at Manhattan's "The Caring Community," a center for senior citizens, where he teaches a very popular course on documentaries called "The Golden Age of the Documentary. In the fall of 2010 Seth taught "Critical Reading and Writing" at Parsons School of Design. He has also taught "Cinema Studies" at the New York Film Academy. Seth lives in Stuyvesant Town, in Manhattan.

Posted on January 6, 2010, in Classics, Film Forum. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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