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Movie Review: Stray Dog (1949)

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Fact one:  Akira Kurosawa is a cinematic legend.  A Titan among mice.  Like Rumpelstiltskin spinning straw into gold, Kurosawa turned thin strips of camphor and nitrocellulose into pure cinematic gold. 

Fact two:  Kurosawa directed 30-odd films during his illustrious career and only a scarce few are not considered masterpieces.

Fact Three:  Stray Dog is not only one of Kurosawa’s aforementioned masterpiece films, it is also one that appeared early in his career and is arguably his most influential film being that it created the police drama genre in Japan, a staple of that country’s cinema to this day.

History lesson aside, Stray Dog is a stirring, poignant, and beautifully told police drama.  Four years after World War II, Japan is still recovering and rebuilding.  The summer is exceedingly hot, especially for greenhorn detective Murakami.  After his gun is stolen on the bus, he must fight his growing shame and disappointment while struggling to track down the thief.

Toshiro Mifune is unforgettable and almost unrecognizable as Murakami, partly because of how young he was at the time, but also due to the nature of the character.  Mifune’s portrayal of the overly emotional and emotionally drained rookie detective is a tremendous departure from his roles both prior to-\ and post Stray Dog.  He is most well known for his roles in the many Kurosawa Samurai films, where his characters are traditionally gruff, outspoken, battle-hardened, and terrifying.  The character of Murakami on the other hand is meek, frequently distracted, and often overshadowed by the elder detective Sato and other characters.  Kurosawa uses this technique to make the character stand out by being almost invisible and it works wonderfully.

I could go on and on ad infinitum about how well placed and well cast all of the characters are, but the true magic and identity of this film lies squarely on the shoulders of Kurosawa himself.  The budding genius and cinematic expertise are easy to spot in the frames on screen and the technique, from lighting to set decoration to camera movement, and all are undeniably Kurosawa.

There are so many elements of this film that radiate with the watcher to make it a truly immersive experience that it boggles the mind to think of how Kurosawa and his team could manipulate the images to capture it all.  The sweltering heat for example is so incredibly palpable it has a character all its own.  The constant fanning and sweat soaked clothes are visceral reminders of the heat’s oppression and made to add burden on top of the mounting frustration of the detective’s search.

Another — and the most compelling — element of Stray Dog’s story is the way that the stolen gun is used as a chapter marker or countdown device.  Initially the gun has seven bullets, but as the thief commits crimes throughout the film, the number of remaining bullets drop, one by one, and the characters consider not only time as a whole, but also the time they have left by the number of bullets remaining in the gun.  Framing the film this way is a fantastic device that completely builds the suspense of the hunt for the thief and adds a great deal to the climax of the film as well, taking you along for the ride the entire time.

I cannot say enough about Kurosawa’s technique and vision and how it is brought to life in Stray Dog, or maybe I have said too much already, but regardless of everything that has been stated or understated or overstated, this is a great film.  It is but one film in a long line of glorious cinema and you will be crushed by regret and cowardice if you do not seek it out and absolutely devour it.

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About Matthew C Holmes