Classic Film Review: Kurosawa’s early cop thriller, “Stray Dog (1949)”

Stumbling across any Akira Kurosawa film you’ve missed is an unexpected delight, and the film noir “Stray Dog” has the added pleasure of being an early showcase of the director, his muse — Toshiro Mifune — and his other rep company regular, Takashi Shimura.

It’s a police procedural as fascinating for its depiction of post-war Japan as it is for the acting of then-rising star Mifune and the growing artistry of its legend-in-the-making director.

The future director of “Rashomon,” “The Seven Samurai,” “Ran” and “Yojimbo,” whose “The Hidden Fortress” provided the template for “Star Wars,” shows a flair for montage, superimposing immaculately-composed images to capture the frenetic mind of a rookie cop (Mifune) who loses his police-issued pistol.

Kurosawa treats us to cagey interrogations and breathless chases, and cleverly co-scripts and stages a police trap at a Yomuri Giants baseball game, all in a post-war thriller where characters start burnishing/rewriting the nation’s history by referring to WWII veterans of the Imperial Japanese armed forces as the “post-war generation.”

That’s how the sage homicide Detective Sato (Shimura) describes green Detective Murakami (Mifune) when they’re assigned to work together. Murakami lost his gun, and in his frantic search for it, tails and then arrests the fence (Noriko Sengoku) whose hands it passed through.

He spends days, dressing down in his stained and tattered old army uniform, working the back alleys of bombed-out Tokyo, hoping to attract the attention of illegal gun sellers.

When ballistics confirm it’s been used in a shooting, Murakami writes a letter of resignation, so deep is his shame. But his boss tears it up, shaking his head.

“Bad luck either makes a man, or destroys him.” He’s giving the rookie an experienced partner to help solve the growing list of shootings and track down the “bad guys.” That fence could be their key to a hidden corner of the gun smuggling underworld.

Sato “hates the bad guys,” but Murakami — a man with his own demons and flaws — is more “modern” and liberal in his thinking.

“They say there’s no such thing as a ‘bad man,’ only bad situations,” he muses (in Japanese with English subtitles).

“We can’t forget the many sheep a lone wolf leaves wounded,” Sato counters. And as they work through suspects, on up the ladder towards the “stray dog” who has become “a mad dog,” the stakes rise around them and Murakami’s mania for breaking the case and getting his man grows.

Kurosawa quickly grasped the conventions of the police procedural, and left a firm Japanese imprint on the genre in conjuring up this tale. Murakami consults with ballistics and takes part in crime scene investigations even as he takes on more and more guilt over what his Colt automatic pistol is being used to do.

The pacing is more sedate, and scenes such as the search for the gun amidst the shops, food stalls, gamblers, hookers and hustlers of Tokyo’s underbelly go on much longer than Hollywood, which made several versions of this sort of story in that era, would have allowed.

The “occupation era” of Japan is glimpsed in the American style nightclubs with Japanese takes on the scantily clad chorus line of showgirls, the neon bedecked nightclubs (the “Blue Bird” is one), the value of a “rice card” (food rationing ID) and the general lack of automobiles or air conditioning in this sweltering summer.

This was Mifune’s third film for Kurosawa, and there’s a growing comfort level that informs his performance. Kurosawa is making him a star, yes. But the trust evident in scenes in which Murakami breaks down, in which the “star” assumes complete deference to the older cop he’s assigned to and in the startling close-ups that show us the rookie’s deteriorating state is already making Mifune the icon he would become in “Rashomon,” “Seven Samurai” and beyond.

That “trust” and “comfort” is also evident in the way Kurosawa turns so much of the narrative over to Shimura’s Sato. While the actor would go on to many other Kurosawa films, the director would showcase him in the wistful masterpiece “Ikiru” just a couple of years later.

Shimura might be most-remembered for his place in the Godzillaverse. But “Ikiru” is almost certainly his best role and his finest performance. Kurosawa gave him that spotlight right after “Rashomon” made the actors’, the director’s and indeed Japanese cinema’s reputation in the rest of the world.

Rating: violence, profanity

Cast: Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Keiko Awaji, Noriko Sengoku and Yasushi Nagata

Credits: Directed by Akira Kurosawa, scripted by Ryûzô Kikushima and Akira Kurosawa. A Toho release on Tubi, Amazon, other streamers

Running time: 2:02

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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