Stray Dog (Akira Kurosawa, 1949)

If you really wanted to classify the work of Akira Kurosawa as simplistically as possible, you’d divide his movies into two categories: samurai films and, well, everything else.  Before watching “Stray Dog,” one of his “everything else” movies, I rewatched “Yojimbo”…but not as a means of comparison between a Kurosawa samurai epic and a Kurosawa police procedural.  I watched the two films for two reasons: to compare Kurosawa’s stylistic decisions, and to compare the performances of lead actor Toshiro Mifune.  Kurosawa’s considered by most to be that masterful director with a wide, wide range, and Mifune, Kurosawa’s leading man in so many films, has just as wide-ranged an acting style.  I wanted to see how Mifune performed as a rookie cop looking for his stolen gun compared to Mifune as the cynical and fearless samurai of “Yojimbo,” and at the same time I wanted to see Kurosawa’s raw and gritty portrayal of the dark underbelly of modern-day Japan versus the sweeping, spaghetti western-esque portrayal of 19th century Japan.

Well, turns out the arena for those comparisons belong in the realm of Kurosawa’s prime, when his period-piece “Yojimbo” and “Seven Samurai” or contemporary “Ikiru” and “High and Low” were blazing trails as some of the most influential and greatest films ever.  In comparing an early film like “Stray Dog” to later films a la “Yojimbo,” I should’ve gone on the criteria of experienced filmmaker vs. inexperienced filmmaker (and experienced vs. unexperienced lead actor, for that matter).  Kurosawa’s later films show a filmmaker at the absolute top of his game in creating vastly entertaining films that convey damn important messages effortlessly.  And “Stray Dog?”  Well, in this relatively early film from a relatively inexperienced Kurosawa (if you call just under a decade of work “inexperienced”, that is 😕 ), you certainly see signs of that raw and uncompromised look at the seedy world of post-war, urban Japan that he would perfect in the later “Ikiru” and “High and Low.”  But for now that promise of masterful filmmaking is ultimately drowned out by that inexperience and a very uneven effort in terms of pacing, story, and just about every problem that would become a non-issue very quickly after this film.

You look at “Stray Dog” from the outset, and you get the feeling that Kurosawa, often thought of as the most Western of Japanese filmmakers, is trying to transpose traditional film noir to Japanese cinema.  You have the semi-bombastic, dramatic music score (effective during scenes like when Mifune’s young detective chases the kid who’s stolen his gun, but intrusive later on).  There’s the stylishly-dressed detectives, some complete with fedora hat,  and a femme-fatale type in an informant / pickpocket.  There’s the age-old noir/police procedural duo of a greenhorn, rookie cop (Mifune) and the more experienced mentor detective (Takashi Shimura, Kurosawa’s other favorite leading man), and of course the seedy characters our heroes must interrogate to find the ultimate perpetrator.  To “Stray Dog’s” credit, I can think of several later noirs / neo-noirs that were quite clearly influenced by Kurosawa’s early foray into a traditionally American genre.  That scene where Mifune’s young detective is confined on a hot and sweaty bus, his gun pickpocketed by a random thug, reminded me of Richard Widmark using the hot and crowded subway as his pickpocketing playground in “Pickup on South Street,” while the thief wary to give Mifune information reminded me of Thelma Ritter’s wonderful character in that same movie, with a little more of a femme fatale angle this time around.  And in the realm of neo-noir, the rookie/veteran (and in a way, father/son) relationship between Mifune and Shimura was basically lifted outright by Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman in “Se7en.”

For reasons like that, “Stray Dog” should be commended.  It’s Kurosawa’s early ode to traditional film noir, and at the same time this movie itself was an influence on genre pictures afterwards.  It’s an early indicator of the status that this filmmaker made for himself during his prime of being both influenced by great films of old and being an influence himself on great films to come.  Here, though, you can tell that Kurosawa’s trying to make “Stray Dog” something more than mere homage to film noir by experimenting with that raw style and a critical eye towards contemporary Japanese society that would be pitch-perfect later in his career.  But here, that experimentation just plain brings down the quality of a film in general. 

Consider the immediate aftermath of young detective Murakami (Mifune) having his gun swiped.  Ashamed and in hot water with his superiors, he goes undercover in the seedy underbelly of the city in an attempt to infiltrate the underground gun trade.  It’s an interesting plot device that you’d certainly expect to see in your typical police procedural, and the way Kurosawa goes about it has promise, but falls apart.  I’d say about ten whole minutes is devoted to a shabbily-dressed Toshiro Mifune walking through various crowded markets and dark alleys, with the conditions of the city and its people becoming more and more squalid as we go along.  I don’t care what kind of movie you’re watching, ten minutes devoted to a single scene with no dialogue (granted, ten minutes is just my rough estimate) is an absolute eternity.  And I understand what Kurosawa’s going for in showing the many sides of squalor and corruption in post-war Japan, but I’d say that after a mere fourth of this, I was looking at my watch, wanting the story to just move along.  It’s a nifty concept, using what on the surface should be a traditional pulp police story to expose the seedy aspects of an entire society, but Kurosawa himself did that exact thing perfectly fourteen years later in “High and Low.”  In that movie, police attempt to find the man who kidnapped the son of a wealthy shoe magnate’s chauffer.  Not only is every single aspect of police procedure and the meticulous search detailed to a T, but there’s a scene in a squalid dope house, where the bizarre music works in conjunction with the Dutch angle shots and the pitch-black environment, that may have been the most atmospheric and aesthetically stunning scene Kurosawa ever filmed.  It was short but incredibly impactful, and told us all we needed to know about the side of urban life we’d rather not visit.

But back to “Stray Dog,” where a scene with the same purpose is stretched on, and on, and on, and on.  You do get an interesting little cut where slightly faded –out shot after shot of seedy alleys and bums are interposed onto an extreme close-up of Mifune’s eyes, but other than that, for god’s sake, move on!  We get it!  And this was far from the only time Kurosawa made some very bizarre and detrimental pacing decisions.  There’s a scene where detectives are scoping out a baseball game for a suspect, and that scene is dragged on and on as wee see just about every pitch and every play until the seventh inning stretch.  It reminded me of the wonderful tennis scene in Hitchcock’s “Strangers on a Train” gone wrong.  In this baseball scene, the focus is on the game and the massive crowd and the (VERY) slow passage of time, rather than the characters we should be caring about who have to make an agonizing decision on how to take the suspect in.  Kurosawa’s clearly going for suspense, but at this early point in his filmmaking career, he ain’t no Hitchcock.  This isn’t suspense, it’s runtime-padding…as are so many other little moments here and there that focus a little too long on, say, a room full of hot and sweaty ballet dancers, one of whom IS being sought as a witness by our two detectives, or the loooong lead-up to Shimura’s veteran detective Sato making a vital phone call.  Quite simply, this was a two-hour movie that should have been shorter by fifteen minutes, if not a half-hour.  “Seven Samurai” was three and a half hours long but felt half as long as “Stray Dog” because of how every scene in that epic was vital to the story at large and the perfect economic pace of that story that was small in setting but epic in scope.  “Stray Dog,” on the other hand, is a full 90 minutes shorter, but has not an iota of the economic storytelling of the likes of “Seven Samurai.”  Scene after scene was dragged on for far too long, simply there for their aesthetic quality and mood rather than fitting into the story or grand message as a whole. 

And it certainly doesn’t help matters that the story became impossible to follow.  What begins as the simple story of a rookie cop searching for his missing gun that’s been used in various crimes since it was stolen becomes a tangled labyrinth of shady characters, incomprehensible relationships, and plot twists that were either unnecessary or nonsensical…I couldn’t tell which, because frankly I didn’t know what was going on half the time 😛 .  If Kurosawa did want to pay homage to film noir, where’s the snappy dialogue and labyrinthine plot twists that seem like they’re out of left field, but in the end make perfect sense?  And if he wanted to go beyond the traditional noir and make an early instance of neo-noir or something completely unique, why is this collection of mood-oriented scenes with so much promise ultimately a detective movie with absolutely atrocious pacing?  When the more experienced Kurosawa made “High and Low,” it was a taut, suspenseful police procedural with the same message as “Stray Dog” without the fluff.  Here, the legendary filmmaker showed promise, but was clearly still coming into his own 😕 .

And what of Mifune?  He was just as much a reason for me revisiting “Yojimbo” as Kurosawa was, and the results were similar.  In his prime, Mifune was clearly a blank slate, able to take on just about any role and use a wide, wide variety of acting styles.  In “Yojimbo,” he was the comically stoic and deadpan ronin, while in “Seven Samurai” and “Rashomon” he was over-the-top and extremely energetic, to the point of being absolutely crazed.  Even in “High and Low” he was dead serious as the no-nonsense shoe magnate.  Of course, “Stray Dog” was released a mere year earlier than “Rashomon,” where Mifune made a name for himself, but the two roles are still almost night and day.  Compared to the aging but strong characters of his in later roles, Mifune looks shockingly young as the rookie cop, so that in of itself was strange.  But what was also strange was how…limp his performance seemed: how he constantly apologizes profusely to his superiors, or practically begs the woman pickpocket to give him information.  I suppose it’s just another side of Mifune’s acting range, as the timid cop is just another of the many roles in Mifune’s bag of tricks, but I think this is a different situation.  Even when Mifune had more laid back performances in other films, he still commanded the screen – his acting was that convincing and that authoritative.  It doesn’t matter how little screen time he had, you’d always remember that given performance.  Whether he was jumping off walls or was utterly intimidating in his seriousness, Mifune always got your attention.  Frankly, there was not a thing about his performance in “Stray Dog” that stuck with me.  It might as well have been the stock rookie cop performance.  Hell, Takashi Shimura, already a veteran actor at this point, was light years better as the veteran cop, with that same kind of restrained authority that he so wonderfully showed as the leader of the “Seven Samurai.”  I’d chock it up to Mifune being young and not yet in his prime the same way Kurosawa wasn’t there quite yet, but consider this: just a year after “Stray Dog”, Mifune stole the show as the over-the-top, obnoxious, and 100% memorable thief in “Rashomon.”  Even in a movie as flawed yet attention-grabbing as “Stray Dog,” I was surprised at how little of my attention its star, later the attention-grabber to end all attention-grabbers, got.

Akira Kurosawa was the filmmaker who jump-started my long foray into the fine art of film and how it’s evolved over the course of a century and beyond.  I saw the epic adventure “Seven Samurai” and knew then that this was no mere adventure, as for the first time for me a movie became a work of art.  Since then I’ve moved well past Kurosawa to appreciate a wide variety of film types by an even wider variety of filmmakers, but Kurosawa will always be the one who opened that door for me.  And in that same vein, Toshiro Mifune opened that same door into the world of method acting and how one actor could command the screen in so many different ways.  I was always under the impression that Kurosawa could never make a bad film.  Even his “lesser” films like the loose Hamlet adaptation “The Bad Sleep Well” or the “Ran” test-run film “Kagemusha” were extremely attention-grabbing and handled so-so material expertly.  Now, that illusion of mine that Kurosawa could never make a bad film is broken, as in my most humble opinion “Stray Dog” is a promising but deeply flawed film that ultimately could not recover from those flaws.  Maybe it’s a wake-up call for me to move even farther outside the safe confines of the filmography of perhaps the greatest of all Japanese filmmakers, and maybe it’s an ultimatum that it was a fruitless exercise for me to even think about comparing an early work by a soon-to-be masterful filmmaker to the untouchably flawless “Yojimbo.”  Either way, as melodramatic as this sounds, it’s kind of a sad day for me, seeing the first filmmaker I truly and deeply admired produce a straight-up dud.  Oh, well.  Kurosawa got better.  Mifune got better.  Just as young detective Murakami matures from nervous rookie into jaded veteran in the search for his gun, “Stray Dog’s” director and lead actor clearly matured.  And who knows, maybe my movie-watching palate has a hell of a lot a maturing to do, too 😛 .


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