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“Stray Dog” is a terrific detective story—a sort of Japanese film noir—from director Akira Kurosawa, and one of the earliest films he made with legendary actor Toshiro Mifune. Kurosawa himself said he doesn’t like the film, but audiences love it, and more people are discovering it all the time.
This paper discusses three sequences that I feel capture the essence of the film.
“Stray Dog” was made in 1949, and has a great complexity about it; it works on many levels. There is the basic detective story; there is also the story of the young man and his older mentor, which can also be seen (though I wouldn’t push the metaphor too far) as the struggle between modern Japan and its traditional culture; there is the struggle of Japan itself trying to find its place in the world; and there is the relationship between the young detective and the killer who is almost a mirror image.
The story is simple: a young detective named Murakami (Toshiro Mifune) has his pocket picked and his pistol stolen on a crowded bus; a woman leans against him and distracts him while her accomplice steals the weapon. There is a black market in guns (which tells us a lot about Japan in 1948) and he is determined to get it back, and sets off on a hunt through Tokyo. As he and his section chief, Sato (Takashi Shimura) follow up leads, Murakami becomes concerned, then obsessed with the idea that it is his pistol being used to commit crimes, and that he is somehow responsible for those crimes.
Eventually, Murakami and Sato discover the murderer’s girlfriend, and while Murakami stays and questions her, Sato goes to the hotel where she was supposed to meet the murderer, a young man named Yusa. Although Sato’s in plain clothes, he gives himself away, and Yusa shoots him while he (Sato) is on the phone with Murakami. Murakami hears this with horror, and rushes to the hospital to be with Sato, who is in serious condition; Yusa gets away. Finally, though, Murakami learns that Yusa will be at the station the following morning, goes there, finds him and, after a chase and a fight, captures him.
This brief outline doesn’t really do justice to this wonderful film; it’s a treasure that should be seen again and again. The three sequences that I’d like to discuss are all pursuits: Murakami’s pursuit of the woman who distracted him in the bus; his long walk through the city searching for his gun; and the final chase and fight.
I should also point out that the city is baking in the heat: everyone is drenched in sweat, their clothes stick to them, perspiration drips down their faces, etc. The heat itself becomes a character applying relentless pressure on Murakami to find the gun. It also makes people short-tempered and irritable. As he does in many of his films, Kurosawa uses what I would call a “weather cue” to indicate a major turning point in the movie. When Murakami questions Yusa’s girlfriend, she lies to him at first, but he persists. When she finally tells the truth, the storm breaks—literally. It begins to rain heavily. The heat wave is broken, the tension lessens, and the film moves toward its resolution. “However, the storm also signals that there is a price to be paid, the result being Sato’s falling foul of the killer and Murakami having to go after him alone.” (Smith, PG).
The woman Murakami is after is the pickpocket’s accomplice, a prostitute who leaned against him in the bus. He finds her “mug shot” among thousands of others, and Sato identifies her; apparently he’s arrested her numerous times. In fact, the two appear chummy: the wise old cop and the prostitute with the heart of gold are an interesting combination, and it doesn’t fail here. But she won’t talk, so Murakami follows her. She dodges into stores; he waits outside. She runs through an alley; he’s on the street waiting for her. She takes a streetcar; he jumps on at the last second. He follows her for an entire afternoon and on into the night, until she gives up in sheer exasperation. They’re both worn out, hot and cross, but they seem to have made a connection. She finally takes him a cold drink and sits down on a bridge next to him, where they both look up and admire the stars. But the eager young detective has learned something, and instead of immediately questioning her, he simply sits and waits until she begins to talk. There is a companionship about the two of them that suggests he, too, might learn the value of having informants. He is beginning to get some of the “street smarts” that Sato obviously has.
After he learns that his gun will be sold on the black market, Murakami tries to make contact with the ring. He learns that they sometimes approach men who look desperate enough to commit a crime, and sell them weapons. Murakami puts on his old Army uniform, and then wanders throughout Tokyo, trying to blend in, trying to make himself look like someone who needs a pistol.
Kurosawa’s montage is almost entirely silent, except for the natural city noises. There is no music underneath, and very little dialogue, just a long (almost ten minute) montage of Murakami’s walk through the city. He stops to talk to people, but we don’t hear the words; he looks around; he sits down and takes a break; and all around is a teeming mass of people who are as hot, tired and sweaty as he. And yet, and this I think is Kurosawa’s point, Murakami never manages to blend in. It’s true he’s wearing his old Army uniform to appear as a veteran down on his luck, but there’s something about him that makes him stand out from the crowd. The people he meets don’t seem to trust him, and he makes little headway in his search. It’s not that his appearance screams “undercover cop” so much as the fact that his intensity is frightening in some degree. He is becoming obsessed with regaining the pistol, and that urgency is delineated in the tension of his body and the purposeful way he moves. He doesn’t ramble or laze along; he moves fairly quickly, despite the heat. He is in the crowd, but not part of it.
In that sense, I think he stands for post-War Japan itself, searching for its place in the world, and aware that the world is perhaps not ready to accept it.
The single most compelling sequence in the film for me is the final chase, fight and capture. Throughout the movie Kurosawa has presented us with clearly drawn parallels between Murakami and Yusa. In fact, the two men are very much alike: they are both veterans of the Army; both had to face the fact of Japan’s defeat; they are both young and attractive; and both had to try to make a living in a country that had been smashed by the war. Yusa turned to crime, but Murakami chose the police.
In this he echoes Sato, who also felt that he had to make a choice. His possessions, like Yusa’s, were stolen:
“’Look, my knapsack and money were stolen too. I felt outraged. I too could have stolen. I knew that this was a dangerous point in my life. But what did I do? I chose this work?’ Shimura, then, is like the pyromaniac who becomes fire-chief. He retains the original impulse but directs it.” (Richie, p. 61).
Shimura urges Murakami not to empathize with the killer, which he is prone to do, seeing a sort of dark reflection of himself in the other man. The entire movie turns on a bit of dialogue between Murakami and Sato, who are discussing Yusa. Murakami says that in a way he feels sorry for Yusa.
Sato: “You cannot afford to feel sorry for him. We all tend to feel that way because we’re always chasing them. But we mustn’t forget how many sheep get hurt by just one wolf. After all, we are the guardians. Let the writers analyze the criminal mind. For me—I have to hate it. Evil is always evil.”
Murakami: “I can’t think that way yet. During the war I saw how easily good men turned bad. Perhaps it is the difference in our ages, yours and mind—or perhaps the times have changed, but…”
Sato: “You understand him too well.” (Richie, pp. 59-60).
This is exactly the point: that Murakami understands the murderer so well he is beginning to empathize with him, because he has seen good men go bad. And Kurosawa invites this comparison by drawing the parallels between them so clearly. The final chase is a perfect illustration of this.
Murakami goes to the station at 6 a.m. He’s never seen the killer, but thinks to himself that the man would have gotten muddy in the rain. Everyone in the waiting room has clean clothes on, except for one man. When Murakami sees him, he knows he’s found Yusa. But the killer spots the detective for what he is at the same instant. Murakami doesn’t have to move, show ID, or say anything: it’s the reaction of an animal to the presence of the hunter. Yusa runs. Murakami races after him, out into the woods. Yusa pulls out the pistol and shoots Murakami with his own gun. This is the ultimate horror, turning his own weapon against him. The shot hits the detective in the arm; Yusa fires again but misses, and the gun is empty. Even with his wound, Murakami is able to capture Yusa, but in the struggle they fall into a stream and wind up covered with mud. Murakami manages to put handcuffs on Yusa, and then they both lie back, panting, black with muck and completely indistinguishable from each other. It’s impossible to tell which is which. And then Yusa puts his head back and howls in misery, then begins to cry like a child. He will go to prison, perhaps be executed, and he knows it. It’s a powerful and compelling scene, a fitting end to a riveting film.
“Stray Dog” is great cinema, and it’s also a glimpse of what life was like for the Japanese at the end of the war, faced with difficult choices and sometimes finding that good and bad are closer than we’d like to think. At the end of the film, Murakami is reluctant to take Sato’s advice to forget Yusa. He can’t; he’s still too close to the whole thing. “It is by concluding the film with Murakami’s hesitation that Kurosawa urges us to remember the past and use memory as a moment of intervening in the present social condition.” (“Stray Dog,” PG).
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