Monday, December 5, 2016

Stray Dog

So I watched Stray Dog over the weekend, having DVRed it when TCM ran it on Akira Kurosawa's birthday back in March. TCM lists it as being available from the TCM Shop, although being part of the Criterion Collection it's a bit pricey. In any case, since it is available, I'm comfortable doing a full-length post on the movie. And it's well worth watching to boot.

Toshiro Mifune playd Detective Murakami, a young police detective who joined the Tokyo force after serving in the Japanese army in World War II. The story begins with Murakami being distraught over the fact that he's lost his service weapon, a Colt pistol. This being Japan, firearms are pretty unknown outside the government and the yakuza, and another gun falling into their hands is a problem for Murakami. He's going to have to investigate, and he's desperate to find his gun before it's used for evil purposes.

He first goes to the larceny unit, where they've got huge files of all the known pickpockets, cross-indexed by age, sex, modus operandi, and so on. This leads Murakami to a woman who is probably just a fence. But he wouldn't know where to find the woman, so partnering Murakami on the case is the veteran Det. Sato (Takashi Shimura). Sato knows how things work, and can tell what Murakami is doing wrong in the investigation. Anyhow, the investigation quickly leads to the underworld, and Murakami is forced to wait and wait until a tout will take him to one of the gun lenders.

The case gets more urgent for Murakami when there are a couple of shootings, and Murakami, having found one of the bullets he fired at the practice range, is able to confirm that the shootings were committed with the gun that was stolen from him. Murakami feels incredibly guilty about it, and feels a personal responsibility in solving the case.

Eventually, the key witness is Harumi (Keiko Awaji), a chorus girl whose boyfriend is the gangster Yusa. Yusa can get Harumi nice things, in a time not long after Japan's total defeat in the war, when nice things are very hard to come by. But at what price will those things come?

Stray Dog is a very well-told story, and a very well-made movie. Watching the movie, I almost got the impression of Kurosawa wanting to show that he could do any genre, except for the fact that this came at the beginning of his career, when he wouldn't have had as much choice in projects. The opening scenes of Murakami losing his gun somewhere along the bus ride home reminded me very much of the early scenes of Pickup on South Street with Richard Widmark picking a woman's purse, although since the focus is on the victim here, we don't actually see who did it. But this and the first scenes of the investigation make me wonder whether the folks behind Pickup on South Street saw this one.

The story is also set at the height of summer, and the sweltering heat is almost a palpable character, inevitably giving way to thunderstorms just as the movie is about to reach its climax. You might think this is a cheap cliché, but Kurosawa has the genius to use this as a vital plot point later in the story. In addition to the heat, the other well-photographed thing is the Tokyo as it was in the late 1940s, just a few years after that war. A lot of the people live in pretty dire conditions which look even worse than what Hollywood was able to put on screen. Japan as it was, as well as a scene set at a baseball game, are interesting historical artifacts.

Ultimately, Stray Dog is a movie that would fit in well with the Hollywood noir cycle that was happening at the same time this movie was made. It's very accessible for people who might think having to sit through two hours of subtitles might be a slog. It's a shame that it's not better known.

No comments: