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STRAY DOG

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Isao Kimura, Keiko Awaji
Director:  Akira Kurosawa
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  122 Minutes
Release Date:  May 25, 2004

“He’ll rob again…once does not a habit make, but the second time, a stray becomes a rabid dog.”

Film ****

Film critic Leonard Maltin has said that while Rashomon was the film that first brought Akira Kurosawa international attention and acclaim, Stray Dog was equally important to both his career and the emergence of Japanese cinema.  This 1949 police drama borrowed elements from American film noir, but shied away from the overall effect to instead present a story of post World War II Japan and its climate of defeat and dejection.

The story begins simply enough:  rookie cop Murakami (the always superb Mifune) has his gun snatched from him on a crowded bus…a humiliation for a police officer.  He becomes furiously obsessed with getting it back, but the obsession turns heartbreaking when he learns that someone is using his gun to rob and kill.

Murakami is teamed up with a seasoned veteran Sato (Shimura) to investigate the case of the perpetrator.  The calm, intuitive Sato is a striking contrast to the emotional and rash Murakami.  While Murakami seems to bungle an interrogation early on, we marvel at how Sato asks questions of the same witness and gets results by being friendlier and more accommodating.  That is only one of the lessons Murakami must learn:  different scenarios call for different tactics.

Their quest takes them on a tour through the back alleys and black markets of Japan, where grain is rationed and ration cards are traded frequently for illegal goods.  One such card was traded for Murakami’s gun, leading the two to learn the identity of the criminal, an ex-soldier named Yusa (Kimura).  But as they get closer and closer to the final nab, we learn something of Yusa and how his dejected and impoverished post-War state might have turned a once good man into a desperate robber and killer.  Maybe he was just a simple stray dog turned rabid.

The film’s central piece is a quiet dinner at Sato’s house, where the two men mull over Yusa.  Murakami can’t help but feel a bit of empathy for the man; after all, we learn that he too was ex-Army and had a horrible time trying to make a way for himself after the war.  Yet he choice police work while Yusa chose crime.  Sato wisely counters Murakami’s train of thought:  as cops, it’s their duty to stop crime and apprehend criminals.  Once they begin to rationalize and empathize, they can no longer perform their duty.

So does Murakami learn enough by the end of the film to make it all work?  In a terrific sequence, he finds himself in a crowded room where he knows Yusa is hanging out.  He’s never seen Yusa’s face; can he deduct from the facts and not emotion and find out which one he is before he strikes again?  The final confrontation is brilliant in its execution; using both action and stillness, sound and silence to craft genuine character-driven suspense.

As always, the real brilliance of Kurosawa is in the multiple levels with which one can enjoy his work.  As one of cinema’s undisputed master storytellers, it’s possible to watch Stray Dog on a purely superficial level for the great story line, well drawn characters and simple pondering of human nature.  But the more you appreciate both the art and technical aspects of filmmaking, the more you’ll realize that there are layers and layers of substance to contemplate, from the great camerawork and editing to the way Kurosawa makes some scenes short, tight and simple and others long, complex and contemplative.  Each scene has its own rhyme and rhythm, and the style with which they are constructed help to elevate the story.  A prime example is an eight minute stretch of Murakami in the black market, trying to blend in and trying to get a lead on his missing gun.  For many directors, that would be too long a stretch, but Kurosawa skillfully keeps the scene alive and interesting with his technique, while maintaining a noticeable stretch of time that indicates the depths of Murakami’s obsessiveness.

In other words, the same description applies to Stray Dog as to most of Kurosawa’s films:  it can be summed up as one thing on the surface, but the depths, if you choose to explore them, reveal so much more.  I’d have to agree with Mr. Maltin that Stray Dog is indeed an important film for the master and for Japan, even if it took a few more years before Kurosawa’s genius was fully recognized the world over.

Video **

Considering the age of the film and the frequent problems with film preservation in Asia, this is a fine offering overall, but I’d be remiss not to say there are noticeable flaws in the source material.  Dark images seem a bit on the murky and grainy side.  Lighter images fare better, but the aging residue on the print leads to a slight bit of flicker now and again, and there are a share of spots, specks and marks here and there as well.  The black and white images translate with fairly good detail and integrity.  It’s about what you’d expect for a movie over 50 years old, and maybe even a little bit better.

Audio **

The mono offering is pretty standard fare; dialogue is Japanese and therefore not an issue.  The occasional music beds and dramatic situations add a bit of dynamic range, but there is a slight amount of noticeable background noise during quieter segments…again, par for the course for an older film.

Features ***1/2

Essentially there are two features, but together they make for one informative package.  The first is a commentary by Kurosawa author Stephen Prince, who analyzes not only the means and methods of the film, but talks a great deal about its post-War context and how it relates to what we see on screen.  The second is a 32 minute documentary on Stray Dog from the series Akira Kurosawa: It is Wonderful to Create.  It features modern interviews and plenty of good information about the making of the film.  There is also a booklet featuring an excerpt from Kurosawa’s autobiography and an essay by critic Terrence Rafferty.

Summary:

Stray Dog is indicative of Akira Kurosawa at his best:  great storytelling made even better through bold artistic ideas and a complete command of technique.  Highly recommended.