Review by Michael Jacobson
Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Isao Kimura, Keiko Awaji
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Audio: Dolby Digital Mono
Video: Full Frame 1.33:1
Features: See Review
Length: 122 Minutes
Release Date: May 25, 2004
rob again…once does not a habit make, but the second time, a stray becomes a
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.