STRAY DOG (Akira Kurosawa, 1949, Japan)
Two disparate fugitives are passengers on a one-way train of thought. Director Akira Kurosawa’s second masterpiece is a story of chance and choice, a tale of violence set amid the squalor of occupied Tokyo: the Western influence taints the narrative with existential doom, illuminating victims of the broken post-war dream. This gritty film noir transcends the genre though its main ingredient is the criminal element, the chiaroscuro cinematography capturing the sweaty inhabitants of the litter-strewn streets, trapped in smoky nightclubs and filthy bars. The environment becomes a character, exhaling its deadly fumes into the story.
Murakami is a rookie detective whose Colt pistol is stolen. He worries that he will be fired but, more importantly, he dreads that his gun will be fired...sold on the black market and used in violent crimes. This moral burden to recover his pistol becomes his obsession. Murakami spends hours perusing mug shots of well-known pickpockets until he luckily stumbles across the conspirator: Kurosawa films this sequence with claustrophobic intensity with Murakami diminished, like his chances, by the monolithic cabinets that store millions of photographs. This scene and his superior’s cold attitude also serves to reflect Japan’s failing, where the criminals are only judged by their actions: after all, they are only trying to survive this awful Depression.
Kurosawa also infuses the film with humor, especially the sequence when Murakami stalks the pickpocket throughout Tokyo until she is just too tired to elude him anymore. She finally offers him a beer (which he doesn’t drink because he’s “on the job”) and together they sit and stare at the stars. It is a wonderful sequence because she feels a connection with the young cop, and together they look skyward and see the heavenly beauty that is always present…if they only raise their eyes. But those lost in the gutter rarely have the power to lift their heads and dream. Like the opening credit sequence where a dog pants in the smothering heat, Kurosawa will match this shot at the film’s climax. This elliptical imagery describes their potent journey, Murakami and the gun-thief, and punctuates their spiritual brotherhood.
Another interesting chapter concerns Murakami’s undercover odyssey in search of a black market dealer. This ten-minute sequence of slow dissolves and fades, with action alternating from right to left, is a vast montage that creates atmosphere…but decelerates the story. Again, by chance, the protagonist finds the one dealer who knows the thief and “rented” him the gun. Kurosawa also only allows insight into Murakami as it relates to the criminal, sharing a past that is similar: they both had all their belongings stolen after returning from the war, and this act was the crossroads for both. The story doesn’t take us into the protagonist’s life; he always remains elusive, known only from his desperate and single-minded quest. To parallel this structure, we are introduced to his partner’s family and experience Shimura not as just a cop but a husband and father. Kurosawa also uses a suspenseful plot device in the form of seven bullets: the number in the Colt’s clip. Unless the criminal purchased more ammunition (the characters never mention this possibility) by the time of final confrontation we expect the clip to hold two more rounds.
Finally, Murakami must face the murderer mano-a-mano and thus fight himself, knowing that he doesn’t hate this man but truly hates what he has become. After all, Murakami realizes that this could have been himself if he had chosen another path. Gunshots interrupt the gentle musings of a Mozart Sonata and the two wrestle in the dirt and slime until they become physically identical, covered in filth. Then lying exhausted, panting in the morning heat they stare into the newborn sky and hear sounds of children, like blossoms in the sun…and a stray dog cries for his lost and tortured soul. Final Grade: (A)