Sunday, June 15, 2014

Director Spotlight #16.4: Akira Kurosawa's Stray Dog


Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is the incalculably influential Akira Kurosawa.

NOTE: Because I try to go in-depth in these entries, there’s likely to be spoilers in this thing. If it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

Grade: 86/A-

Released a year before Akira Kurosawa’s breakthrough film Rashomon, 1949’s Stray Dog has developed a reputation in some circles as the director’s first masterpiece. Inspired by Jules Dassin’s noir The Naked City but equally indebted to De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, the film is a moral tale and examination of postwar Japan in the guise of a procedural. It falls slightly short of ranking with Kurosawa’s finest works, to my eyes, but it’s a terrific film in its own right, and the sign that the maturing filmmaker was on the cusp of greatness.

Rookie homicide detective Murakami (Toshiro Mifune) is filled with deep shame after his gun is stolen on a crowded trolley, and shame turns to guilt after he learns that the gun was used in a crime. Murakami is soon joined by veteran detective Sato (Takashi Shimura), a more coolheaded who helps him track the gun to downtrodden World War II veteran Yusa. Sato is supremely focused on the case and the hunt to stop Yusa before he hurts someone, but Murakami, also a war veteran, sees too much of himself in Yusa to divorce himself from emotion.

Kurosawa had demonstrated his growing confidence as a stylist in his 1948 film Drunken Angel, but he gets his best opportunity to demonstrate his talents yet in a striking nine-minute montage. The normally well-dressed Murakami wears filthy clothes and serches the Japanese underground for any sign of the gun racket that now has his gun. Kurosawa uses dissolves to layer images of men and women in poor conditions, crowds without any sense of order, and the weary detective wandering through a labyrinth of poverty during a heat wave. It’s a near-wordless sequence where the most notable sound is Kurosawa’s segueing without warning from one bit of diegetic music to the next, giving a sense of endlessness to Murakami’s search. It’s purposefully long and exhausting, showing both the existential directionlessness of Murakami and the terrible, hopeless conditions that drive people to crime.

The montage is a scene of continuous movement, but Kurosawa is just as assured when dealing with stillness. Sato’s first scene introduces him with little fanfare: Murakami enters a room where he sits at a table with a woman the younger detective brought in earlier. He’s in a still medium shot, which brings a sense of normalcy and calm to his interrogation. When Kurosawa cuts to a terrific deep focus, he shows the suspect and Sato in the foreground and midground calmly eating popsicles while Murakami sits anxiously in the background. There’s a level of comfort between the two even as he interrogates her, and it’s only as Sato gradually gets closer to the truth that Kurosawa cuts. Even then, the woman loses her cool, Sato keeps his. The level of precision in each edit perfectly suits his quiet confidence, just as the perpetual motion of the earlier montage mirrors Murakami’s restlessness.

Mifune and Shimura played opposites in Drunken Angel as well, with the young man’s tempestuousness and lack of control serving as the yin to the more controlled, taciturn older man. That dynamic is back in Stray Dog, but without seeming like a retread. Where Mifune’s gangster in the earlier film was a reckless, explosive character who’d purposely cut off his own humanity, Murakami’s restlessness is borne more out of nervous energy, inexperience and an excess of emotion. Shimura’s character, meanwhile, is measured, professional, and cool, never the private mess that his doctor in the earlier film is. Yet his pragmatism doesn’t allow him to have the same sympathy for criminals that Murakami does, something the younger detective struggles with.

Stray Dog’s strong procedural structure serves as the foundation for one of his Dostoevsky-influenced tales of morality and humanity. The more experienced cops’s repeated expression that Murakami is too sensitive to be an effective cop might sound cold, but he isn’t completely wrong. The young man sees too clearly how Yusa’s experiences parallel his, to the point where he blames himself for the crimes committed with his gun more than the criminal. It might make him a good human being, one who sees the state of postwar Japan clearly, but it doesn’t make him an effective cop, and his guilt frequently borders on self-pity.

Like a number of early Kurosawa films, Stray Dog gets a little too didactic at times, particularly when Murakami finally goes from seeing the world as morally grey to having a clearer perspective on right and wrong (“The world is wrong…but you can’t take it out on the world!”). Kurosawa also slightly undercuts the moral murk of the situation by stressing that Murakami’s own mistake wound up doing more right than wrong, as the loss of his gun led them to take down a gun racket. Still, there’s power in the film’s moral intelligence, which sees the difference between right and wrong while still understanding the motives of those who do wrong.   

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