The Kurosawa Odyssey
Studio: Toho Studios
Screenwriter: Akira Kurosawa & Ryuzo Kikushima
Cast: Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Keiko Awaji, Eiko Miyoshi
Cinematographer: Asakazu Nakai
Music: Fumio Hayasaka
That “Stray Dog” works at all today as a modern miracle. Its detective tropes and the dynamic of the two detectives at the center of the film have inspired hundreds of thousands of similar mysteries and noirs, both in film and on television. And yet not only does this movie work, but it works incredibly well. This is the second noir Kurosawa co-wrote and directed, and far better than “Drunken Angel.” It’s also the movie where I’d say Kurosawa became “Kurosawa.”
The plot is simple but engaging. A newly minted police detective named Murakami (Toshiro Mifune) has his gun pickpocketed on a crowded city bus. He becomes obsessed with finding the person who has the gun, which is being used for heinous crimes all throughout Toyko. At a certain point, Murakami is partnered up with a more seasoned detective named Sato (Takashi Shimura), whose approach to policing couldn’t be further from Murakami’s. Oh, and there’s a heat wave because things are always better when they take place in heat waves.
Both of the main characters are fascinating, and screenwriters Ryuzo Kikushima and Kurosawa create a masterstroke in delaying the introduction of Sato until almost 45 minutes into the movie. 99.99% of similar detective stories introduce the two paired detectives right away so we get to know them through their interaction with one another, but not here. The writers give us 40-odd minutes with just Murakami – we get to know him and, very importantly, understand why he’s as obsessed with getting the gun back as he is. If Sato was there from the get go with his differing opinions about how Murakami should be reacting to the situation, it would have hurt our identification with him.
What also makes Murakami interesting is that, if things had gone just a little bit differently, he could have been the frightened penniless murderer with the gun. Murakami was in the war, and the amount of able men who returned to find nothing waiting for them is staggering (something Kurosawa has touched on in four movies before this one), and getting the detective’s job was just plain luck. It didn’t have to happen that way. This brings an unease to the final confrontation between “hero” and “villain,” because in a way we are watching Murakami fight against himself.
Pretty deep for what at first glance appears to be a completely straightforward detective story, right?
And then we have Sato, who is unfortunately the lesser of the two detectives in terms of our engagement. This is completely not the fault of the film, the writing or Shimura’s wonderful performance. Everything about his character has been mined so many times in so many lesser movies beat for beat that you can’t help but know exactly what he’s going to say, how he’s going to say it and what’s going to happen in response. The second Sato takes Murakami home to meet the family, you know he’s going to be shot and that Murakami is going to feel guilt about it. You know he’s going to tell the youngster not to be as emotionally invested in the case as he is.
Even as I write that, I should point out that the way he is introduced is still interesting and, ultimately, superior to almost every homage and rip-off of Sato’s character. Instead of the co-writers immediately setting up the dynamic between the two detectives, they let Sato take charge of the investigation, with Murakami in the backseat observing the way he questions suspects and deduces things from the information he’s just gleaned.
Together, Mifune and Shimura crackle together with more chemistry than in their previous collaborations combined. They just… work. Simple as that. It would be easy but ultimately futile to talk about specific moments and why it works, because a lot of it is just fate. Let the excellence just be excellent.
The movie is very interestingly shot and edited. I would love to read the original screenplay to see just how many of the distinctive elements come from the writing and how many surfaced in the editing room. Some don’t work, but the vast majority do.
First is the out of continuity opening, where we learn he lost the gun by seeing Murakami tell his boss, then we zip back and forth as we uncover how exactly it happened. It sets the stakes high quickly, show that Murakami is a good officer despite this grievous error that could make viewers unsympathetic, and keeps us intellectually engaged as it peels away the layers of the onion. There’s even a narrator, who is randomly there and gone, but it still works in the context of the opening.
The second is an incredibly long sequence, lasting minutes, where Murakami is wandering through the slums and bombed out areas of Tokyo in order to be seen as a “lost soul” and be approached by someone who will lend him a gun. You keep thinking the sequence must be wrapping up, but it doesn’t. And it doesn’t. And it still doesn’t. But it oddly doesn’t become grating – it’s a masterstroke that Kurosawa let it go as long as it does. On a simple plot level, it reflects the frustration Murakami must be feeling about his inability to easily solve the case. On a deeper level, it’s Kurosawa laying train tracks that sets up Murakami’s identifying with the man who stole his gun…and underlines how close Murakami was to this life. Finally, on a “let’s be real” level, it works because that’s how cases are in real life – full of fits and starts, but sometimes stuck with the wheels spinning for an eternity.
The third is a big set piece that does not work. It’s at the biggest baseball game of the year – every person in Tokyo seems to be there… including the man who apparently has the gun. The two detectives have to find him and, more importantly, get the gun from him before he kills innocent people. The stakes couldn’t be higher…but it just doesn’t work. Kurosawa and his editor cut away for a long time to the actual gameplay on the field, and I’m not sure why. It doesn’t help with the suspense, nor does it help us on a character level. It’s just… there. It’s hard not to think about what a missed opportunity this is, especially considering it’s one of the centerpieces of the movie. Imagine what Welles or Hitchcock or Hawks could have done with that and you’ll see why it’s such a letdown.
Finally, you’ve got the finale, which has Murakami fighting with the villain in an endless field of flowers. In theory, it’s just another variation on stuff we’ve seen from Kurosawa before – the high grass battle in “Sanshiro Sugata,” the snow battle in “Sanshiro Sugata Part 2,” – but in execution it’s beautiful. The flowers are such a brilliant image at odds with what is happening, and the moment after Murakami is shot and blood from his hand drips on a white flower is the most memorable in the movie. Well, that or the shot of the two men, handcuffed together and attempting to recover from their fight. They both struggle to catch their breath, and then the villain just starts to scream at the top of his lungs in agony. At his life, at being caught… at everything. It’s emotionally shattering.
I like Kurosawa’s two subsequent crime movies, “High and Low” and “The Bad Sleep Well” more than “Stray Dog,” but then again those are both masterpieces that rank as two of the greatest films of all time. That said, “Stray Dog” is a distinguished noir, one that works better than almost all it inspired, and if this was the only movie Kurosawa ever made, it’s safe to say that it would still be remembered fondly today.
-The women in this movie are the most fascinating characters that Murakami and Sato encounter. The first, who Murakami follows throughout the entire hot day before finally giving in and helping him while they share a beer, is so much deeper than she needed to be. The girlfriend of the villain is shallow, but purposely shallow, and still very engaging.
-You’ve got to love the seeds being planted for “Scandal” when someone states the following about a dead body being photographed by many photographers: “She would never want anyone to see her this way.”
-There’s another musical number in this movie, a well done one, but the really cool part happens immediately after. The dancers walk backstage and literally collapse from exhaustion and heat, their legs simply giving up on them.
-The Criterion disc has a wonderful essay by Terrence Rafferty that mentions that Kurosawa didn’t like the film because he didn’t feel like it captured the mood of the author he was trying to emulate. Rafferty argues that this is a moot point since it’s the first Kurosawa movie where the identity of its creator is so obviously Kurosawa – not influenced by anyone else. I agree with this assessment.