Stray Dog Review
Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950) is famously known as the film that introduced Western audiences to the pleasures of Japanese cinema upon its Golden Lion-winning appearance at the 1951 Venice Film Festival. As such, the director’s 1940s efforts have been somewhat left by the wayside; before the release of this disc, Stray Dog from 1949, only the gangster film Drunken Angel (1948) was previously available on video in the UK. Whilst it may not attain the heights of Rashomon, or indeed such later works as Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood or Yojimbo, Stray Dog is certainly worthy of attention. Its tale of a young police officer who loses his gun and hunts down the killer making use of said weapon succeeds as both an example of genre cinema (making it highly accessible to Western viewers) and as a work of its famed director.
The most obvious connection in this latter regard is the presence of two of Kurosawa’s most recognisable regulars: Toshiro Mifune as the one cop, and Takeshi Shimura as the senior officer in charge of the case. Shimura’s role is the more typical, essaying the father figure that he would often play for the director (most notably in Ikiru and Seven Samurai), at once persuasive and intelligent yet also easy going. In this case, he’s the character with the underworld connection and knowledge, making the right contacts to further the plot. Mifune, by contrast, has a marked difference from his most famous roles, particularly those in the period pictures of the fifties and early sixties (Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, The Hidden Fortress, etc.). Certainly, the fresh-faced naivety he possesses here isn’t a quality to be found in Throne of Blood’s Washizu, although he does still provide Stray Dog with its emotional centre, much as he would do in these later works. Of course, the gaucheness is also in contrast to Shimura’s cynicism, aiding the pair’s relationship as well as providing a pre-cursor to Se7en, et al.
If this and other aspects make obvious modern reference points (and Stray Dog’s tight plotting and generous helping of set-pieces constantly signal it as having easy potential for a 21st century makeover), its more forthcoming connection is with a series of films that had been made in the US just a few years prior to its production, Louis de Rochment’s “documentary thrillers” for 20th Century Fox. Given Kurosawa’s professed love for Western cinema (especially John Ford) and, moreover, the success of the pictures, beginning with 1945’s The House on 92nd Street, this is perhaps unsurprising and the parallels are immediately apparent. Stray Dog opens with a voice-over (“One stifling day...”) that sticks to the merely descriptive and much of it follows strict police procedural formulas (which, incidentally, make it a fascinating comparison to such TV fare as Crime Scene Investigation, Law & Order, and their multitude of spin-offs), spending as much time in laboratories and interview rooms as it does on the street. Moreover, the killer’s identity is revealed in the early stages and, most tellingly of all, much of the film takes place in broad daylight, an element which separated de Rochment’s efforts from the films noir being made at the same time. And yet, once night does fall, Stray Dog provides an instant mood change, and suddenly encroaches on film noir territory. Thanks to the incessant heat that plagues the two days of Stray Dog’s duration, this final night time third possesses the same sweaty ambience of Touch of Evil or Body Heat. The high-powered, but seemingly useless, fans which have occupied almost every frame are now replaced by neurosis and a more pessimistic outlook. This downbeat quality does afford Kurosawa the opportunity to inject a little sentimentality as a contrast - a shot of Shimura’s young children is held for far too long - but the real reason is attuned to other concerns.
Having been written less than four years after the Hiroshima and Japan’s surrender in World War II, Stray Dog concentrates on the mood of its country in the aftermath of such events. Both Mifune’s character and that of the killer are ex-soldiers; this also being explicitly offered as the excuse for the latter’s murderous behaviour. (Which may prompt another reference point for Western audiences: the Vietnam vet movie, from Taxi Driver and Cutter’s Way to Missing in Action.) Whilst this elevates the realism of piece - also aided by the decision to shoot much of the film on location - and makes the ending especially stark, it also proves fascinating in comparison with the US film noirs. Whereas connections between these films and the war have always been present, it was more often than not an aspect buried beneath the surface rather than at the forefront (the use of emigre directors, the cheap production values and suggestive plotlines in films such as Jules Dassin’s Brute Force all have their origins in the aftermath of the war). By placing the World War II explicitly in the narrative, Stray Dog immediately becomes one of the more interesting examples of the genre, as with Kurosawa’s own films it perhaps isn’t one to compete with the classics, but certainly one that demands attention.
It should also be mentioned that Stray Dog isn’t without its problems, however. The pacing, in particular, could have been handled better (a flaw Kurosawa readily noted later in his career), especially when contrasted with Rashomon, say, or Seven Samurai - despite the former being barely an hour and a half in length whilst the latter tops the three hour mark. Indeed, Stray Dog should be looked upon as either an introduction to Kurosawa owing to its familiar genre traits, or as an interesting sidebar for the more knowledgeable cinephile.
The BFI’s Kurosawa releases to date (nine titles at time of this review) have veered wildly both in terms of their presentation and their special features content. Stray Dog proves to be one of the weaker discs offering the original Japanese mono soundtrack (accompanied by burnt-in English subtitles) in an occasionally crackly form and a picture that is a little too soft. Certainly, the original Academy ratio is adhered to and the film’s age provides an excuse for some of the damage (as does the relative obscurity of the film in comparison to Kurosawa’s better known pieces), but when compared to, say, the excellent quality of the BFI’s release of The Hidden Fortress then the dip in quality is highly noticeable.
In terms of extras, these are limited to biographies for the director and two stars, a link to the BFI’s website, informative sleeve notes by Philip Kemp and glimpse at the wonderful original Japanese poster artwork that really should have been used on the packaging (fine though the cover image is). All in all, a disappointment as a DVD.