Stray Dog : Kurosawa's Classic Still Has Bite
Six years before they would team as humble Kanbei and brazen Kikuchiyo in Seven Samurai (1954), Shimura Takashi and Mifune Toshiro shared the screen as mentor and mentee homicide detectives Sato and Murakami in Kurosawa Akira’s noirish masterstroke Stray Dog (1949). Philadelphia audiences have the rarest of chances to see Stray Dog in all its 35mm glory at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute on March 5th at 7:15pm. BFI is one of only a handful of venues in the area still presenting film on….well, film. There is no better way to experience a truly tactile silver screen classic like Stray Dog than through the grain and flicker of analog projection.
Part of BFI’s program Celluloid Cities: International Cityscapes (March 5th-26th), where “urban existence sets the stage for the exploration of distinctive international cities on film—with special attention paid to instances where the passion for place is most evident” Stray Dog shows the grit, cunning and stratification of post-war Tokyo. Merging aspects of neorealism and procedural crime drama, Kurosawa achieves something methodical, visceral and psychological, but not without its moments of humor. Stray Dog demonstrates Kurosawa’s growing command of the medium and offers a moody extension of the documentary flourishes that infused several of his 1940’s era works.
Chief Detective Sato (Shimura) allows rookie Murakami (Mifune) to head up the investigation of his own stolen firearm, taken from him on an overcrowded overheated trolly in the middle of the day. The ensuing action takes us to the far corners of the city, from izakayas to slums to baseball stadiums and front offices, following the black market labyrinth of untrustworthy denizens as Murakami chips away at his own naivety. No stone is left unturned and thus we feel an uncommon knowledge of the streets and alleys traversed by the duo. Singular in its depiction of a sweltering inescapably humid summer heatwave, burned into the mind at the outset by title sequence shots of a panting canine, Stray Dog makes every scene simmer, compounding Murakami’s guilt as news trickles in of bad deeds being done with his bullets.
The reason Stray Dog has continued resonance in Japanese society, why it speaks to the gun violence pandemic of our current time and place, and why Murakami is so personally tortured (beyond the requisite professional shame) is that gun ownership isn’t baked into Japan’s constitution or culture. At the time, personal firearms were already a rarity. Police Officers didn’t even carry sidearms until 1946 when US occupying forces demanded it (which begs the question of broader culpability for the dilemma of Stray Dog). The very scant variety of guns that aren’t outright illegal in Japan are additionally difficult to attain. Combined with other cultural caveats, Japan’s gun deaths number in the single digits year over year (vs. over 30,000 in the US). Therefore a single stray firearm and a handful of bullets could have a profound and radiating impact if used in the commission of crimes. Murakami is utterly possessed by this fact. The years of recovery directly after WWII populated reconstructing cityscapes with traumatized soldier and citizen alike, still bristling with the raw survivalism that was necessary while rations dwindled and bombs fell. What better stage for an ex soldier-cum-detective to “come of age” so to speak, to confront his fresh demons, and what more hazardous a context for a stray gun to fall into?
The writhing, wordless, five-minute penultimate scene, built upon a mountain of anxieties and drawing from a nation’s trauma, is so potently linguistic, so dense yet spacious, so evocative of Kurosawa’s ability to scratch away and reveal the pulsing nerve of human beings at the brink, that it stands as one of the great accomplishments of his career. Better still, it is but one scene in a film brimming with memorable set pieces and characters, containing seeds of more poetic ideas Kurosawa would express in his later years.
Bryn Mawr Film Institute is located at 824 Lancaster Ave, Bryn Mawr. For information about accessibility and public transit visit their website here.