Akira Kurosawa's Stray Dog (Nora inu, 1949) is one of those straightforward, unpretentious entertainments that serves as an excellent and accessible introduction to one of the world's greatest filmmakers. Though Kurosawa had been directing features for six years, this and Drunken Angel (1948) were really his breakthrough films, his first masterworks. There's no denying the importance of Drunken Angel, but for this reviewer and Kurosawa biographer, Stray Dog is just as good, maybe better, a terrific police procedural / character drama fashioned (with co-writer Ryuzo Kikushima) after the novels of Georges Simeon.
Its premise couldn't be simpler: Toshiro Mifune stars as Murakami, a neophyte police detective whose pistol is stolen. The fully loaded gun is soon used to commit increasingly violent crimes. Murakami, overwhelmed with guilt, becomes obsessed with getting the gun back in safe hands and apprehending those responsible for the crimes.
The picture exemplifies Kurosawa's growing confidence in areas in which he would quickly become its unparalleled master. Though longish at 122 minutes, he keeps things moving by eliminating unnecessary action while maintaining audience interest in his story through excellent pacing dominated by rich characters and exhaustive attention to the tiniest details. The film overflows with fascinating portraits of a postwar Japan swimming in black marketeering. As with Drunken Angel and Kurosawa's sweet, underrated romantic comedy-drama One Wonderful Sunday (1947), documentary-like images and little details of this tumultuous, transitional period of modern Japanese history is reason alone to see the film.
One of the film's highlights is a nearly nine-minute-long montage of Mifune, undercover in a soldier's uniform not unlike one the actor had worn in real life, prowling the black market stalls around Ueno Station in Tokyo. Though some critics find it excruciatingly long, this reviewer adores it, finding it almost hypnotic, which seems to have been Kurosawa's intention. Mostly shot with a hidden camera by chief assistant director Ishiro Honda (soon to make his own mark on the film world with Godzilla / Gojira in 1954), the sequence is pure cinema in the best sense of the word. (In fairness, it should be pointed out that Kurosawa was hardly alone in capturing this time and place. Dozens of contemporary Japanese films by myriad directors captured this period quite well also.)
The picture plays on familiar character structures and themes common to many of Kurosawa's films. Murakami and the gun-toting gangster (Isao Kimura, later the youngest of the Seven Samurai) are, a la Hitchcock, doppelgangers. By the end of the film, Murakami and the gangster, both young, struggling war veterans, become physically indistinguishable. In a poor, defeated country where everyone has suffered great loss (and continued to suffer for years thereafter), only choice separates the human beings from the criminals, the stray dogs.
Mifune, lean and mean at 29 years of age, is terrific in what was only his sixth film. He is agitated, emotional, and impulsive, while Takashi Shimura, as his more experienced superior, becomes a sensei, a role model, a relationship common to later films like Seven Samurai, Red Beard (1965), and Madadayo (1993). In charming contrast, Shimura accomplishes more by doing less: he's calm and easy-going with the suspects he questions, even eating ice cream at one point, carefully picking and choosing his battles. In their very ordinariness, they become two of the most realistic detectives in cinema. (Kurosawa takes this even further in High and Low, a bona fide masterpiece of the police procedural.)
Video & Audio
Criterion's DVD is an okay 4:3 presentation. The label is promoting it as a new "high-definition digital transfer, with restored image and sound." One doesn't doubt this, but at the same time the end result doesn't look all that different from their laserdisc version. The movie shows its age, though its condition is at about par with other Japanese films from the period. Somewhat misleadingly, the Toho-owed movie begins with their contemporary logo, not Shintoho's. The mono sound does seem improved, insofar as the audio appears cleaner than previous home video versions.
Criterion's DVD has three main supplements, which nicely complement one another. The first is a 32-minute documentary originally created for the Region 2 Toho Video DVD, "Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create (Stray Dog)." (Criterion's menu screen misspells the director's name.) The mini-documentary is a real delight, putting the film into perspective, loading it with original documents (scripts, storyboards) and interviews. Narrated by Masayuki Yui (who appeared in four of Kurosawa's last film films), the show features interviews with actress Keiko Awaji, and a number of longtime Kurosawa colleagues: art director Yoshiro Muraki, script supervisor Teruyo Nogami, and sound effects man Ichiro Minawa. Archival interviews with Kurosawa and actor Isao Kimura (though curiously, not Mifune) are also featured.
"It Is Wonderful to Create" was one of a series of shorts that accompanied every Toho-owned title in Kurosawa's oeuvre. One sincerely hopes that if Criterion chooses to revisit its problematic, earlier Kurosawa titles (Yojimbo, Sajuro, and High and Low) these shows might be included, thus making the upgrade truly worthwhile.
Stray Dog also features an Audio Commentary by Stephen Prince, author of The Warrior's Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa. Prince offers a useful, concise mix of literary analysis and historical contextualization. The screen-specific commentary breaks down individual scenes noting its mise en scene, cutting, use of sound, camera movement, and so forth.
This reviewer didn't receive the booklet that accompanies the DVD, but it reportedly reprints the chapter on Stray Dog in Kurosawa's Something Like an Autobiography. That chapter finds Kurosawa mainly discussing the development of the material, which contrary to his usual methods began as an original novel. He also tells a few amusing anecdotes, and pays tribute to longtime friend Ishiro Honda. Film critic Terrence Rafferty contributes an essay about the film as well.
Stray Dog was remade several times, including a 1973 version that received limited release in the U.S. It would be interesting to see how others have adapted the material, so perhaps Home Vision or some other label may release it someday. Viewers familiar only with Kurosawa's samurai films will be delighted with this exciting, superbly crafted thriller, a 55-year-old movie that has aged like fine wine.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. He is presently writing a new book on Japanese cinema for Taschen.