Stray Dog (1949), or What Have I Done?

27 02 2009
Things get tough, mistakes get made. A police officers life is never easy...

Things get tough, mistakes get made. A police officer's life is never easy...

Ahoy, everyone! Another day, another movie. You know, it has come to my attention that I have not watched enough of the movies I love to watch. I have been pleasing the masses for far too long! Sorry, masses, but I gotta be free. I feel that for quite some time, I have watched a number of movies designed for an audience that I just do not quite fit in. I mean every word I say when I talk about these films, and I am glad to have seen a number of them. But it’s time for me to return to my roots, get down to brass tacks. Foreign drama is my IV, it is my lifeline. I will be doing a number of these in the coming month of March to ground myself in what I know and love. Today is a new one on me, directed by the great and powerful Akira Kurosawa.

It is 1949. Rookie detective Murakami is having a normal day under a heatwave in Tokyo. He commutes around town in a packed bus, breathing in the curious air of bombed-out post-war Japan. As he steps off the bus, he notices that the Colt pistol issued to him as a police officer has been purloined during his commute. In a panic and completely ashamed at what has transpired, he attempts to locate the culprit to no avail. Things become even more complicated when the gun is used in a murder. Murakami is completely hopeless until an older detective named Sato takes him under his tutelage. Together, they comb the filthy, crooked streets of Tokyo and its seething underbelly attempting to locate the weapon. Along the way, they see the totality of life on the bitter streets and the depression that exists in a day and age where Japan had lost a war for the first time in its history.

Sweet and simple. That’s just what this movie is. It is a journey film, and I love journey films. They are the most adept at showing the most myriad facets of life during a particular place and time. And Kurosawa is a master of the journey movie, which makes this all the sweeter. He makes not only the expedition compelling, but also the characters. Murakami, played by the legendary Toshiro Mifune, is someone you can really relate to, and Sato is the father-figure archetype, but Takashi Shimura plays the character in a way that stays fresh and never falls to easy clichĂ©.

I could go on about Kurosawa and his complex methodology, but for now I’ll simply state that he is a very literary director, much like James Ivory. He crafts scenes with the written word very close to his chest, and you can tell that not only is he well-read, but he has a bit of prose in him as well, though expressed in a very different way. He is a learned director, and already at this early point in his career you could see his greatness, but in this one he keeps his flourishes brief but brilliant. This is sparse like a poem by E.E. Cummings and as dry as exposition from Raymond Chandler. Watch the craft on display here, and  you’ll want to start picking up a camera yourself and start shooting something.

Another quick word here about Toshiro Mifune. This is only his 6th role out of almost 170 that he would take on in his lifetime, so he hasn’t exactly formed himself as an artist yet, but for all Toshiro Mifune fans, this is one of his little-seen early collaborations with Kurosawa, and I recommend it highly to see him in something different than his usual larger-than-life leading man persona. Here, he is a nervous rookie, a timid young buck who makes plenty of mistakes. If you never thought you would see him like this, you will be in for a treat to see a great actor so vulnerable.

This is a short review, but this is a simple movie. No frills, nothing too grandiose or pretentious. That doesn’t make it an easy film; it is undeniably complex in certain aspects, such as the moral obligations of a police officer and the depiction of a stagnant, melancholy Tokyo. But in the end it has simple aspirations, and in that it is very endearing as a crime drama with a little more than you bargained for. I give Stray Dog 8 1/2 missing Colt pistols out of 10.

See you tomorrow for The Brothers Grimm!

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