Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Produced by Sojiro Motoki
Written by Akira Kurosawa and Ryūzō Kikushima
Cast: Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Keiko Awaji and Isao Kimura
Stray Dog hailed as the film that spawned the modern day Japanese crime thriller. A film with a remarkable simple plot of a young cop tracking down his lost pistol from a pickpocket in a post-war Japan. That simple plot merely serves as the window dressing for a wider exploration into the grim realities of post-war Japan.
Stray Dog is probably one of the ”hottest” crime thrillers in history. And I mean that quite literally. In spite of lacking color, the effects of the hot sun remain all too noticeable. Even the opening lines of mentions the burning heat, ”It was unbearably hot day”. The heat is mentioned many times in the dialogue as well. The best sign of the overbearing heat is probably are the mannerisms from the characters. It’s loaded to the brink with scenes of characters fanning themselves with paper fans. An aspect that reaches its zenith when there is a whole stadium of people using paper fans. No one in Tokyo is safe from the heatwave. There is no shortage of dripping sweat. Many of the characters are continually wiping sweat from their bodies. Notably, that’s illustrated best in the scene the dancers are taking a break from dancing in the nightclub. It’s a scene of bodies taking a breather yet the crampedness and the sweat drive the point home. The heatwave only breaks where there is a downpour of rain. Cueing the chase is coming to an end.
Stray Dog starts as an exhilarating wild goose chase for a lost pistol. At first, the only thing appears to be at stake is Detective Murakami’s honor. For a police officer, a pistol is a symbol of power. The longer the chase goes on, the quest starts to symbolize many different things. Stray Dog gives us a glimpse into the world of the underworld and the lives of the lower classes created from the conditions of the US bombing and the occupation. There is an odd montage of Murakami searching for an arms dealers in the dark alleys of Tokyo with little to no dialogue. The montage goes on for nearly 9 minutes, some might find it excessive, but it’s a great display of Murakami’s perseverance for his quest and the hardship it entails. The many dissolves of the sun during the montage is another sign of the ever-present heat. Murakami’s search for the arms dealer brings up the matter of ration cards since the underworld’s economy relies upon them. Ration cards is an all time common feature of a country in a war, but even as the war ends for Japan, the harsh realities created by that war still exists. The ration cards are a clue to tracking down Yusa.
If Stray Dog’s gun thief Yusa were a simple villain, the whole film would be devoid of its humanity. The closer that Murakami gets to Yusa, the more of an existential crisis the search becomes for Murakami. Amusingly, Murakami begins to see himself in his target: Yusa. Yusa almost morphs into a mirror of Murakami oddly. Murakami’s pity for Yusa develops the moment Murakami realizes that Yusa was trying to return his lost pistol, but Murakami’s sudden arrest of an arms dealer’s assistant ruins that opportunity.
Yusa is a war veteran that leads an aimless life. According to Yusa’s older sister, the war had changed Yusa to a more hardened persona who suffers from depression. Yusa lives in a run down shack that’s not suitable for a person to live in. Murakami comments that he was in similar circumstances to Yusa once and that his knapsack was stolen in the same manner that Yusa’s was. But, Murakami was able to get out of the rut by becoming a police officer. Murakami wonders if he would have gone down the same dark path as Yusa if he wasn’t able to improve himself. Murakami’s senior partner Sato sees a sharp distinction between criminals and cops. The world is governed by good and evil. But, Sato even admits such moral relativism may be a consequence of the war. The awkward French term Sato ”après-guerre” uses sums it up the best.
Such sympathy and empathy from Murakami for Yusa fades once Yusa is discovered to have brutally murdered a woman. Before finding Yusa, both Murakami and Sato must question Harumi Namiki, a young woman that Yusa has romantic feelings for. The relationship between Harumi and Yusa remains vaguely defined. But Yusa has earned Harumi’s loyalty from gifting her an expensive stolen dress. Yusa is a cruel man yet he is capable of loving an another human being. However, Yusa loses this loyalty and love once Yusa shoots and injures Sato as Harumi reveals his location to Murakami.
The final confrontation between Murakami and Yusa lacks the finesse of a big movie spectacle yet there is a grinding humanity to the whole ordeal. Both men hurl their bodies at each other like wild animals but in spite of all that animalistic rage are unable to kill each other, after Murakami arrests Yusa and meets a recovered Sato. Then, Sato tells him there are many other ”Yusas” out there, it is Murakami’s duty to arrest them. Murakami has taken his step into a much larger world. In the end, that colt pistol has come to symbolize different things for both men, for Murakami it is responsibility, and for Yusa, it’s irresponsibility. It can’t be a coincidence, each of those words sums up each men’s attitude towards life.
Stray Dog’s tale swelters in heat nearly the whole way through, that heat doesn’t come in the way of its amazing story, the amazing story that is a portrayal of two different men, two men that embody the uncertain realities of a post-war Japan. One rises above the ruins of war, while tragically the other is led to a dark path by the ruins of war.