Stray Dog (Nora inu)

Director: Akira Kurosawa
Screenplay: Ryuzo Kikushima & Akira Kurosawa
Stars: Toshirô Mifune (Det. Murakami), Takashi Shimura (Det. Sato), Keiko Awaji (Harumi Namaki), Eiko Miyoshi (Harumi's mother), Isao Kimura (Yusa), Reisaburo Yamamoto (Hondo), Ichirô Sugai (Yayoi Hotel owner), Gen Shimizu (Police Inspector Nakajima), Hajime Izu (Criminal Identification Officer)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1949
Country: Japan
Stray Dog DVD
Stray DogStray Dog (Nora inu) was Akira Kurosawa’s ninth film as a director, and it marked the first time in which he truly branched out beyond simple genre material. In a sense, Stray Dog is very much a genre film—a straightforward police procedural with hints of American-influenced film noir, although such a genre was all but nonexistent in Japanese cinema at the time. But, like all great directors, Kurosawa transcended the limitations of the formula by using it to explore other issues, in this case the nature of criminality and the state of postwar Japan during the Allied occupation, the latter of which he also took up in his 1952 film Ikiru.

Stray Dog was one of Kurosawa’s early collaborations with his favorite actor, Toshirô Mifune (they had first worked together the year before on Drunken Angel). The young, smooth-faced, and clean-shaven Mifune plays Murakami, a “greenhorn” police detective whose gun is stolen one morning on a crowded city bus. This is a source of great shame for him, and he sets out to reclaim the weapon by going undercover as a homeless war veteran in order to infiltrate the black markets of the Tokyo underworld where stolen guns are sold and traded. The situation worsens once he learns that his gun is being used to commit violent crimes, one of which results in the death of a young married woman. Murakami feels responsible for the violence being inflicted with his weapon, which makes him all the more determined to get it back.

Part of the formula of police procedurals of this sort is the partner who somehow offsets the main character. In this case, we get Detective Sato (played by another Kurosawa regular, Takashi Shimura), who is the opposite of Murakami in every respect. Where Murakami is young, single, and professionally inexperienced, Sato is middle-aged, married with children, and has worked years on the police force, earning a wall-full of citations and honors that Murakami looks upon with awe and respect.

However, the aspect on which they differ most crucially is their outlook on the nature of criminality. Murakami is still young and idealistic, therefore he tends to look on crime from a more liberal position. In other words, he attempts to understand why criminals do what they do. Sato, on the other hand, is experienced, and that experience has hardened him. He doesn’t care why criminals commit crimes, only that they do, and it is his job to track them down and arrest him. This simple description makes him sound like a cynical, cantankerous old cop, but Shimura’s performance makes him anything but. Sato has the worldview of a wearied veteran, but he is a decent, hardworking man who takes Murakami under his wing, not to assert his authority, but to strengthen the young rookie and make him a good detective.

The search for the stolen gun takes them deep into the recesses of postwar Tokyo, and it is here that Kurosawa allows the film to divert a bit from the procedural plot and explore the nature of Japanese society in the wake of their defeat in World War II, which is heightened by the use of actual location shooting in the streets and back alleys of Tokyo. The social world is literally in shambles, which has reduced many people—particularly returning veterans—to lives of petty crime; the pressures of simple survival are emphasized in the emphatic heat wave that is gripping the city, binding everyone together—cop, criminal, citizen, and the like—in sweat and oppression.

The anger felt by those at the lowest rungs of the social ladder is voiced most clearly by Harumi Namaki (Keiko Awaji), a pretty showgirl who is a girlfriend of the man Murakami is chasing. At one point, Harumi pulls out an expensive dress the man bought her, proclaiming that, had he not bought it for her, she would have stolen it because she deserves it just as much as the people who have the money to pay for it. The fact that she hadn’t stolen it suggests that she is more talk than anything, but it still conveys the boiling frustration felt by so many in a devastated society.

Stray Dog’s other key thematic strand is the link between Murakami and the criminal. They are both veterans soldiers of the war, and their connection is further heightened by the fact that they both had their bags stolen on a train one day, an event that set in motion the decision each made to pursue either a life of a crime or a life fighting it. In a sense, then, they are two halves of the same person who diverged upon returning from the war, at which point they become opposites, destined, as it were, to come into conflict at some point. The duality of the cop/criminal divide is an old one that has been explored numerous times before, but Kurosawa gives it a meaningful twist by grounding it so firmly in the reality of postwar Japan, thus making the universal particular and the particular universal.

Stray Dog Criterion Collection Special Edition DVD

Aspect Ratio1.33:1
AudioJapanese Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
  • Audio commentary by film scholar Stephen Prince
  • Akira Kurosawa: It’s Fun to Create retrospective documentary
  • Insert booklet featuring an essay by Terrence Rafferty and excerpts from Kurosawa’s autobiography
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection / Home Vision Entertainment
    Release DateMay 25, 2004

    The new high-definition transfer for Stray Dog was taken from a 35mm print and then digitally restored. The result is a decent, though by no means great, image, and any lacking in its contrast and detail is likely the result of the source materials. As I’ve mentioned before in other reviews, the film industry in Japan in the immediate postwar years was teetering on the verge of financial collapse, and many filmmakers had to use less-than-stellar equipment and film stock. This likely accounts for the slightly soft and quite gray visual quality of Stray Dog—there aren’t many strong black-and-white contrasts. Also, the fact that Criterion had to use a 35mm print for the transfer, rather than the negative or even an interpositive, increased the softness and any defects. While the liner notes mention the use of the MTI Digital Restoration System to clean up the image, there is still a fairly noticeable amount of damage in the form of nick, scratches, and particularly vertical hairlines.

    The monaural soundtrack is likewise dated and even sounds a tad primitive at times, but it reflects well what the film originally sounded like without any age-enhanced ambient hiss or crackles.

    Film scholar Stephen Prince, who has recorded several other Criterion commentaries, including their release of Kurosawa and Mifune’s final collaboration, 1964’s Red Beard, contributes an informative commentary track. The author of The Warrior’s Camera, a book-length study of Kurosawa, Prince certainly knows the filmmaker inside and out, and he offers a wide breadth of commentary, from aesthetic analysis, to bits about Japanese history, to interesting anecdotes about the production. The film’s production history is also fleshed out in the 32-minute retrospective making-of documentary that’s included, which is actually an excerpt from a longer Japanese TV series on Kurosawa. The doc features recent interviews with the late Kurosawa, as well as a number of key production personnel and actors. The DVD also comes with a thick insert booklet containing an essay by film critic Terrence Rafferty and an excerpt from Kurosawa’s autobiography.

    Copyright ©2004 James Kendrick

    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    James Kendrick

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