Review: Stray Dog (1949)

The synopsis for Akira Kurosawa’s Stray Dog (1949) simply reads, “During a sweltering summer, a rookie homicide detective tries to track down his stolen Colt pistol.” Stray Dog PosterThat could seem like a reductive description, but Stray Dog might be the sweatiest film ever made. Set in a broiling Tokyo summer in 1949, Kurosawa drenches the film in atmosphere. No scene is complete without cops mopping sweat from their face and necks, people fanning themselves, or characters just slumped lethargically in the heat, unwilling to move. Toshiro Mifune, in one of his very early Kurosawa collaborations, stars as newly-minted detective Murakami. In the opening moments of the film a pickpocket lifts his service weapon from his jacket pocket and kicks off a hunt that stretches all across the post-war city.

Clocking in around two hours, the film is surprisingly long but tautly plotted, never feeling like it wastes much time or outstays its welcome – except perhaps for an extended sequence filmed at a baseball game, which might indulge in a little too much coverage of the Yomiuri Giants taking on the Nankai Hawks. Initially, Murakami is just focused on trying to find his missing Colt, the threat of a pay cut or worse hanging over his head, but in searching for the pickpocket who stole his pistol he stumbles across a wider case involving weapons being sold or even rented out on the black market. In one memorable sequence, a young thug – dressed in an open floral print shirt and bandage-like sarashi, the clichéd uniform for a certain kind of Japanese hoodlum even now – tells Murakami to bum around the entertainment districts until someone approaches him looking to sell.

Det. Murakami (Toshiro Mifune) poses as a returning soldier in the ruins of post-war Tokyo

Murakami dons an old Japanese army uniform and poses as a down and out returning soldier. It’s the same look – and indeed the same situation – Bunta Sugawara would wear twenty-odd years later in the opening scenes of Battles Without Honour and Humanity, similarly set in a thriving black market. The whole extended tour of the markets is so well executed and drips with so much atmosphere that I was shocked to learn, from Galbraith’s exhaustive Kurosawa/Mifune biography The Emperor and the Wolf, that some critics found it indulgently long – one wonders what they said about the baseball! Galbraith goes on to recount how Kurosawa credits Ishiro Honda, future director of Godzilla, with achieving such an accurate picture of post-war Tokyo. Honda was himself a returning soldier and became Kurosawa’s assistant director. For the black market sequences, they shot actual footage in locations in Shinbashi, Ikebukuro, and Ueno; Honda dressed in the same uniform and doubled as Mifune. He’s visible in some shaky cam sequences where only Murakami’s legs are visible as he walks around Tokyo: his upper body is cropped out to hide that it’s Honda, not Mifune, on screen (Galbraith’s section on the making of Stray Dog is well worth reading for further information, but I can hardly reprint the entire thing here).

Takashi Shimura and Toshiro Mifune in Akira Kurosawa's STRAY DOG
Det. Sato (Takashi Shimura, left) and Det. Murakami

Once the investigation is truly underway the film changes gears, with Murakami teaming up with veteran Detective Sato (Takashi Shimura, who while less famous than Mifune, collaborated on more films with Kurosawa). I’ve seen Stray Dog referred to as an early forerunner of both police procedurals and the buddy cop genre itself. Where Mifune’s Murakami is naive, jumpy, and stricken with guilt over the loss of his pistol – and the crimes that spring from that loss – Sato is a rock. His first introduction is during an interrogation, one that proves you catch more flies with honey. He takes the younger Murakami under his wing and dispenses wisdom throughout the film. The young rookie and the charming old vet – can it get more buddy cop than that?

A police procedural can live or die on how the central crime or mystery is solved, and thankfully, all the disparate story threads and details come together – right down to the number of bullets in Murakami’s missing gun. Thematically, Kurosawa presents Murakami and the eventual culprit as two sides of the same coin: both were returning soldiers with practically nothing to their name, both were robbed of even that. Yet one became a detective, the other a criminal. Sugawara donning the same uniform in Battles might simply be because that is the uniform dissolute soldiers wore in the post-war recession, but it feels like more than a visual call back – it’s the moment his character makes the decision to become a yakuza.

Coming from Kurosawa’s prolific early period, Stray Dog easily stands up next to some of his later classics. It’s a fascinating look at post-war Tokyo: the ruined city slowly coming back together, the American influence under occupation, the fashions of the late 1940s (including some truly outrageous collars). Yet the story itself is equally valuable; a gripping detective story and prototype for countless genre conventions.

Stray Dog / 野良犬

Director: Akira Kurosawa

Japanese Release Date: 17th October 1949

Version Watched: 122 min (BFI Player)

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