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With: Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura
Written by: Akira Kurosawa and Ryuzo Kikushima
Directed by: Akira Kurosawa
MPAA Rating: NR
Language: Japanese with English subtitles
Running Time: 122
Date: 10/17/1949
IMDB

Stray Dog (1949)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Gun Control

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Japanese cinema in general and Akira Kurosawa in particular first came to notice in the United States in the early 1950s with Kurosawa's masterpiece Rashomon. While no one could argue the merits of that great film, the timing didn't work out so well for Kurosawa's previous film, Stray Dog (1949), which went unseen for some time. Had it opened near Rashomon, Ikiru (1952), and Seven Samurai (1954) it would rightly be considered one of Kurosawa's masterworks.

Unlike the complex stories and themes of the other three films, Stray Dog is "merely" a neorealist cop thriller, which probably didn't help its case any. Yet looking at it today, Stray Dog deals with issues and ideas just as complex as its counterparts.

Toshiro Mifune stars as a rookie cop, who, sleep deprived on an oppressively hot day, loses his gun on a crowded bus. He begins a relentless chase throughout the Tokyo underworld for the firearm, and his state of mind becomes more and more unhinged as the gun's new owner goes on a killing spree.

Having seen Mifune in seven other Kurosawa films as a rangy, prowling ball of energy, prone to bursts of movement or violence, I was almost unable to recognize him, stiff and bundled up, holding his tension rigid in his body. He's as unsure of himself in Stray Dog as he is fearless in Rashomon, just a year later. I don't think I had enough perspective until now to realize just what a great performer he actually was.

On the opposite end, Stray Dog has the wise, veteran cop who has learned not to take everything so seriously, played by Takashi Shimura, later the star of Ikiru, and in Seven Samurai and Godzilla.

Kurosawa, making his ninth feature at age 39, had already begun to experiment with visual placement. First and foremost is his portrayal of the film's heat. There's no way to visually suggest heat itself, but Kurosawa fills the picture with such potent imagery that we can practically feel it without thinking of it. In one sequence, a chorus of dancing girls rushes offstage and collapses in a heap across a crowded dressing room, breathing and sweating. Other characters mop themselves with handkerchiefs or fan themselves.

The director also uses framing to enhance Mifune's tension and frustration. When Mifune tells the story of the gun to his partner, Kurosawa frames them both small in the corner of the frame, as if to suggest both humility and futility.

Aside from that, it's clear even this early that Kurosawa was one of the cinema's leading action directors. He ramps up his simple cop story to almost unbearable tension, letting it out at precisely the right times, only to build it back up again. The film's final 20 minutes, cutting back and forth between Mifune and Shimura, each on a different trail to the killer, is stunningly tense.

And, like the same year's Gun Crazy, the action ends in a swampy grassland, where civilization and its rules have suddenly ceased to exist.

The Criterion Collection has released Stray Dog on another excellent DVD, and it's the tenth Kurosawa in their collection (the eleventh, The Lower Depths, is coming next). The black-and-white print has excellent definition, even if the resolution is a tiny bit fuzzy; the film was made from a print instead of a negative. The monaural sound is clean and audible. Stephen Prince, author of The Warrior's Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa provides a commentary track (his previous commentaries include Ikiru, Red Beard and Ran). The liner notes contain an essay by "GQ" critic Terrence Rafferty as well as an excerpt from Kurosawa's autobiography. Extras include a 32-minute documentary on the making of Stray Dog.

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