By the end of Akira Kurosawa’s 1949 detective drama, Stray Dog, there is not a character that escapes the fray without rolling around in the mud, figuratively and literally. Every decision has consequences, and every action has a reaction. Some, more than others. For the young character of Detective Murikami (Toshirô Mifune), the mistake of letting his guard down and losing his firearm to a pickpocket is the first thread in a tangled web of violent crime and dishonest manipulation.
Set in post-World War II Japan, the setting and time period provides ample opportunity for brilliant commentary on the lasting effects of the war’s devastation. Kurosawa takes a more intimate, character-driven approach, showing two sides of the same coin of the experiences of military veterans. The protagonist Murikami survived the horrific conflict, and still had to return to his life as a middle-class everyman, with little to no gratitude shown to him by his fellow citizens. Yet, he was determined to pick himself up and make something of the resources at his disposal, however lackluster they may have been. Taking up work in law enforcement, Murikami continued to live a life of service, even in a society that gave him little in return.
On the other hand, we have Shinjiro Yusa (Isao Kimura), the man who gets his hands on Murikami’s Colt pistol and flees on a murderous crime spree, and also happens to be a veteran of the war. Even in Murikami’s disgust at the despicable actions of Yusa, he manages to wrap his head around the motivations of this disturbed individual.
“They say there’s no such thing as a bad man, only bad situations,” Murkiami says to his mentor and case partner, Chief Detective Sato (Takashi Shimura).
Sato, a much older, world-weary detective, scoffs at this notion, seeing the world in more binary terms. This generational divide creates an intriguing dynamic among the duo in their exploits, made all the more potent by the charismatic chemistry of Mifune and Shimura’s performances. These are two characters that you enjoy spending time with as the viewer. We are presented with a smooth balance of amusing entertainment and striking social commentary over the course of the film’s progression.
The purely visual nature of much of Kurosawa’s storytelling is beautiful to behold. With long montages completely lacking in dialogue, the camera gives the audience all the information they need to know. The cross-fading technique from editors Toshio Gotô and Yushi Sugihara overlays certain sequences with others, establishing a dreamlike quality as time passes and the detectives struggle to gain any headway with the case. Director of Photography Asakazu Nakai and Kurosawa also display extended takes of action and dialogue that are uninterrupted by the hand of the editors. In some cases, the camera sits back in a stationary position, allowing the sharp banter and philosophical musings of the characters to take center stage. At other times, the camera moves with purpose and rhythm, perfectly in-tune with the maneuvers of the characters and their position in the surrounding environment. The full frame of the picture is given due respect, with every inch and corner contributing to the visual story. Additionally, the emphasis on the weather and physical atmosphere is palpable. The sweltering sun of Japan beats down, with the sweat beading on brows and faces foreshadowing the torrential downpour and massive thunderstorm to come at the climax of the film. The tension and electricity that had been building allegorically in the script and physically on the screen for so long finally erupted with a powerful flourish.
Even seven decades later, Stray Dog holds up as a work of art, both in terms of entertainment value and social relevance. Many more wars have been fought in the years since, and each generation of veterans carries new scars and burdens. Consider this a spoiler-warning for a film made in 1949, but I feel that revealing the following information is thematically important: By the end of the film, Murikami apprehends Yusa, and gets an up close and personal glimpse into the severe anguish of this troubled man. However, this is not before Sato is nearly killed by a gunshot wound inflicted by Yusa, and Murikami gets shot in the arm himself. The final conversation between Murikami and Sato further illustrates their competing worldviews, and how the many years of Sato’s work have impacted his optimism.
“But I just can’t get that Yusa off my mind,” Murikami says, sitting at Sato’s bedside in an infirmary.
Sato replies, “I remember feeling that way myself. You’ll always remember your first arrest. But there’s a lot more guys like him than you realize. The more you arrest them, the less sentimental you’ll feel.”
After a brief pause, Sato continues, “But take a look out the window at the world. There’ll be all sorts of cases under those rooftops today. And a few good people will fall victim to someone like Yusa. Forget about Yusa. No, as soon as your arm heals, you’ll be busy again. You’ll forget about Yusa, naturally.”
Kurosawa does not necessarily pick a side here, but leaves the ultimate conclusion up to the interpretation of each individual viewer. There is a lot to chew on even after the credits roll.