As the history of cinema extends, and the ranks of master filmmakers grow, a strange thing happens to our common perceptions of the greats: they get boiled down, pinned to a particular film (or group of films), and that simplification becomes who that filmmaker is, in the textbooks and documentaries and analyses through which they’re so often introduced to newcomers. As a result, when viewers move past the “greatest hits” that form those perceptions, they’re often surprised by the versatility found in the filmography; you see it in how often people are shocked by the brevity and humor of Bergman’s B-sides, for example, or the naturalism of Fellini’s early works.
And such is the case with Akira Kurosawa. It’s understandable; The Seven Samurai is commonly accepted as one of the Great Movies, period, and since his next best-known works include Rashomon, Yojimbo, and Throne of Blood, it’s easy to keep him within the box of period samurai adventures. That’s one reason why the Criterion Channel’s new “Japanese Noir” series is so valuable – it’s a reminder that there was much more that Kurosawa not only did, but did well.
The first of those films is Stray Dog, released in 1949 – when Kurosawa was not yet 40. And it’s a young man’s movie, jittery and energetic and snappy, filled with colorful characters, brassy music, and documentary-style immediacy. Its setting is contemporary and its characters still read as modern, particularly its protagonist, rookie Detective Murakami (Kurasawa’s go-to leading man, Toshirô Mifune), who is already in a state of panic the first time we meet him. It seems that someone has stolen his gun.
“I have no excuse,” he admits. A pickpocket lifted it on a crowded bus, and now Murakami feels nothing but shame and defeat (this story thread was quietly lifted by Paul Thomas Anderson in Magnolia); “What am I supposed to do?” he asks, not unreasonably. He tries to track the pickpockets, but can’t make any headway (“Man, you’re a real amateur,” he’s told) – and then the gun is used in a crime. Overwhelmed with guilt and responsibility, he hands in his letter of resignation, but his superior refuses it. “Bad luck either makes a man or destroys him,” the senior officer tells him, and advises him to use this turn of events to his advantage.
And thus his embarrassing mistake becomes a crash course – first in the department for which he works (he gets to know the people and practices in the larceny division, and then over in ballistics), and then in a criminal underworld he should probably be familiar with anyway. A long, evocative, dialogue-free passage follows Murakami as he delves deeper and deeper into the underground; he’s also guided on his journey by Satō (Takashi Shimura), a wise elder detective, so yes, the idealistic rookie / old pro buddy cop match-up does, in fact, date back to the 1940s.
Stray Dog was Kurosawa’s third collaboration with his frequent cinematographer Asakazu Nakai, and the film’s look and style is striking – it’s set in a sweltering summer, and the sheer sweatiness of the movie is overwhelming, the frames filled with carefully composed desk fans and sopping brows and dripping popsicles. And, of course, there are shadows and darkness a-plenty; Criterion’s noir designation is on the money. But postwar Japanese noir is also grimmer than its American counterpart, by sheer virtue of its origination in a country that was defeated rather than victorious. Both Murakami and his eventual target Yusa fought in the war, but took different paths after; all great noir is rooted in fate, so it seems inevitable that they must cross paths again. This stand-off is messy and ugly and intense, but unlike your typical noir setting of a dark alley at night, they meet in the tall grass, under the hot sun.
Beyond noir, Stray Dog has much in common with the neorealist cinema of postwar Italy, a country that also found itself rebuilding after WWII – both physically and psychologically. And you can also read the picture as a bridge between those films and the cinema of the French New Wave, with which it shares a sense of momentum and on-the-street realism (as well as its hard-boiled, voice of God narrator). You can play connect the dots endlessly with a film like this, of course. But as with all great filmmakers, Kurosawa took in those influences, swirled them around within his own sensibilities and obsessions, and came up with a style and voice that was decidedly, distinctively his own.