Toshirô Mifune plays a cop in postwar Tokyo who has suffered the humiliation of having a criminal take his gun from him, in one of Akira Kurosawa’s excellent early films.
Before Akira Kurosawa became a world-famous director, there was a period right after World War II when he made his reputation in Japan with a series of inventive, socially conscious films. Among them was a police drama shot in 1949 called Stray Dog.
A young cop, played by Toshirô Mifune, has his gun stolen from him on a crowded bus. Humiliated, he vows to track down the thief himself, and he receives help in his task from a police veteran played by Takashi Shimura. The young man’s horror and shame increases when he learns that his gun has been used in another crime.
Kurosawa shows here how much he had learned from American crime pictures. The film’s use of light and shadow, the camera placement and taut pace, are expertly done. But Stray Dog is a lot more than a genre piece. There’s a thoughtfulness and moral gravity to the picture that makes it special. The cop’s intense remorse and obsession with honor is balanced by the gentler, more resigned attitude of his chief and other police veterans. The underworld is presented as essentially sad and wasteful, rather than thrilling and evil, and this lends pathos to the story. Mifune is great as the rookie—whom he plays rightly as scared and vulnerable rather than heroic.
The picture is remarkable for its portrayal of the postwar Japanese urban milieu, with its poverty, prostitution, and adoption of “tough” Western attitudes and slang. Early on in the picture, the rookie wanders through the poor sections of the city for days on end looking for the man who took his gun. The sequence takes on the form of one of those Hollywood transitional montages, where the hero is shown searching various locales and asking questions before the story goes into its next phase. But Kurosawa does something very different here. Instead of quickly taking us through the conventional montage, he extends the sequence much longer, with the shots of Mifune tramping about and encountering various people and situations continuing on and on for three or four times the length we expect. This brilliant gamble has the effect of driving home the exhaustive and seemingly hopeless nature of the needle-in-a-haystack search, but more importantly, it brings the film’s social observation to the forefront. We really experience the painful, bewildering, and chaotic world of postwar Tokyo in a way that a shorter montage couldn’t have achieved.
The film carefully constructs an identification between the cop and his prey, showing their similarities while stressing the key element of personal responsibility that sets them apart. The unusually sensitive story ends with a tour de force chase sequence that is both realistic and exciting. Kurosawa tended to downplay this movie later on in his career, when he broadened his range into epic stories and tragedies. But it’s a fascinating little gem, a detective film with rare depth and style.
Stray Dog is available on DVD.