Friday, May 1, 2015

Crimes of the Century 1949: Stray Dog (dir. Akira Kurosawa)

[A contribution to Past Offences' monthly Crimes of the Century.]

Given that there is a long-standing argument as to whether the cycle of "semi-documentary" post-war American crime films -- The Naked City, The House on 92nd Street, He Walked by Night, and so on -- are truly "noir" or not, it probably won't do to extend the argument across the Pacific and try to decide to whether a Japanese post-war semi-documentary crime film is truly noir. So let's hedge and say that Akira Kurosawa's Stray Dog (1949) is a policier with certain noir characteristics -- not least of which is the conflictedness of its protagonist, a rookie detective played by the great Toshiro Mifune. Mifune had played a devil-may-care yakuza gangster in the noir-ish Drunken Angel for Kurosawa just a year earlier, and the two pictures between them show off his incredible range.

Mifune's Detective Murakami in Stray Dog is an extremely earnest young policeman who beats himself up badly over the loss of his Colt revolver to a pickpocket on a bus. Three superiors, most importantly the seasoned homicide detective Sato (Takashi Shimura), have to counsel him to ease up and get on with business ("Instead of brooding, prevent the next incident"). The pursuit of the lost Colt takes Murakami and Sato through a cross-section of the petty Tokyo underworld and ultimately involves them in the investigation of a murder committed with the gun. Murakami comes to feel that the murderer, Yusa, is his dark double, both being veterans whose knapsacks were (gallingly) stolen on the way home from the war-front, but who made very different life-decisions thereafter. Murakami applies psychological empathy to his investigative process, but the more experienced Sato, although an exceptionally warm and generous person, has no sentimentality concerning criminals -- nor does he feel that a cop can afford to.

Stray Dog is as emotionally rich as one would hope for from a first-rank director such as Kurosawa. A visual motif repeated throughout the film involves looking at the sky, often a night sky, which the characters do -- or the camera does on our behalf -- at moments of great feeling, such as when Sato brings Murakami to his modest ("just a glorified shack") but very happy home. But this is no sappy visual poetry, because it is embedded in a context of thrilling formal rigor. For example, Kurosawa experiments extensively with multiple planes of focus in this movie; a typical three-shot (and Kurosawa is very fond of three-shots) has one person foregrounded (sometimes quite exaggeratedly), one person mid-grounded, and one person backgrounded. This technique has a Wellesian / Tolandian flavor, as do quite a number of specific shots (the descending opening shot of the Blue Bird nightclub, or the shot from within the innards of a carnival game). I wonder if Citizen Kane had played in Japan as of 1948, when Stray Dog was made? (A Google search didn't help me on this.)

Kurosawa also utilizes the semi-documentary style with panache (and it is interesting how seamlessly it fits with the more baroque visuals). Film blogger Robert Kennedy speaks of this as Kurosawa's "street style":

The camera moves fluidly through crowded streets, following the detective through Tokyo’s poverty-ridden streets for one entire reel without any dialogue, capturing the physicality of the people, the style, the mood, especially the heat, contrasted against Western influences, the introduction of the gun, baseball, white suits, dancing girls, the blues, jazz, and classical music.

The long sequence described is one of several kinetic sequences, also including a chase scene with the original pickpocket; a "tailing" procedure; a professional baseball game that blends on-location footage shot by Kurosawa's crew with studio re-takes; and the final show-down between Murakami and the criminal Yusa in a mucky marsh. The film as a whole is beautifully balanced between kinetic and static, exterior and interior, action and dialogue, specificity and generalization.

Stray Dog represents the then 38-year-old Kurosawa as an indisputable Young Master, and it is interesting to note that his slightly younger contemporaries, Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini (the three of whom together formed a strong international admiration society), made The Seventh Seal and La Dolce Vita respectively in the 37-39 age range. Perhaps that is roughly the time when, for many, life maturity can match technical mastery.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks very much Patrick - the first Japanese entry in Crimes of the Century. Gutted that I have passed the age when life maturity can match technical mastery without achieving either...