31 January 2008

Movielog, Stray Dog

Stray Dog, 1949
Written by Ryuzo Kikushima and Akira Kurosawa
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
122 minutes

This is a bit of an embarassing thing for a movie geek to admit to, but until now, I'd never actually seen a Kurosawa film. That's right, no Ikiru, no Seven Samurai, no Ran, no nothing. There are two upsides here: 1.)I'm working on it, by spreading them around in my Netflix queue and 2.)since I've never seen them, I get to see (and write about) each one as if it were new.

Which brings us to Stray Dog, widely considered to be Kurosawa's first great film. It's a police procedural that follows a rookie detective Murakami (Toshiro Mifune) after his gun is stolen from him on a densely-packed bus, and he attempts to get it back. The movie opens in full-speed mode, as he stands in front of his superior's desk admitting to his failure to keep ahold of the gun, and we see an action-packed flashback to the loss. "Stop calling me sir," the superior says, "You're not in the army." He sighs, and says he'll file the paperwork.

And at least for the first half, that's one of the hallmarks of the film. It's one of the most laid-back police procedurals ever. The detectives Murakami approaches for help finding the gun spend their time leaning against walls, slowly giving Murakami the information he needs. They are more experienced, and have learned to replace style and intelligent observation where Murakami can only see the need for confrontation and direct action.

This is best-shown in the introduction of Detective Sato (Takashi Shimura), who becomes Murakami's mentor in the last half of the film. Murakami has heard that he is interrogating a woman who may know where the gun is, and he enters the interrogation room hurriedly, intent on demanding whatever information he can as fast as possible. Instead, as he enters the woman and the older officer are laughing, sharing a cigarette. Over time, she will reveal the truth to Sato, and his eyes are warm but sharp, never missing a pertinent detail.

Eventually Murakami learns that his gun is in the possession of a man named Yusa (Isao Kimura), who has used it to commit a robbery and the murder of a young girl. The clock is ticking, as Sato notes, because Yusa is a "stray dog" that will become rabid as he continues on his murderous rampage. Investigating the man, Sato and Murakami learn that he and Murakami have much in common, both being veterans of WWII whose knapsacks were stolen on the train back to their homes. And before you are reminded of Charlie's Kauffman's comments to his brother Donald about cop movies, it's important to note that Kurosawa emphasizes the characters' differences far more than their similarities. For Kurosawa, the important thing is that Murakami accepted the loss of his backpack and moved on, deciding to become a police officer and protect the public, while Yusa has succumbed to despair and turned to crime as a way of getting ahead.

The movie builds and builds as the pair of cops get closer to Yusa, until there is a sequence in a hotel that is among the most perfectly-constructed and riveting I've ever seen, worthy of the best of Hitchcock. Later, there will be a chase scene that is stunning in its brutality and suffering, in which the criminal is brought to justice and forced to confront the reality of the suffering he has caused.

I got the Criterion DVD from Netflix, and it includes a wonderful full-length commentary by Stephen Prince which gives the historical context for the film. Kurosawa wasn't just making a crime film, but was grounding his characters and metaphors into the society of then-modern-day Japan. The commentary is a bit repetitive at times, and perhaps overly dry and pedantic, but it's pretty much required viewing for those wanting to really appreciate the film, at least unless one is already familiar with the postwar context of the movie.

This is a great film, widely called Kurosawa's fist masterpiece, and I have no complaints on that regard. Onward into the filmography I will go, for this really is a fantastic way to spend two hours.

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