Saturday, October 25, 2008

Stray Dog (Akira Kurosawa, 1949)

Toshiro Mifune and Keiko Awaji in Stray Dog (1949).

I'm not sure why it has taken me this long, but I just recently started watching the films of Akira Kurosawa. I think one reason may be him constantly being praised as one of the greatest filmmakers ever, and me not wanting to be disappointed. Another reason is that I have been more interested in recent films and it's not like there has been a shortage of films and directors to explore. After having seen four of his films, ranging from 1949's Stray Dog to 1962's Sanjuro, I realise that there was no reason to be worried about being disappointed and Kurosawa's films appear to be more modern than most that I have seen from the same time period.

Stray Dog is about a rookie homicide detective (Toshiro Mifune) who gets his gun stolen on a crowded train. When his gun is later used in a robbery, the detective hands in his resignation but is instead put on the case. Helping him catch the criminal and retrieve his gun is an older inspector (Takashi Shimura) who is an expert at catching pickpockets.

Most of what I've read about Stray Dog focuses on its depiction of the immediate post-war era and the presence of the American occupational forces and society's part in the fate of the characters in the film. I don't feel that I have enough knowledge of the times to comment on the depiction of post-war Japan but to me the film was mostly about morals and the individual's choices on how to live life in a society that won't take care of you.

While Mifune's detective and Isao Kimura's criminal share the same past as soldiers, who upon their return got their knapsacks stolen on the train taking them home, they did not make the same choices in how to go from there. The detective admits to getting ideas of stealing and taking the "easy" road of crime but realising it is not the way to go, he gets a job instead. Kimura's character instead chooses a life of crime. They are the same on the outside, living in the same society, but it is what's on the inside that sets them apart. I don't agree with the take that society forced the criminal's choices, even if it did play a large part. I think the film ultimately shows that it is up to the individual to make his or her own choices, which is also shown in the way that every character the policemen stumble upon during their investigation knows exactly what they have done right or wrong, it is what they chose and they know the consequences.

The biggest differences between the detectives and the criminals is the feeling of responsibility. Toshiro Mifune feels responsible for the crimes that are carried out using his gun, even though it is not his fault, they would have happened anyway using another gun. The pickpockets and gunrunners they encounter have no such feelings, not because society forced them into it, but because the lack of feeling responsible is a requirement for a lot of criminals. One thing that exemplifies that it is about individual choices, I think, is the young girl (Keiko Awaji) who is a childhood friend of the criminal. She recieves an expensive dress from him but, suspecting that it's been procured through wrongdoing, she doesn't wear it.

Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura and Keiko Awaji.

Even if I'm totally wrong on this, it is still a masterful film, with great performances from everyone involved, especially the three leads in Mifune, Shimura and Awaji. The way it is shot and the editing gives it a feel of being made much later than the late 1940's, something I think is common with a lot of Kurosawa's films. After having seen Yojimbo (1961), Sanjuro (1962) and Seven Samurai (1954), Stray Dog makes me think even higher of Kurosawa and I will be seeing the rest of his films.