Challenge Week 1: Stray Dog

I mentioned on my post about Babette’s Feast that I wasn’t inherently that excited about seeing it, though I ended up very glad I had. I was very excited about Stray Dog, and I wasn’t let down a bit. I typically have some trouble connecting with Japanese film, even Kurosawa, who’s generally considered to be among the most Western-accessible Japanese filmmakers. Though someday I’m going to have to stop saying that, as I’m getting more and more acclimated to Japanese filmmaking – the real test will be Tokyo Story, which is coming up later in the challenge.

Anyway, I was hoping Stray Dog would work well for me because it’s basically a noir, and noir is one of my favorite genres. And now I totally understand the thing about Kurosawa being more influenced by Western film than many other Japanese directors. It shows through much more clearly in this modern day detective drama than it does in, say, his samurai films, right down to the chorus girls that would fit in any 1940s American nightclub. Yet it still shares stylistic and thematic concerns found in other Kurosawa films, especially High and Low, also a modern-day crime film that I enjoyed quite a bit.

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In Stray Dog, Toshiro Mifune is rookie policeman Murakami who gets his gun pickpocketed on the bus. Desperate to get it back, he infiltrates the underworld and gets some leads, but soon finds that it was used in a robbery and homicide. Wracked with guilt, he and veteran cop Sato (Takashi Shimura) team up to find the suspect. The detective work itself is a lot of fun to watch, but the whole thing has a depth due to Murakami’s guilt first over just losing his gun, then having it be used to kill.

To add another layer, it turns out the guy they’re chasing is a WWII veteran hit with hard times, with a story not unlike Murakami’s own – both had their knapsacks with all their belongings stolen on their return from the war. Their significantly different choices after that trauma have led them to where they are today – on opposite sides of the law, one chasing the other, two sides of the same coin.

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Kurosawa would develop this idea that the criminal is result of societal mistreatment more thoroughly in High and Low, but here he balances the societal with the personal – yes, this guy Yusa got dealt a raw hand, but so did Murakami. Murakami sympathizes with him (a bit more than Sato would like, to be honest), but ultimately it’s Yusa’s choices that have set him where he is.

Visually, of course, it’s stunning, with Kurosawa’s strong sense of composition already well in place, and some gorgeous cinematography by Asakazu Nakai that put it easily on par with what American noir filmmakers were putting out in 1949. Like many American noirs, it’s set in crowded urban spaces, though post-war Tokyo is rundown and bombed out in a way American cities never were. It’s swelteringly hot, with handkerchiefs mopping foreheads in almost every shot, and desk fans used in interpersonal power plays.

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Setting it apart from American noir, though, is the sense of contemplation that Kurosawa infuses. These characters have time to lie on a roof and notice how wonderful the stars are. Kurosawa takes time to follow Murakami’s wordless odyssey through the underworld of Tokyo (wonderful gritty location shooting) for quite a long time. There’s time to visit Sato’s family and see his kids peacefully sleep. Murakami may have a singular focus, but the world around him has its own concerns and its own pace. I love the breakneck speed of most American noir, but I loved this, too, and I’m now even more eager to check out Kurosawa’s other noirs.

Stats and stuff…

1949, Japan
directed by Akira Kurosawa, written by Ryûzô Kikushima and Akira Kurosawa
starring Toshirô Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Keiko Awaji

I’m ranking all my Challenge films on Flickchart (as I do all the films I see), a movie-ranking website that asks you to choose your favorite between two movies until it builds a ranked list of your favorites. Just for fun, I will average out the rankings and keep a running tally of whose recommendations rank the highest. When you add a film to Flickchart, it pits it against films already on your chart to see where it should fall. Here’s how Stray Dog entered my chart:

Stray Dog beat Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
Stray Dog beat Frankenweenie (2012)
Stray Dog beat Avengers: Age of Ultron
Stray Dog beat High Note
Stray Dog lost to The Gay Divorcee
Stray Dog lost to The Seven Year Itch
Stray Dog beat Born Free
Stray Dog lost to Witness for the Prosecution
Stray Dog lost to The Fountain
Stray Dog lost to Pulp Fiction
Stray Dog lost to A Woman is a Woman
Stray Dog beat The Little Colonel

Final ranking: #194 out of 3567 films on my chart (95th percentile)

It is now my #1 Kurosawa film, my #1 Japanese film, my #16 film noir, my #5 police detective film, and my #3 film of 1949.

Stray Dog was recommended by David Conrad, a friend from the Flickcharters Group on Facebook. Averaging together this #195 ranking with my #305 ranking of his other film, Babette’s Feast, David gets an average ranking of 250, which sets a pretty high bar for the rest of the challenge!

A few quotes…

Sato: [to Murakami] “Bad luck either makes a man or destroys him. Are you going to let it destroy you?”

Murakami: “They say there’s no such thing as bad men – only bad situations. I feel sorry for him.”
Sato: “Thinking like that won’t get you anywhere as a cop. […] Leave psychoanalysis to detective novels.”

A few more screenshots…

(I apologize for the low quality of several of the screencaps in this post. I couldn’t find all the shots I wanted online, so I had to screencap from HuluPlus.)

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