Considered by many to be the master’s first great work, Stray Dog is a superb film noir from the Kurosawa/Mifune team. An entry into that subgenre about an eccentric character on a single obsessive quest about something seemingly not so significant, the movie is pregnant with insight into male psychology, right and wrong, and of course the overarching churn of social change in post-war Japan. Just the very adoption of such an American genre as film noir speaks volumes about that last point.
When his gun is stolen, proud, young and fiery detective Murakami offers his resignation, which is refused. So begins his quest, with the help and diluting influence of a calmer more experienced cop, Sato (Takashi Shimura). Inevitably, the stolen gun begins to be used in crimes, further deepening Murakami’s shame and guilt. As his quest develops, Kurosawa reveals the parallels between the lives of his hero and his “villain”: the gun’s new bearer.
Presenting its simple (by film noir standards), gently unfolding story through a fascinating array of varying film styles, Stray Dog is a veritable compendium of technique, from Soviet montage to 40s Hollywood noir, always rooted in a quasi-documentary closeness to the subject matter which even seems to stray (pun intended) occasionally into cinéma vérité. Some would argue that an eight-minute montage of Mifune walking undercover through the slums of Tokyo is an excessive indulgence which stops the movie dead in its tracks; perhaps they’d be right, but personally I am more impressed by the dedication (masochism?) of the editing crew, since the sequence consists mostly of shots a few seconds long divided by dissolves.
As an entry into the police-procedural film noir canon, Stray Dog seems to create at least as many well-loved genre cliches as it steals: it may well have pioneered the use of live sporting events in movies being intercut with a criminal pursuit, one of Hollywood’s favourite stand-bys.
To call Stray Dog uneven is not really a criticism: with so many different themes and styles being invoked this is something of an inevitability. In parts it is labouriously slow, elsewhere it can ratchet up tension with exactly the kind of skill you’d expect from Kurosawa (although it still never fails to startle) and the music-free climax is truly nerve-shredding. Yeah, perhaps this is Kurosawa’s first great movie, even if it does feel a little too experimental to be quite his first masterpiece.