Stray Dog: The Criterion Collection
Post World War II Japan was a nation in chaos ravaged by war, struggling to regroup, plagued by food shortages, dealing with a growing crime rates, and faced with an onset of Western influences. For Akira Kurosawa, at the time a not-yet-established-but-successful director, it became the backdrop for what was meant to be a genre picture derived from the stories of French mystery writer Georges Simenon. What it became was Kurosawa's first masterpiece. Stray Dog (1949) checks in on rookie detective Murakami (Toshiro Mifune, arguably Kurosawa's greatest collaborator) after his sidearm is stolen on a bus ride home. He knows who did it, but the woman who pocketed it passed it along, and Murakami follows the winding road of suspects. He gets help from veteran detective Sato (Kurosawa regular Takashi Shimura) as the two comb Tokyo's growing underworld for their suspect. Once the weapon starts being used in crimes, Murakami's guilt grows greater and greater as he feels somehow responsible for their acts. This is magnified when the men find out their criminal is named Yusa (Isao Kimura) who much like Murakami was a misplaced ex-soldier who had his backpack stolen when returning home. Though Stray Dog easily fits into the genre of "foreign noirs" like Rififi (1955) or Le Cercle Rouge (1970), Kurosawa's film transcends being just a genre picture. The director invests the film with his interest in Dostoyevsky, with the obvious parallels between Murakami and his doppelganger Yusa, while also using their parallel (as commentator Stephen Prince points out) to express Kurosawa's existential humanism by showing that the difference between the two is Murakami's choice to pursue good even when his situation was not. The film also affords Kurosawa the same chances that Roberto Rosselini got with his similar (but inferior) Germany Year Zero (1947) by using the backdrop of a war-torn country to both document a nation in transit, and provide social commentary on this state of disrepair, with an eight-minute sequence of Murakami investigating the newfound ghettos while being repulsed at how far his country has fallen the standout sequence. But where Kurosawa excels is how his film works on the level of commentary while also offering a deeply involving story by going to one of his favorite subplots, the pupil/mentor relationship, here between Kurakami and Sato. It's a very strong bond, with Murakami learning much about his profession from the old-school Sato, but it's also shown that the exchange of ideas goes both ways. Criterion presents Stray Dog in its original Academy ratio (1.33:1) and monaural Japanese soundtrack, with optional English subtitles. Though Michael Jeck's Seven Samurai commentary is the high-water mark for Kurosawa DVD tracks (and audio commentaries, period), Stephen Prince does a fine job here analyzing the film and providing historical perspective and insights into its making. Also included is the Stray Dog episode of "Akira Kurosawa: It is Wonderful to Create" (33 min.), a series dedicated to profiling the great Kurosawa films; this one speaks to Kurosawa and costars Isao Kimura and Keiko Awaji. Like all Criterion releases, it comes with informative essays, with one by critic Terrence Rafferty, and the second an excerpt from Kurosawa's autobiography, Something Like an Autobiography. Keep-case.