By Melvin Cartagena
Stray Dog – 1949 – Akira Kurosawa
The parallels between Kurosawa and Scorsese, and more specifically between their leading men, Toshiro Mifune and Robert DeNiro, are so close that the worn accusation of Kurosawa being ‘too Western’ by conservative Japanese film scholars becomes a somewhat fair one. Regardless, Kurosawa crafted majestic dramas with universal themes, experienced at a human scale, but seen against a larger backdrop that both played against and complimented the subjects of his signature films, his leading men. In the same way that Scorsese showed us how the fading Little Italy of his youth produced men like Charlie and Johnny Boy in Mean Streets (1973), in Stray Dog (1949) Kurosawa presents a multi-leveled action drama that plays itself out in the ruins of post-war Japan, the backdrop that spawned men like Murakami (Mifune) and Yusa (Isao Kimura), his nemesis and mirror image.
Murakami is a green and untested police Detective who’s had his service gun stolen in a crowded bus in one of the hottest days of summer. With the rationing of raw manufacturing materials following the war, this is a big deal. And it becomes an even bigger deal when Murakami learns that his department-issued weapon is being used to perpetrate crimes. With each bullet that ballistics matches to Murakami’s gun for every crime Yusa commits, the countdown in the seven-bullet magazine of the gun becomes a race against time that tests the nerves of an already wound-up Murakami.
In the same way that Charlie is a seething mass of contradictions in Mean Streets, seeking redemption of a particular kind even as he fights off darker carnal and social impulses, Murakami’s quest for his service weapon becomes a tale of obsession as the Detective begins to identify with Yusa, a former soldier like him. Short on street smarts but driven by a manic energy (fueled by his personal need for redemption), Murakami goes undercover as an ex-soldier while roaming the plentiful Tokyo black markets. In a dynamic, wordless eight-and-a-half minute sequence shot through with heat and humidity, Murakami passes whores, bands of streets urchins, out of work ex-soldiers and other societal debris. Any still frame from this sequence serves as a cross-sectional view of socio-economic conditions in Japan after the war. The future is uncertain, but life has to go on somehow. In this society everyone has one foot in illegal activities as a matter of survival. The heat does not help clear thinking, so at times Murakami is not sure if he’s an undercover Detective or a gangster posing as a cop.
His tenacity pays off when he connects with a black market dealer, making an arrest along the way, but failing to recover his gun, and his freshness is so obvious to the underworld that he’s burned, recognizable to all black market points of contact. His superior denies Murakami the option of resigning, while warning him that a man is either made or broken by his bad luck, a fitting summarization of the randomness and implacability of the events that have led Murakami and Yusa to their present destinies. He is also paired to work with the veteran Detective Sato (Takashi Shimura), who schools Murakami in the intricacies of Detective work and acts as a surrogate father figure. Stray Dog may well be the first ‘buddy’ film.
With Sato acting as a moral compass Murakami is brought back to the trail of the stolen gun, a trail that leads to Keiko (Harumi Namaki), a showgirl and Yusa’s girlfriend. Through her we learn of Yusa’s anguish when he couldn’t afford to buy her a dress she wanted, a situation that brought him to tears, Keiko tells the Detectives; she tells them of her happiness when he turned up with the dress days later (after another bullet from Murakami’s gun was used.) Even as Murakami goes through the motions of setting a trap for Yusa (with Keiko as bait), he is aware of the crushing poverty that is Yusa’s existence, and how this fact resonates with his superior’s warning. Sato speculates that a man chooses to do evil, but has Yusa chosen what he’s become, or is he a man turned into a stray dog by his lack of choices? We never see Yusa until his final confrontation with Murakami, learning about him through the people close to him (his mother and girlfriend), so that Murakami becomes a pseudo-doppelganger of Yusa, a quiet dissenting voice aware that Sato’s reasoning comes from the impartiality that his sworn duty imposes on him. Like Yusa, Murakami also had his few possessions stolen when riding a train home after the war. He is aware of the dog eat dog environment in which he and Yusa were raised, a breeding ground which sometimes precludes choices. Murakami made a decision to uphold the law, but could Yusa have made the same decision, or was the choice made for him before he came to that crossroads?
But as with all of his outstanding films, Kurosawa refrains from making moral judgments, taking sides, or pushing an ideology. His Shakespearean tragedies must follow their relentless logic to the end, while the Gods look on, uncaring.
The trap set for Yusa backfires, and in the process Sato is wounded, with another bullet from Murakami’s gun. Murakami sets about capturing Yusa once and for all. Putting to practice the things he learned from Sato, he identifies Yusa and chases him to a cherry orchard where Murakami’s gun finally runs out of bullets and a real dogfight takes place. After the fight is over and they lie on the muddy ground, Murakami wounded but finally at peace, and Yusa in tears, the voices of singing children—a background chorus during their fight—rise in volume until they drown out Yusa’s weeping. Things might not look great at the moment, but there is a future, and by extension hope for something better.