Akira Kurosawa’s police drama, Stray Dog sizzles every bit as much as the characters that inhabit the sweltering Japanese city where it takes place.
Murakami (Toshirô Mifune) is a rookie detective in a Japanese police department’s homicide squad. In a city gripped by a sweltering heat wave, Murakami is riding a cramped trolley home when his service pistol is stolen. Incredibly embarrassed by his lapse of concentration, he embarks on an obsessive mission to recover the stolen Colt and bring the thieves to justice. Although he is out of his depth, he is able to track down the organization that stole his weapon, and captures one of their distributers. Horrified by what he finds, Murakami discovers that his weapon has been leant out to an unhinged war veteran, single-mindedly focused on recompense for his perceived wartime sacrifices. Unable to accept that his gun is being used to commit such heinous crimes, Murakami must team up with veteran Detective Sato (Takashi Shimura) to find the dangerous criminal before he can inflict more damage.
Mifune and Shimura are regulars in Kurosawa’s stable of actors. In what is one of their earlier films together (they would later go on to star alongside each other in Rashomon, Seven Samurai and Throne of Blood) the duo have a wonderful on screen chemistry that Kurosawa captures brilliantly. Mifune plays Murakami as an incredibly determined, yet completely inexperienced policeman who will do anything to regain his honor. Through several dialogue-free scenes, Mifune is able to develop his character’s personality, and display his undeterred perseverance. Constantly drenched in sweat, and overcoming complete exhaustion, Mifune is almost uncomfortable to watch. His unflinching pride in the face of personal devastation really invokes a sense of empathy with the audience. Shimura’s Sato is the counter to Murakami in almost every way. The veteran police detective is jovial and relaxed as he goes about solving the crime. He jokes with suspects, and is always unnervingly calm compared to Murakami. Consistently upbeat and pressing Murakami to reconsider his shame, Sato’s voice is that of calm reason in the face of unimaginable tragedy.
Kurosawa does a marvelous job at keeping the audience on edge. He opens his film with Murakami recalling the events of his pick pocketing in the fashion of a wartime newsreel. Using a scratchy, radio-like voice over flashback images helps date the piece and sets the mood for the rest of the picture. While laying the groundwork for the plot, it serves a duel purpose of exposing the audience to the incredible heat wave that holds the film hostage for its duration. Kurosawa forces this heat upon his audience regularly; showing sweat soaked clothes, beads of sweat developing on characters faces and steam rising off of quickly melting popsicles. Always aware that the characters are physically uncomfortable, the mental anguish hits much harder. In several lengthy sequences wherein Murakami is working the streets of the city, Kurosawa is able to use quick cutting, and the bustling setting to keep attention up and the tension high. His noir-styled atmosphere is gritty and dark, and inhabited with a myriad of seedy characters. Rarely actually using any darkness, Kurosawa is able to create his darkness with the ever-present oppressive heat. In the hazy, moisture laden, air and crammed streets full of citizens trying helplessly to stay cool, the anonymous perpetrator is provided the perfect cover. His ability to be anyone, or strike any time makes his existence ominous, much like the shadowy darkness in most American Noir films.
Every bit as menacing as its villain, and determined as its protagonist, Akira Kurosawa’s Stray Dog is a timeless crime drama that leaves its audience covered in sweat and begging for more (and thankful for A/C).