野良犬 Nora inu – Stray Dog is named for an animal, but it’s really a film about being a man. This is true in the most general sense – Kurosawa doesn’t stray from his sympathetic humanism. Yet it’s also true in the specific, gender political sense. It’s about what might anachronistically be called manly virtues, but in the modern city.
((Such gender-loaded terms are meant as observations on cultural parallels in Japan 1949 and now, rather than mandates or beliefs. Any admiring note is in admiration of virtue, not of gender.))
The tropes here send the plot in thematic loops around duty, the city, and life post-WW2 Japan. A young policeman, Detective Murakami, has his gun stolen on the bus, and traces it through the underworld. It’s bound for another young man, also a returned soldier, a thief turning murderer. So it’s a coming of age story, a police procedural and an urban quest. The cinematography is beautiful film noir, but the plot is not. There are women, in rich supporting roles, but no femme fatale. There is just the homme fatale of the thief: the stray dog.
“I love boys,” I heard a teacher friend declare recently, “they’re all noise and honesty.” It’s an apt enough description for Mifune Toshiro’s performance in the lead role. He is raw with a sense of failed duty, hunting leads for days on end on little sleep, blurting out truths at embarrassingly high volume. Sympathetic as his colleagues are to his youthful zeal, there’s also a sense he’s not seeing things in proportion. When he gives in his letter of resignation after losing the gun, his boss rips it up. It’s another trope, of course, though we must be close to its invention.
The brief note for this retrospective pointed out the mentor relationship between the lead and senior detective Sato-san. And it’s lovely turn by Shimura Takashi, who was, like Mifune, to become a recurring cast member for Kurosawa. There are at least two other teacher figures though: the young cop’s boss, and the senior detective for pickpockets and petty theft. There are also families – kids and mothers and uncles.
Indeed, almost every plot point here is a hop across vertices in a social network. Kurosawa, who had a hand in the screenplay, weaves a metropolitan mesh out of friends and near strangers. By the end he has drawn geisha girls, rich lawyers, baseball, sleeping children and gun dealers into the same net. It gives an ahistorical reminder of Krystof Kieslowski, like a Japanese Three Colours Black. And by the end of it we strain at the edge of the city, as the stray dog tries to push through the mesh and escape.
It’s a trick Kurosawa had used before, in his debut 姿三四郎 Sugato Sanshiro. Somehow, though the tropes are familiar, Stray Dog never loses its human scale, or falls into Samurai / Hollywood ultra-competence. Being set in summer and remembering to make the whole cast sweat was enough, but it’s also the pieces of life in every scene, the hotelier flirting with his employee, a crying infant tipping people off, the impossibility of talking on the phone in the pouring rain, the way one tiny everyday event cascades into another.
Yet Kurosawa was always good on the little details. The first time I saw this movie was with English subtitles badly translated via Chinese. Kurosawa had such a command of visuals that it was still watchable. Getting to see it this time in its full glory, on the silver screen, was a pleasure, and a privilege.
… how a friend described going to Beethoven’s door and hearing him ‘cursing, howling and singing’ over his new fugue; after a whole hour Beethoven at last came to the door, looking as if he had been fighting the devil, and having eaten nothing for 36 hours because his cook and parlour-maid had been away from his rage. That’s the sort of man to be.
— Wittgenstein quoted in a letter by Russell (from Monk)