October 9, 2008

Stray Dog (1949 film)

Directed by Akira Kurosawa. Written by Ryuzo Kikushima and Akira Kurosawa.

While I've enjoyed many of the Kurosawa films I've gone through up until now, this right here is the first one I'd call a masterpiece. It's so simple, so powerful, so elegant, so... masterful.

Murakami is a rookie cop who's shocked one day to discover his pistol has been stolen. When the first of seven bullets is used in a violent crime, he dedicates the next week to tracking down the weapon and its current wielder.

That's the plot in a nutshell. It's one of those great basic concepts which either sinks or swims based entirely on execution, and, man, does Kurosawa deliver. Like so many noir classics, the plot is only a piece of the picture, the other half being the rich world in which it's set. Here, we see the expansion of the black market and criminal underground as western influences sink deeper and deeper into Japanese culture, and police are still getting the hang of new laws like due process and Miranda rights.

Though he could have reigned a few moments in a bit, Toshiro Mifune lights up the screen as Murakami, an eager young man new to the force, who can't help but feel responsible for the escalating situation. Especially when he learns the culprit is a fellow former soldier who went through many of the same hardships he suffered both during and after the war.

As is so often the case, Takashi Shimura steals the show as Detective Sato, a lovably toadish superior who takes Murakami under his wing during the investigation. He's the typical mentor figure, teaching the rambunctious Murakami to be patient, use his head, understand the criminal, even though his methods are sly and his friendships among the underworld questionable. And he more than anyone else best carries off the sweltering summer heat of the setting as he finds clever new ways to dab himself with a soiled handkerchief.

The rest of the cast is marvelous, with especially notable bits from Kurosawa vets Noriko Sengoku, Reisaburo Yamamoto, and Eiko Miyoshi. If anyone is weak, it's the stiff Keiko Awaji as a dancer tied to the villain. But while her character is pivotal, her performances isn't enough to bring the picture down.

No, I still stick to my claim that this is a masterpiece. From the story to its world, from the characters to their defining themes, this is a picture that should not be missed, Kurosawa buff or no.

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