Stray Dog (1949)

Directed by Akira Kurosawa

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When a young detective has his pistol stolen he undergoes something close to a spiritual breakdown.  Teamed up with an older, calmer detective, he hunts down the gun and the criminal who has used it to kill multiple people.  The plot allows for the two detectives to discuss their different life philosophies as well as post-war Japan.  They march through slums and bear witness to the intense struggle many feel just to survive.  By the time the young detective tracks down the man who has stolen his pistol, we see them as kindred spirits, two reactions to similar circumstances.  Their vicious struggle feels as old as the conflict between Cain and Abel, like it’s not really these two men fighting but rather two entire philosophies and schools of thought battling for supremacy.

Stray Dog is a wonderful film.  I’ve been going through all of Kurosawa’s old works, and while it’s hard not to be impressed by them, particularly for the time, this film was the first one I found truly suspenseful and even entertaining.

The story is more plotted than most of his early films, following the conventions of any modern detective story.  There’s the buddy cop element to a young and old detective, the mostly anonymous ‘bad guy’ whose actions determine the course of the story for our hero, and there’s even a character not too unlike the femme fatale in film noirs.

Beyond that the film is layered with subtext, sometimes not far below the surface.  As much as I enjoyed the action, so was I taken with characters’ conversation.  It’s the perfect balance between a David Fincher crime movie (like Se7en) and an indie walk and talk movie, like Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise.

The film works on several levels, both within the text and within the cinematography.  Kurosawa shoots the film in such a way that he makes establishing shots matter.  He maximizes the space in his frame in nearly every shot, and the way he insists upon wide shots (often framing three or more people clearly) makes the eventual use of close-ups much more impactful.

There are layers to the images in Stray Dog.  It’s rarely just about one character’s reaction.  Instead there are often three planes of view so that the characters react in tandem, sometimes in conflict.  In this way the story becomes more about the divide between characters, particularly when they react to the same thing in a different manner, than it is about any one person.  This adds to the themes covered in the conversations between the two detectives.  In one of these they come to an understanding that they just see the world differently, whether because of personal age or the times themselves.

The young detective is Murakami, and his eventual, older partner is Sato.  They are nearly complete opposites.  Murakami is idealistic but also a nervous wreck just about all of the time.  After his pistol is stolen he submits his resignation out of a sense of honor, but his sergeant rips it up and assigns him to work with Sato, likely knowing the older man will have a good effect on the young one.

The relationship between the two detectives is similar to the one in Kurosawa’s previous film, Drunken Angel.  They are less abrasive on the surface, but in each case the younger man is devoted to a certain code given to him and the older man is wise to the ways of the world from his own experience.  The younger is book smart, and the older is street smart.

Sato is also just so easy going.  He has no difficulty getting information from a woman Murakami arrested and then had trouble cracking.  Murakami tries to follow the books, but Sato knows the psychological loop holes.  He knows how to talk to people, and how to get them to open up to him.

Throughout their investigation Sato continually tells Murakami to chill the f*ck out.  Murakami, again stuck a spiritual crisis, wonders aloud about the shades of grey among people, the nuances that separate a criminal from a lawman.  This comes after information making it clear that some of the people on the wrong side of the law are only there out of necessity.  They need to survive, and theft is a form of survival.  It’s also as if Murakami had never considered this before.

Sato pulls him back from the ledge by insisting it’s not up to them to decide what’s right or wrong.  They have to look at the world in black and white because it’s what the job requires.  Anything less, and it’ll make their work unbearable.

By the end of the film Murakami will get his guy, and he’ll let go of some of the idealism he began with.  He’s grown up, and in this story growing up means getting on with the job.  He comes face to face with the man made to be his antithesis, and he beats him.  Well, he arrests him, but he conquers him is the point.

There is a discussion earlier in the film about how Murakami and the man who has his gun are not so different.  They’re both around the same age, and they each served in the war.  Murakami’s response to the madness he witnessed in battle was to become a cop, enforcing the law, and the other man’s response was to break it.

Like in other good cop movies, Michael Mann’s Heat for one, there is a fine line between good and bad.  The hero cop realizes he’s not that dissimilar from the man he’s chasing, the man who you would otherwise think is a polar opposite.  We see the same dynamic in the first season of Dexter, in James Gray’s We Own the Night and in just about every such movie.  Probably in Fincher’s Se7en as well.

In all of these stories the villain highlights a weakness in the hero’s character.  If the hero sees the world in black and white, good and bad, then the villain will show that a “bad” guy’s motivation isn’t to be bad.  Good people can be bad, etc.  It’s not enough for the hero to just chase after his immediate needs, he has to have his eyes opened too.

So the story, by today’s standards, is fairly straightforward.  We’ve seen everything we see in Stray Dog, but it’s just put together so well.  The world feels fully realized, and you can feel the thick heat that drains all the characters of their energy.  Throughout the film, until the very end, the city is smothered in a swampy heat.  In one scene a group of lively dancers come offstage and immediately all lie down on the ground, silent and still like they’re robots who have been powered off.

The world of this story feels real, and it was.  There is a realism you only achieve from shooting on location, and yet this filmmaking style doesn’t betray Kurosawa’s sense of impeccable composition.  He combines an Italian neorealism style of place with the careful composition of a Hitchcock movie.

 

I picked these frames at random, and I only started looking out for such compositions over halfway into the movie when they became more apparent.

Images like these help convey the story in purely visual terms, and they make the viewing experience that much more engaging.  I think we’re all voyeurs to some extent, people love to say they enjoy “people watching,” and we go to the movies to watch stories about people who can’t look back at us.  What’s more engaging than watching a group of people silently interact?  Maybe you’ve seen it while in line somewhere or out to dinner.  A group of people are laughing and getting along, but one person’s body language tells us something’s going on.  Maybe they feel put upon, or maybe there’s a subtle power play at work within the group.

It’s so much more interesting to watch body language and the interactions between people than it is to just stare at one person.  Granted, there is a lot to be gleamed from an actor’s face, but Kurosawa’s use of frames like the ones above emphasize the group more than the individual.  They show competing emotions, wills and perspectives at play.  This isn’t the story about a single person but rather a single person amongst a community of other single people.  None of us truly exist in a vacuum.

That being said, this is still Murakami’s story in the end, but the use of wide and medium shots helps make shots like these more meaningful…

 

A close-up on a single person only stands out if you make it stand out.  So many movies today, and not only bad ones but good ones too, use the close-up too often.  There is only so much you can learn about a person from seeing them up at close.  If we’re so close to an individual for so long, then it surely has diminishing returns.

In Stray Dog these moments stand out because they feel so much more surprising given how accustomed we’ve grown to the wide shots.  When we cut to a close up Murakami or the villain it feels important, and it feels like we’re inside their soul.  It matters at all that we feel anything.

Just about every shot in this film feels alive and important.  If you’re making a movie the right away, give or take a few outliers, every shot should serve a purpose.  It can either push the story forward or clue us into a character’s state of mind, but every single shot should keep moving us in some direction.  In Stray Dog the establishing shots, which so many directors use only to tell us where we are, tell us not only where we are but where the character is at.  Are they in a position of power or at the whim of someone else’s authority?  How do they move amongst other people?  It’s not just about the location but the group dynamics which will be explored, enforced or altered by the end of the scene.

The way Kurosawa uses establishing shots, things simply move.  In a more conventional movie the establishing shot my be blocked in such a way that no one really moves.  They are static, and the shot is only there to show us that, ‘hey look at that we’re in a courthouse.’  Then we cut into a medium or close up, the shots that will carry us through the scene, and if characters move at all, that’s when they do it.  Even then characters may just sit down and talk for an entire scene.  In Kurosawa’s wide establishing shots, people move amongst themselves, and sometimes the camera does too.

None of his shots feel rote.  You get the impression that something is always going on, the characters are always human, and the story’s momentum remains strong.  To put it plainly, I guess, is that in a typical modern movie you might see a certain shot and know that nothing of importance is going to happen in that shot.  The best example might be the helicopter aerial shot of a new city that a character is moving to.  There is some upbeat montage music, and we see that shot which serves only to say what city we’re in (even though the next scene is likely shot on a soundstage far away from that location).  While watching the moment you know that the story isn’t moving forward at all.  The character’s goal hasn’t changed in any meaningful way.  It’s like if a play kept the houselights on while they rearranged furniture for the next scene.

Up Next: Rashomon (1950), Scandal (1950), On Dangerous Ground (1951)

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