Saturday, December 10, 2011

#233: Stray Dog

(Akira Kurosawa, 1949)

Kurosawa's easy counterpart in the West is John Ford. Just as Ford made the Western internationally iconic, Kurosawa popularized the samurai film outside of Japan - and just as Ford would eventually demythologize the genre he was most known for later in his career, so too did Kurosawa. Likewise, both directors made classics outside their respective comfort zones.

But the comparison I come back to over and over with Kurosawa is Hitchcock. There are the critical parallels - both directors made more classics over a longer period of time than perhaps any other filmmaker in history. And certainly the two filmmakers made some of the most unapologetically entertaining films of their era. Kurosawa was definitely the more socially minded of the two - Hitchcock was nearly always more concerned with the inner-workings of the human psyche (Kurosawa's 20th century-style tendency towards socialism mirrored Hitchcock's own timely fascination with Freud and psychoanalysis) - but their work was filled with troubled fractured heroes tasked with redeeming themselves in their own minds.

Stray Dog makes the comparison more apt by presenting Kurosawa's Japanese take on a Western genre. But the film takes its cues not from the suspense thriller genre, but from film noir. Replace the fan in each character's hand in the early scenes here with a cigarette, and you could be looking at any number of potboilers from the same post-War era in Los Angeles. The social conventions at work in the interactions between the cops and lowlifes in the film make for fascinating comparisons with their Western counterparts, the stuff of graduate theses. Gradually however, the film sheds its purely noirish structure and becomes more of a social picture exploring post-War Japan and the nature of good and evil. As is alluded to in the essay accompanying the DVD, Kurosawa flips the traditional noir theme of the individual being consumed by society and instead argues that we are all connected, even one. The final showdown in the film is both intense and moving - there is a desperation to both men which reduces them to animals in the final, clumsy encounter.

Speaking of connections, there are two modern films that owe a great debt to Stray Dog. One is Magnolia, where Paul Thomas Anderson obviously used the core premise here of a cop losing his gun for John C. Reilly's subplot. The other is Body Heat, one of the few modern noir masterpieces. The two films share their once-removed noir status (Stray Dog's is geographical, while Body Heat's is temporal), but where they clearly overlap is sweat. Both films take place during a suffocating heatwave, and I'm not sure I've seen many other films that convey the sluggishness of the experience so consistently (one Criterion film that does so in a different way - by use of color and light - is Do the Right Thing, thanks to brilliant cinematography from the masterful Ernest Dickerson). Here, as in Body Heat, the temperature puts a weight on each character's shoulders - everyone in the film has something else on their minds other than the task at hand except Mifune himself.

There is another Criterion connection here. The sequence in which Mifune goes undercover to find a gun dealer is remarkably similar to the scene in which Joel McCrea goes undercover as a hobo in Sullivan's Travels in order to learn what it is like to live poor and despondent. Both scenes last an unusually long amount of time with little to no dialog. They convey the emotions of the characters through their experiences, but also through the experience of the viewer - each would be far less effective at half the running time.

Overall, Stray Dog was a bit of a surprise for me, an early masterpiece from Kurosawa which flirts with many of the themes of his later work (particularly The Lower Depths and High and Low) but sees the director flirting with many more openly complex techniques and displaying his influences more overtly, which may be why he later dismissed it as an early failed experiment. He's extremely wrong, of course, as Stray Dog turns out to be another classic from a man who - particularly in a fifteen-year-period around the 50s - seemed to have an endless supply of them.

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