A tense police thriller, Stray Dog isn't the kind of film one normally associates with Akira Kurosawa. Released in 1949 the film marks a turning point in the director's cinematic career – it was one of the last films he made as a solely Japanese filmmaker – finding critical acclaim and an international audience just one year later with Rashomon. It is also the last of a series of films that focused on life in occupied Tokyo: The Quiet Duel, One Wonderful Sunday and breakthrough Drunken Angel. Marking the end of an era as it does, it's perhaps fitting that the film addresses the issues of change and adaption.
From the off Kurosawa is keen to impress this atmosphere of tension and uncertainty that was present in postwar Japan upon his audience. The credits roll over a shot of a dog panting in the midday sun and the film begins in medias res, with young detective Murakami, played by the ever likeable Toshiro Mifune, recounting the loss of his service pistol to a senior officer. Head bowed and meek, Mifune plays the disgraced young policeman perfectly, a world away from the swaggering samurai roles he would become famous for in later Kurosawa films. Murakami descends into the bustling underworld of occupied Tokyo in an effort to locate the black market gun dealer who has his weapon, however after bungling the case he is assigned to an older detective Sato, played by another Kurosawa regular Takashi Shimura, who lends himself well to the role of the experienced, world weary detective. Though the buddy cop routine might now feel slightly tired, it takes on an additional significance given the setting.
Inspired by Jules Dassin's 1948 film noir The Naked City and based on an unfinished novel of Kurosawa's, the script is the first cowritten with Ryuzo Kikushima, who would go on to work regularly with Kurosawa. Admittedly the dialogue between the two leads is fraught with cliches, though whether this is classic dialogue that has become hackneyed over time or a precursor to the tropes of the jidai-geki (period drama) samurai epics that would become Kurosawa's mainstay in later years, is open to interpretation. In a way much more of the subtext of the film is conveyed by body language, camera angles and above all perspiration. Kurosawa uses documentary footage filmed by Ishiro Honda to provide a realistic vision of occupied Tokyo's huge listless crowds and the constant motion of fans in every shot is an ever present reminder of the tension in the piece; like Mifune and Shimura they glisten with sweat.
There is however a brief moment of respite from the heat that comes with a thunderstorm; it just wouldn't be a Kurosawa without a scene of torrential rain. A technique that the director stuck to throughout his career, he was dubbed kazi-otoko (wind man) by some of his regular collaborators for his insistence on filming in adverse weather conditions. The relief is short lived and from the discovery that Murakami's gun is being used in a series of armed break-ins the tension of the piece continually ratchets up to the film's climax in the heat and foetid vegetation of Tokyo's wooded outskirts.
Though fairly well paced the film does drag a little in places; keen to establish a mood of tension Kurosawa has several lengthy wordless scenes some of which, like Murukami's surreal pursuit of a pickpocket are held up by the strength of Fumio Hayasaka's score while others, most notably the eight minute long montage of downtown Tokyo, are not. Overall the film's aim to impress a general atmosphere of pressure and heat is achieved wonderfully through constant reminders in the dialogue, choice cinematography and wonderful acting on the part of the two leads. It's also worth noting Isao Kimura's appearance as criminal Yusa though brief is also excellent.
Working on several levels and exploring Kurosawa's humanist interest Stray Dog is brooding and thoughtful as it is tense and exciting. The film ends on an uncertain note, Sato suggesting that perhaps the optimism of his younger colleague may pass but the message of hope and the prospect of change for the Japanese is clear. Perhaps having finally addressed the issue of postwar desperation allowed Kurosawa to change himself, stepping into the role of cultural ambassador at the central to the Golden Age of Japanese cinema of the 50s and 60s.