Genre: Post War Crime Thriller
review in one breath
When homicide detective Murakami's pistol is stolen, a rash of murderous crimes begins. Plagued with the knowledge that his own weapon is causing the harm, Murakami is driven to extreme lengths to track down the killer and recover his gun. But the closer Murakami gets to the killer, the more he realizes how much they have in common. This is a great film filled with early Kurosawa social commentary on the condition of postwar Japan.
This 1949 film is the ninth* by director Kurosawa Akira and the third in which he worked with Mifune Toshiro. Also appearing here is Shimura Takashi who had played either a leading or central role in seven of these initial (nine) films, including the leading role in Kurosawa's first* film, the 1943 Sugata Sanshiro. Mifune and Shimura have always had excellent onscreen chemistry, with Mifune's firebrand personality juxtaposed the deliberate, contemplative Shimura. Here Shimura plays a seasoned and streetwise homicide detective who takes an ambitious and reactionary recruit (Mifune) under his wing as they pursue a killer through the slums of postwar Tokyo. The killer Yasu is played by Kimura Isao who you may recognize as one of Kurosawa's (later) Seven Samurai (1954) -- and if you're really a j-film geek, may know him as (JAPAN'S NUMBER ONE!) Detective Akechi in Fukasaku Kinji's psychedelic Black Lizard (1968).
[* Note: I am counting here only those films which he fully directed and have excluded his pre-1943 projects which he shared with several other directors.]
The date of this film's production is 1949 and this seems to be the film's setting as well. There are several scenes depicting regions of the city still waiting to be rebuilt after the bombings of the war (which ended in 1945), and much of this narrative's plot and ultimate message involve issues of poverty and desolation suddenly thrust upon otherwise ordinary people. In several ways, the moral exploration of this film is similar to that of Kurosawa's Drunken Angel (produced one year prior and also starring both Mifune and Shimura). Both are examinations of the impact of harsh social conditions upon the human soul, and in particular focus on the breaking point whereby an otherwise "good" person is turned toward a life of crime and social evil (or vice versa).
Here, the young detective Murakami discovers that his past differs very little from that of the killer Yasu, who himself seems to have stumbled into a life of crime despite his knowing better. Both Murakami and Yasu are recent veterans of the war, returning to Tokyo with nothing but their knapsack, a hardship which Murakami believes can easily reduce a good man to a life of crime. The older Shimura views such empathy as simply the naivete of the new, postwar generation. The film Stray Dog, then, is an exploration into Shimura's perspective which suggests that stray dogs eventually become rabid dogs -- in other words, certain types of desolate individuals, when left to their own devices, will inevitably descend into evil. It is not a matter of education or reform. It is a matter of human nature. The emotional dynamic of this film consists of Murakami's intense conviction that rather than a natural fate, chance and circumstance do indeed make all the difference in an individual's destiny.
Kurosawa seems to use the intense heat of summer, which palpably (!!) permeates this tale and its characters, as a metaphor for the social poverty of postwar Tokyo. This heat is explicitly mentioned in the opening lines of the film, and takes on a life of its own in many scenes thereafter. This metaphor culminates in the form of an approaching thunderstorm which violently releases itself upon the sweltering city right as the narrative's dramatic climax is reached. The film's moral message is then explored in the final scene, blanketed by (apparently) much cooler winds and blue skies.
Whether by intention or not, this film also provides some rather fascinating glimpses into early postwar Tokyo, ranging from extended scenes of an actual baseball game (Giants vs. Hawks!) within a packed stadium, to the humble yet bustling economy of recovering urban centers. You are also given much insight into the darker alleys and seedier elements wherein the city's criminal element slowly develops and takes shape. With a running time of 122 minutes, there is plenty of time to slip in a few scenes dedicated wholly to capturing life in 1949 Tokyo.
The young war veteran Murakami only recently joined the Tokyo Homicide Department, a career which is suddenly threatened after his gun (a Colt!) is pickpocketed on the way back from the shooting range. Murakami's loose gun and its seven bullets could spell disaster if they fall into the wrong hands. When word of a shooting and robbery suddenly turns up, and analysis shows the bullet matches that of Murakami's gun, he diligently sets out to track down not only the gun, but also now the shooter.
Murakami is paired with Sato (Shimura), a more seasoned detective, and together they set out to gather clues which bring them gradually closer to the shooter. It is not long until news of a murder reaches them, and again, the bullet has come from Murakami's gun. This fact weighs heavily upon Murakami who wrestles with his own inadvertent role in these crimes (as owner of the gun) and so a heightened sense of urgency possesses their investigation. Their trail leads them through poverty-stricken slums, shadow-filled alleys, cabaret theaters and ritzy hotels. As they close in on their target, Murakami grows increasingly distraught, sensing something terrible is about to happen and believing that had he only not lost his gun, these crimes would not have occurred. Sato, however, is adamant that the loss his gun has very little to do with it.
On the horizon, massive stormclouds are gathering.
I can think of four things which make this film well worth seeing. First, this is actually a very good detective crime thriller. The fact that it is set in early postwar Tokyo and thus confined to the sensibilities and crime-fighting methods of that era make this particularly fascinating. This does not portray (by now) stereotypical chase and interrogation scenes, but rather a wholly humanitarian side emerges wherein we recognize that crimes are sometimes committed by otherwise decent people. Sato in particular embodies this notion, and the film depicts his knack for treating even social outcasts with respect as the key to his success. The trail of clues gathered is not an easy one here, and each one is (literally) hard earned. Thus the audience, along with the detectives, slowly piece this mystery together, all while the killer is on the loose and committing more violent crime.
Second, this is a very insightful historical piece providing a window into the social structure of early postwar Tokyo. This happens through both intentional and unintentional elements throughout the film, which as a whole presents quite a thorough display of the era. From actual location shots to depictions of poverty, both the social progress and lack thereof only four short years following the war are front and center.
Third is the fact that this is an early Kurosawa film starring two of his favorite actors. This entire film -- its cinematography, its acting and its narrative -- all work remarkably well together and display virtually no shortcomings. As mentioned earlier, the combination of Mifune and Shimura also adds significantly to the maturity and appeal here. And if viewed in light of other early films involving these three (such as Drunken Angel), this film's uniqueness and thematic unity among Kurosawa's films is clearly enhanced.
And finally, the use of SWELTERING HEAT here is quite amazing. In other films, such as Tokyo Dragon or Rainy Dog, RAIN plays such a central role in the film's narrative that it becomes almost a character unto itself. Here, however, summer HEAT makes itself apparent in nearly every scene of the film. I found Kurosawa's use and creative depictions of this metaphor quite mesmerizing. Believe me when I say, you will inevitably begin sensing the salty taste of sweat as you watch this film.
Version reviewed: Region 1 DVD with optional English subtitles. Available at all mainstream venues.
|Another early Kurosawa classic, thoroughly enmeshed in an early postwar setting.||Some onscreen gun violence and implied murder.||No sex but a WHOLE LOTTA sweaty bikini-clad girls!||Excellent detective story which attempts to solve not only a crime but also an age-old moral question.|