J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Kurosawa Centennial: Stray Dog

Despite rumors to the contrary, no animals were hurt during the filming of Akira Kurosawa’s first film noir. Yet like the controversial image of the rabid dog that opens the film, such overheated rhetoric was strangely appropriate for Stray Dog, the great filmmaker’s hardboiled tale of madness and obsession unfolding in the sweltering summer heat of post-war Tokyo. While Kurosawa is universally acclaimed for his historical epics, he also produced a number of masterful crime dramas, which makes Stray a somewhat unexpected but fitting kick-off to Film Forum’s New Year’s present to film lovers, a twenty-eight film retrospective celebrating Akira Kurosawa’s centennial (1910-2010).

It is blindingly hot and hazy in Tokyo. The black market is buzzing and the police feel like they are fighting a losing battle. Weakened by heat and fatigue, a rookie homicide detective has his colt revolver pick-pocketed on a crowded bus. To Murakami’s unrelenting shame, his own weapon will figure prominently in a frenzied crime spree, despite his dogged efforts to apprehend the rabid dog in question.

Stray features many of the familiar elements of American film noir, including flashbacks, voiceover narration, and stylized black-and-white cinematography. However, it also addresses very Japanese themes of honor and disgrace as well as incorporating distinct elements of post-war life in Japan. Ration cards are still very much a fact of life and play an important role in Kurosawa’s story. For authenticity several notable scenes were also filmed by Kurosawa’s assistant Ishiro Honda (who would later direct a little film called Godzilla) in genuine black markets, at some measure of personal risk.

As Murakami pursues his piece, a gritty morality play unfolds. Truly, nobody is harder on the rookie than himself. His inspector sagely warns him a man is either made or broken by bad his luck. The crafty veteran detective Sato logically argues if the crimes had not been committed by his Colt, they would have been done with a Browning. Unfortunately, it is hard to reason with Murakami thanks to the oppressive heat and his acute sense of responsibility.

Kurosawa had long and fruitful working relationship with lead actors Toshirō Mifune and Takashi Shimura that produced some remarkable work, most definitely including Stray. It is hard to think of actor who could ever match Mifune’s brooding intensity and he brought it in spades as Murakami. Likewise, Shimura flawlessly conveys Sato’s deceptively laidback persona, perfectly counterbalancing the anguished Murakami.

Richer and deeper than a mere crime noir, Stray is arguably in the top tier of Kurosawa’s films (which is high praise indeed, given the caliber of his filmography). As one of Kurosawa’s most visually dynamic films, it is great to have it playing on the big screen in a new 35m print. It starts a special nine day run this Wednesday (1/6), as Film Forum launches their can’t-miss celebration of one hundred years of Kurosawa. Look for more coverage of the Kurosawa centennial throughout the month. Happy New Year.

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