Criterion: Stray Dog (***1/2) wanders beautifully

Stray Dog – 1949

Director Akira Kurosawa
Screenplay Akira Kurosawa, Ryūzō Kikushima
Starring Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Keiko Awaji, Eiko Miyishi, Noriko Honma, Isao Kimura

It’s clear by the time he makes Stray Dog that Akira Kurosawa has moved a few more steps towards his mastery of directing. Taking inspiration from The Naked City and other early noir, the director creates one of the earliest buddy cop movies, replete with many tropes that follow even in movies of modern day.

Rookie cop (Mifune) has his gun stolen on an overcrowded Trolley during an unbearable drought. He’s put on the case with a more experienced cop (Shimura) to track the gun down before it is used in future crimes.

There’s not much to the story, but Kurosawa takes his time in getting there. Not that the film is a bad one; it could just use about 25-30 minutes shaved off its 2 hour running time.

There are many experimental shots throughout the fim. Some of these are gorgeous. It’s clear that Akira is more comfortable taking risks with his lens. He lingers on scenes, letting the actors expand their character through physical improvisation.

Some desperate hour…

The key to experimentation is having a good editor. The first act involves police footwork that goes on for at least 15 minutes. This could have been shaved to perhaps two scenes, no more than a minute each. It really bogs things down to the point where one expects to see the guys from MST3K pop up and discuss Tor Johnson.

Skill and technique are clearly the things Kurosawa is interested in exploring throughout much of Stray Dog. The story would hold more interest if one didn’t have to wander along so.

Mifune is still somewhat raw here, with not near the manner he would effortlessly express within half of a decade. The film is very much another acting tour de force for Shimura. In fact, watching this film gives strong feelings of David Fincher’s 7even, in regard to the mood and the tenor of its two stars. Pitt’s certainly got the charm of young Mifune and Freeman is very much the lived in feel of Shimura.

It’s the invention of the buddy cop trope that gets Stray Dog it’s spot as a Criterion release. Many cliches we’ve loved through the years no doubt took from this and made a lot of crappy (and some incredibly good) films from the formula.

(***1/2 out of *****)

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