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Stray Dog (1963)
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by Brian McKay

"Vintage Kurosawa Film Noir puts the sword to most contemporary cop movies"
4 stars

Before films like RASHOMON and THE SEVEN SAMURAI made them famous world-wide, legendary cinematic duo Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune paired up for the post-war film noir police thriller STRAY DOG (NORA INU). And despite a few touches of excess here and there, they delivered a film that blows away most of the films of its genre from the period, as well as the vast majority of police procedural thrillers made these days.

Despite being made in 1949 and relatively early in their careers (it was Kurosawa's 11th film, Mifune's 7th, and only their third collaboration together), STRAY DOG has the kind of filmmaking savvy behind it that many directors never achieve. And fans of the legendary Toshiro Mifune will be pleasantly startled by how young the then 29 year old actor looks in the role of rookie homicide detective Murakami.

Set only a few years after the close of World War 2, Stray Dog begins with Detective Murakami leaving target practice on a sweltering hot day, only to have his pistol lifted from him by a pickpocket on a crowded bus. Mortified and ashamed, he reports the theft to his lieutenant, expecting to be fired for his carelessness (he even tries to pre-empt the termination by offering up a resignation letter, which the Lieutenant promptly tears up). Instead, he is paired with veteran larceny detective Sato (Takashi Shimura) to try and recover the weapon. Their investigation leads them through the seedy back alleys of Tokyo and through a series of arms dealers, until they discover that the weapon has fallen into the hands of Yusa (Isao Kimura), an embittered and desperate war veteran. The investigation intensifies when Yusa uses Murakami's pistol in a series of armed robberies and assaults that culminate in a senseless murder. Their only lead to finding Yusa is Harumi (Keiko Awaji), a showgirl Yusa has been in love with for years, and who is protecting him because of the spoils she has reaped from his crime spree.

Mifune carries himself with his trademark intensity and flinty stare as the angry and desperate Murakami, but Takashi Shimura nearly steals the show from him as the easy-going and seasoned veteran. The story is engrossing, and it's fascinating to see glimpses of both Japanese post-war society and their approach towards police investigation and forensics. The pacing, while usually crisp, occasionally gets bogged down by extended montages of a baseball game stakeout, and one nearly interminable sequence of an undercover Murakami wandering the back alleys in search of arms dealers. (The one sequence that I would have liked to have seen go on longer, featuring scantily- clad Japanese showgirls fanning their sweaty bodies in a nightclub loft, was lamentably cut short). These hiccups in pacing aside, and the occasional breach of logic for the sake of plot contrivance (would a seasoned detective really just happen to forget his gun at home in the middle of a high-profile case involving an armed suspect?), STRAY DOG is an engaging thriller with consummate performances and fully benefits from Kurosawa's directorial skills.

It may not quite surpass the excellence of later films like SEVEN SAMURAI, YOJIMBO, or THE HIDDEN FORTRESS. However STRAY DOG is a film that belongs in any cinephile's collection alongside of those films.

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originally posted: 12/25/04 06:25:54
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User Comments

12/30/10 Josie Cotton is a goddess A classic, but there's something slighly disturbing about ti 5 stars
3/24/10 brian Brooding stormy skies, Toshiro atoning for his sins, the Japanese postwar syndrome, nice. 4 stars
10/10/09 Joan Meister Saw this film last night on VHS tape. Blew me away. There's so much in it to ponder. 5 stars
6/08/05 Agent Sands Japanese can make the same kinds of movies we do, but much better. 4 stars
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