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The Criterion Collection presents
Stray Dog (1949)

"Bad luck either makes a man, or destroys him."
- Detective Sato (Takashi Shimura)

Review By: Jon Danziger  
Published: May 20, 2004

Stars: Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura
Director: Akira Kurosawa

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 02h:02m:28s
Release Date: May 25, 2004
UPC: 037429187920
Genre: foreign

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

Even if Akira Kurosawa never went on to make another film, Stray Dog would earn him a slot in the pantheon of great noir directors; but given that this was the last film he made before he seemingly appeared like a supernova on the international film scene (his next three pictures, in succession, were Rashomon, Ikiru, and Seven Samurai), Stray Dog occasionally gets eclipsed. It shouldn't, however, as it is a taut, well-told tale, more than interesting enough in and of itself, and fascinating as a chance to see some of the nascent themes, techniques, and tendencies that would soon become so characteristic of Kurosawa's singular style. It's not only a great movie; it's a good movie, an old-fashioned popcorn-and-air-conditioning good time of a motion picture.

It is, first and last, a cop story, and the principal cop in question is Detective Murakami, played by the great leading man of Kurosawa's early period, Toshiro Mifune. This is not the brazenly self-assured Mifune that is so characteristic of Kurosawa pictures from Rashomon to Throne of Blood to Red Beard, but a conflicted, troubled man, for Murakami has a serious problem: his department-issued Colt revolver has been stolen. In Allied-occupied Tokyo, with strict gun-control laws, this amounts to nothing more than complete professional disgrace for Murakami; the film tells the story of his attempts to get back his gun. (Additionally, ammunition is just as scarce as are weapons; Murakami's Colt was loaded, a full round of seven bullets, and thus the parameters are established, the time frame in which the detective must get back his gun before all seven bullets are fired.) In his efforts, Murakami is aided by a veteran detective, Sato, played by Takashi Shimura, another Kurosawa regular; Sato and Murakami star in what on some mundane level could be looked at as a buddy-cop picture.

There is, of course, a whole lot more to this movie than that. Murakami's search for the gun involves an almost Dantean descent into the seamy underworld of Tokyo nightlife, of black markets, the yakuza, the world of rice rationing, even a Tokyo Giants game, and Kurosawa's filmmaking frequently has an almost documentary feel. In this respect, this movie is sort of a Japanese analogue to the glory years of Italian neorealism, in that both not only tell their stories with an almost ruthless efficiency, but also provide a vérité-style consideration of the urban realities in the great capital cities of the countries defeated in World War II. The slight detours, to Sato's home, for instance, or backstage with the chorus girl in whom the thief who has the gun confides, don't throw us out of the story, but rather enrich the portrait that the director draws of postwar Japan; we get to see more of the daily business of living in this film than in any typical Hollywood noir. And in terms of technique, Stray Dog is equally compelling. Kurosawa uses more dolly shots and more attention-grabbing montage and editing techniques than in the films characteristic of his mature style; it's overly reductive to call this movie merely a piece of juvenilia, for it's fascinating to see the director find his voice as he goes.

And as in so many Kurosawa pictures, the weather is a palpable presence—for most of the picture, the Tokyo of Stray Dog is unbearably hot, so much so that Mifune routinely sweats right through his suit. The third-act rains provide a meteorological catharsis of sorts, relieving the heat as the narrative ramps up, building and then releasing its tensions. Kurosawa alludes to but doesn't overplay the psychological similarities between Murakami and the unseen man he pursues, though there is a suggestion that the offscreen character is Murakami's doppelganger, the manifestation of all that the detective has suppressed; it's a point not hit too hard, though, and in fact the Hitchcock film this resembles more frequently than Vertigo is Strangers on a Train, particularly in the baseball sequence.

Ultimately, though, Kurosawa's film is more rewarding than any ordinary chase picture; you sense that Murakami's very soul is at stake in this quest, and Mifune, on the rack for much of the movie, is in many ways more human and vulnerable in this movie than in any other. This is riveting stuff, a cop story loaded with the existential quandaries that pulse through so many of Kurosawa's other movies. And if you've not seen any of the director's other work, this is a great place to start.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Criterion's restoration team has done a tremendous amount to make the film look as good as possible, but imperfections in the source print are evident, as are the ill effects of bacterial decay on the black-and-white image. It looks about as good as it's likely ever to, but, as with other Kurosawa films of the period, it has inherent limits to the DVD image quality.

Image Transfer Grade: B


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: Kurosawa makes great use of ambient sound and atmospherics, and especially of music; the mono track puts a ceiling on just what he could do, but what's here sounds fine, largely free of any sort of hiss or crackle.

Audio Transfer Grade: A-


Disc Extras

Animated menu with music
Scene Access with 18 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Documentaries
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Stephen Prince
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL

Extra Extras:
  1. accompanying booklet, with essays by Kurosawa and Terrence Rafferty
  2. color bars
Extras Review: Kurosawa scholar Stephen Prince provides another informative and thorough commentary track, touching on details of the film's production, historical background about Japan immediately after World War II, and varying aspects of Kurosawa's filmmaking technique, and its evolution over the years. He's especially good on the Tokyo black market, and isn't afraid to invoke what might seem like overly highbrow literary influences n Kurosawa, ranging from Dostoyevsky to Thorsten Veblen. My only question about the track would be not to Prince, who is excellent at this, but to Criterion—this is at least the fourth of these (after Red Beard, Rashomon and Ikiru) that he has done. Are he and Donald Richie the only ones in the English-speaking world suited to doing these? They're both admirable scholars, but they don't have the Kurosawa market cornered.

Anyway, you'll also find an installment (32m:40s) of It Is Wonderful to Create, the Japanese-produced series on the making of Kurosawa's films, this one of course devoted to Stray Dog. Kurosawa wrote the story as a novel first—he wanted to emulate Georges Simenon—and then adapted the screenplay from that; and the documentarians interview several cast members and key personnel on the production team, including the art director and editor. There are many terrific stills from the set, along with great anecdotes: for instance, in one shot, Kurosawa had a couple of actresses playing Tokyo streetwalkers, and were shooting them in silhouette. The cinematographer demanded that the women remove their undergarments, so as to avoid any unsightly lines; though the actresses complained at first, they were fine with the shots once they saw them.

Also included is a rapturous essay by Terrence Rafferty on the film, which he calls "Kurosawa's first masterpiece," and an excerpt from the director's memoir, Something Like an Autobiography, on the making of the picture.

Extras Grade: B-


Final Comments

Kurosawa's status as one of the all-time great filmmakers needs no further ratification, but Stray Dog may be the most suspenseful and crowd-pleasing of his movies. It's a tension-filled cop story resonating with philosophical implications, and is a candid look at street life in postwar Tokyo. It's a pleasure to recommend this admirable effort from Criterion, as the entire Kurosawa canon gradually comes to DVD.


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