Japan has bullying: 2017 was a banner year for it. It has domestic violence: Just months ago, several outlets cited it as a major issue that is becoming more widely reported. Contrary to what some very ignorant American lawmakers may think, its videogame production and consumption is a major segment of its economy, and one of its most high-profile cultural exports. If you think its movie violence is any tamer than that of U.S. films, there are Ryuhei Kitamura and Takashi Miike joints that I think you should see.
The land of the rising sun’s 127 million people are indeed just as prone as other humans to anger, depression and mental illness. What they are not prone to in any meaningful way is dying by firearm. The nation rarely sees gun deaths in the double digits in a given year—total, not per capita. Fewer people die from a bullet in the entire country than in one Dayton or Sandy Hook. More people are attacked by sharks in the United States in a given year.
Stray Dog, one of the films Akira Kurosawa wrote and directed during the American occupation of Japan, is about a lot of things: the vicissitudes of fate, the distrust and enmity sown by one bad deed, the overwhelming sprawl of urban life and how its anonymity gives cover to desperate crimes committed by desperate people. But it’s also about a gun: Japanese police did not carry them until 1946, when American authorities ordered them to. It’s that fact that looms unspoken over this seething film noir that came out just a year after The Naked City.
Murakami (Toshiro Mifune) is a young detective who, like his fellow city-dwellers, is withering under a heat wave that isn’t leaving a single brow dry. In the scrum of public transit, he realizes that his Colt has gone missing, the presumed thief fleeing before he can catch him or even make an ID. Murakami is in such deep shit that he’s certain he’ll be fired before his career has properly begun, but he’s reassured by the cool veteran detective Sato (Takashi Shimura, the character actor who would work alongside Mifune and Kurosawa in classic after classic).
The early stretches of the movie dive into full-on procedural mode, as the rookie cop learns the ins and outs of the illegal gun trade from the weathered old gumshoe. They reconstruct the scene, consult the department’s rogues’ gallery, and embark on a tour of the underworld as they labor in the wake of the stolen gun. Through it all, Kurosawa never lets you forget that it is sweltering outside, and it’s debilitating the people caught in it. Murakami pours sweat. Few indoor scenes haven’t got a fan somewhere in the background (or in one churlish manager’s own two hands, aimed straight up at his glowering face as he rebuffs Murakami’s questions).
At first it looks like the movie will be one young man’s look at how the other half lives, as he persistently tails one female pickpocket who’s upgraded from kimonos to a dress, and wanders around the crowded urban sprawl in plainclothes for an extended sequence, hoping that he can look desperate and mean enough to be approached by somebody trying to sell him an illegal weapon. It’s a work with all the hallmarks of a gritty film noir produced in the West: The tortured detective back from the war, the buddy cop dynamic, the scene where the kindly old pro invites the driven youngster into his humble home for drinks and straight talk about what’s really important in life for a cop.
But the back half becomes a tense thriller as Murakami discovers that the gun has made it into the hands of a buyer, and he’s wreaking havoc with the handful of bullets that came with it.
Murakami: They say there’s no such thing as bad men. Only bad situations.
Kurosawa’s films have always been concerned with a certain rough morality, something rooted in the noir tales that we know inspired some of Kurosawa’s most well-known work. In talking about the wandering ronin at the center of Yojimbo (another Mifune protagonist), the director said that the special quality the nameless swordsman had was that he stood squarely in the middle of two evils and stopped the fight. It’s why his adaptations of Shakespeare, Throne of Blood and Ran, seem so in line with his usual oeuvre that it’s eerie how well they map onto samurai historical pieces. In both, he’s concerned with the misdeeds of his noble tragic heroes, ready to find fate’s twisted justice in their falls.
Stray Dog is a gritty, sweaty procedural, but it’s also an interrogation of morality. Murakami’s dogged investigation reveals that Yusa, the mope who eventually lays hands on the weapon, is another victim of the same post-war desperation as everyone else. He’s fled his home, a meager shack. His best girl, Harumi, won’t even own up to their relationship, and it’s unclear if they really have one or if she’s just stringing him along. Murakami finds that it all stemmed from Yusa’s belongings being stolen on his way back from the war—his own countrymen preying upon him in the days following the defeat that would redefine their whole culture.
But even as Murakami reasons that Yusa’s circumstances are dire, he points out his own bags got nicked when he was on the train ride back from the war, and he didn’t break bad. As Yusa’s actions become more and more desperate and his body count rises, Murakami is the only one of his stone-faced colleagues who lets himself feel any guilt about how his own momentary lapse has caused so much suffering.
Murakami gets his man in the end, out of sheer superhuman stubbornness and sharp observation in a critical moment. Far from a cold-hearted killer, Yusa collapses into a wretched, sobbing wreck. The difference between the two of them is that he broke long ago, and Murakami never did. When Sato assures Murakami that he’ll one day forget Yusa amid the scores of other stray dogs he’ll collar in his time, I don’t think we’re supposed to believe it.
The masterful shot composition, the seething emotion, the intricate staging, the easy chemistry between Mifune and Shimura on what was only their second picture working together, are all reasons that Stray Dog marked Kurosawa as one of Japanese cinema’s most important voices in the post-war era.
It’s also a pointed reminder that U.S. gun laws are plainly and inarguably fucked up, and anybody could’ve told us that 70 years ago.
Kenneth Lowe is part of that post-war generation. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.