Here’s something to keep you going after the festive season has run its course and 2015 has lumbered onto your exhausted post-yuletide horizons: January’s Classic film at SouthBank is Stray Dog (1949).
This film comes from the early work of probably the most well-known of all Japanese directors: Akira Kurosawa came to international attention in 1950 with Rashomon, a period costume (or ‘jidaigeki’) film. Having been disowned by its studio head, Rashomon struck the international stage like a thunderbolt, winning a Golden Lion and the Film Critics Award at Venice, followed by an Oscar for best foreign film in 1952 and going on to win 6 international awards in total. Rashomon began decades of international fame for both Kurosawa and its star,Toshiro Mifune who starred in Seven Samurai (1954), Throne of Blood (1957, adapted Macbeth), The Hidden Fortress (1958) and Yojimbo (1961).Their association became as famous as that of John Wayne and Kurosawa’s idol, John Ford (whose westerns may also be loosely described as ‘historical’ films).
Although his films were often set in feudal Japan, Kurosawa was criticised at home for being non-Japanese in his themes and his adaption of foreign genres and authors was viewed with suspicion. One way to appreciate this is to consider that Seven Samurai became The Magnificent Seven in 1960; Yojimbo became A Fist Full of Dollars in 1962; and Hidden Fortress became Star Wars in 1977.
Stray Dog provides an illustration of Kurosawa’s pro-western tastes even beforeRashomon, for it is pure film noir. It was his second collaboration with Mifune and could as well have been set in contemporary New York as post-war, modern-day Japan suffering under sweltering heatwave. Re-made in Japan as Nora Inu, (1973) and in the USA as Too Much Sleep (1993), Stray Dog is a captivating, American-esque noir, that cleverly uses what at first seems a weak premise for a thriller.
Having had his pocket picked on a bus, the young Detective Murakami (Mifune) feels ashamed of losing his gun and embarks on an odyssey that eventually raises questions of morality and honour. He is taken under the wing of the older and wiser Detective Sato (Takeshi Shimura), who tries to mentor his young colleague. But Murakami feels increasingly responsible for crimes committed by Yusa, a young criminal whose background is similar to his own.
There is sheer cinematic bravado in Kurosawa’s shifting of locations through a series of chases, encounters and interrogations that leave the audience, like the sweating hero, quite exhausted – until everything eventually erupts in a tropical downpour that you can all but smell.
As the elder mentor, Sato’s character could have become a simple mouthpiece for the director, but Shimura’s performance conveys pathos and his observations go beyond simple explanations for society’s ills. It is Mifune, however, who shines here and it is easy to see why he became as much an international icon as Kurosawa. The character of Murakami is developed from an anxious rookie cop into a portrait of frantic and desperate, even existential remorse.
A simple detective-story is thus crafted into a suspenseful and compelling revelation of contrition in which a young man learns about crime, criminals and the need to ensure that good can be wrung from the worst situations – even those resulting from a simple oversight.
The final scenes can be disturbing for anyone wearing a white suit!