I foung this to be an absolutely fascinating film on several levels.
First, although we primarily associate Kurosawa with period films, this was one of his relatively few contemporary films. Along with the utterly phenomenal IKIRU (1952) and HIGH AND LOW (1963), it is one of his three most successful nonhistorical films. Nonetheless, for us in the early part of the 21st century, it possesses a great deal of almost documentary interest for glimpses into life in post-war Japan. Released in 1949, it depicts a Japan that had not yet begun the strong enonomic recovery of the 1950s. I found the numerous images of individuals struggling on the margins of economic survivability to be riveting. This was seen not merely in the "stray dog" who possessed the gun of the main character, but in many minor characters, not all of whom we actually see. One of the truly sad moments was when Takashi Shimura (familiar as the head samurai of SEVEN SAMURAI, the dying man in IKIRU, and the woodcutter of RASHOMON) explains to Toshiro Mifune how a thief's stealing the cash a woman had saved for her dowry probably meant that she would not have enough money saved again until she was an old maid, implying that the thief had stolen not merely her cash, but her chance of happiness in life as well.
Second, seeing Toshiro Mifune playing a despondent, anxious, inexperienced, overly deferential detective was a completely new experience. It is a range of emotions that I had not previously seen him put on display in anyother role. I must add that I think most contemporary American viewers will find, perhaps, his character to be a little too groveling and impetuously stupid. My daughter watched this movie with me (though 14, she is a huge Kurosawa fan as well), and she felt very, very uncomfortable at the way he deferentially hung his head in shame before his superiors. (I should add that despite this, she loved the film as a whole as well.)
The film was full of fascinating shots of private spaces that as a Westerner I found to be one of the most interesting things in the movie. When American films started being made in the 1950s that were at least partially set in Japan, the shots in people's homes often made them look as if they were display pieces, not like actual places where people would live. But the homes in STRAY DOG all looked lived in, like real abodes.
But while all these things are good and fine, the movie in the end has to stand up as a piece of cinema, and it does so admirably. Although on one level not a great deal happens in the movie, Kurosawa manages to imbue the conflicts and struggles in the film with Shakespearean importance. He manages to bring home the point that people's lives and their own concerns are of infinite concern to them. And scene after scene that might have come off as trivial and unimportant instead are crucial and memorable, like the long scene in which Mifune sits in the apartment of a dancing girl and her mother, attempting to gain information about her quasi-boyfriend who is suspected of having and using Mifune's pistol. The camerawork in the film is flawless, and many of the scenes stay with you long after you have seen the film. I agree with the reviewer who emphasized the overwhelming sense of heat that the film communicates (the action all takes place in the middle of a heat wave).
One scene in particular bears pointing out. In the climatic fight with the villain, we witness one of the least glamorized and romanticized fights in the history of the cinema. Neither man places tremendous fighting skills before the viewer. Neither looks particularly competent. When the fight is over, both men lay heaving and sweaty and dirty on the ground in the middile of a field. It is an utterly remarkable moment. Finally, after a few minutes, the thief begins to sob, less, one suspects, over having been caught, but over what his life has become.
In short, a marvelous film. And very, very different than most of the films by which we know Kurosawa. I strongly recommend it.