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Police Procedural. Kurosawa style
on 6 January 2006
Stray Dog gets off to a surprisingly slack start, not helped by some utterly redundant narration that repeats what we have heard in the previous scene and will see in the next. Because it’s Kurosawa, some might ascribe some higher purpose to it, but since he immediately abandons it, it seems more a lack of confidence than design. At other times he seems to be overly in love with his footage: there’s not a duff shot in the wildly overlong poverty montage of Toshiro Mifune going undercover as a vagrant, but it’s hard to justify the seven minutes given over to the scene.
Yet the film gradually exerts a grip as it becomes increasingly clear that Kurosawa’s intent is not just to deliver a thriller but also a movie dealing with the effect of crime on its victims and the dehumanising effect on both those who commit it and those charged with retribution, as rookie cop Mifune takes his first steps down the road that will inevitably lead to the death of sympathy and empathy. For all his western influences (not least a music score that constantly threatens to turn into Warren and Dubin’s 'Remember My Forgotten Man' from 'Golddiggers of 1933' without ever quite going that far), Kurosawa avoids a hardboiled approach: Mifune’s experienced partner Takashi Shimura is no hardass, although his easygoing amiability disguises a lack of compassion in what has become a repetitive job without urgency: while Mifune takes every crime committed with his stolen gun on his own shoulders, Shimura brushes aside his concerns by pointing out that if the killer hadn’t used his gun “he would have used a Browning instead.”
There’s a good sense of time and place, a post-war Tokyo when it was still a wooden city in the midst of a sweltering heatwave leading to a storm, and there’s a good occasional sense of detail, such as the great piece of detection at the end as Mifune eliminates the other suspects waiting at a train station. However, it does rely on a little too much contrivance at times: is it really credible that Mifune would forget not just to inform his colleagues of the killer’s location but set off without a gun? This isn’t Kurosawa at the peak of his powers by any means, but there’s definitely the sense of a filmmaker working his way up.
On the plus side, the BFI's DVD boasts a good transfer but compared to the wealth of extras on the R1 Criterion disc, a few pages of text biographies and a single poster image make for a poor extras package indeed.