Akira Kurosawa became world famous for introducing Japanese film to a worldwide audience, but his domestic achievements often go unnoticed.
Kurosawa was often called the most Western of the Japanese directors of his day (a title he frequently disagreed with).
Stray Dog might have been used as direct evidence of Kurosawa's Western influences, as it helped introduce Japan to themes already explored for many years in Western cinema.
The film created the police drama film in Japan as well as the suspense film. Stray Dog might also be considered a cousin to the American noir films of the 40s and 50s.
Although significantly less dark than traditional film noir, the film's detective story, mixed with classic voice-over narration from the main character, show that Kurosawa was definitely influenced by noir.
Noir would continue to influence several of Kurosawa's films in the future.
The film's script is also unique among Kurosawa films, as it was the only one that Kurosawa would first write as a novel and then adapt to a screenplay.
Kurosawa was very much influenced by the detective stories of Georges Simenon. He wrote the script to match the style of Simenon's novels.
Because of a third strike at Toho, Kurosawa sought out Shin Toho to produce the film.
Much of the film showcases real Japanese black market locations. The footage from these black markets would be provided by the second unit crew led by Kurosawa's longtime friend Ishiro Honda, a director who would go on to make the original Godzilla.
Prior to the film Kurosawa made immediately before Stray Dog, The Quiet Duel, in which Toshiro Mifune played a doctor, he had been type-cast as a gangster.
In Stray Dog, Kurosawa would place Mifune on the other side of the law.
Mifune plays Murakami, a rookie police detective who has his gun stolen on a scorching summer day.
Murakami, with the help of another officer, the veteran Detective Sato, played by Takashi Shimura, begin to track down the weapon.
While they search, the man who stole the gun begins to use the gun to commit crimes, even going to far as murder. This increases both Murakami's eagerness to get the gun back, and his guilt over losing it.
With the help of contacts in the black market, and a young dancer who is in a relationship with the thief, the two officers begin to zero in on their man.
As their search nears its end, Murakami finds he has more in common with the thief than he thought.
Stray Dog, more than any Kurosawa film before it, is very character driven. The film delves into the psyche of both criminal and cop, and because of this the characters seem to have much more depth than any characters in previous Kurosawa films.
Kurosawa also provides the audience with a far greater feeling of realism throughout the film.
The opening narration begins with the line, "It was an unbearably hot day." Even the phrasing of this line gives the audience the feeling that these events actually happened.
In a later scene at a baseball game, Kurosawa employed cameramen who actually worked on newsreel footage, so the shots of the game and the players looked very similar, and contributed to the feeling of actually being there.
One final example is later in the film at a crime scene. In this scene Kurosawa used a technique that would become somewhat of a staple in his later films, the long lens.
The long, or telephoto lens, is used when the camera is placed a considerable distance away from its subject. Kurosawa used this technique in order to free the actors from concentrating so much on the camera.
In this particular scene, the effect was used for that exact reason.
The locations in the film are important to that feeling of realism as well.
Many of the scenes were shot on location in Japan. Murakami travels from place to place, providing the audience with a wide variety of (mainly unflattering) pictures of post-war Japan.
Kurosawa here uses interesting camera techniques as well, to place the audience within the film.
When Murakami is visiting a more upper-class neighborhood, the camera is much further away. The frame captures a large area around the characters and a lot can be seen.
This is contrasted with the scenes in the black market. The shots are much tighter, even claustrophobic. This reflects the crowded atmosphere of the downtown area.
Kurosawa is also well known for his perfectionism. This contributes to his demands for realism. In one scene, Murakami and another officer are digging through criminal records. The art department for the film went through and wrote fake records on every single sheet, whether or not those cards would be shown.
The fact that it is an unbearably hot day in the film is incredibly important. Throughout the film we are presented with shots of people fanning themselves, sweating bullets and even an almost direct shot of the sun itself.
The heat only makes the search for Murakami's missing weapon worse. The hot situation is coupled with the hot day.
One aspect that seems to remain constant through Kurosawa's post-war modern films is that of change. From pre to post-war.
In Stray Dog, Murakami is at one point attempting to track down a notorious criminal named Ogin. Murakami provides a description of her for another officer. He says she had a perm and was wearing a dress. The other officer gives Murakami a puzzled look and tells him that Ogin is known for her kimono's, a more traditional pre-war garment.
The officer echoes lines from previous Kurosawa films when he says, "Times sure have changed."
Murakami and Sato also have a discussion at Sato's home in the country. Here they discuss the differences between pre and post-war culture. Sato says he believes criminals are bad, end of story. Murakami takes a more moderate position, feeling sympathy for Yusa, the man who is now in posession of Murakami's gun.
This leads into one of the most important aspects of the film. As the film progresses, Murakami comes to learn that he has shares some similarities with Yusa. They were both soldiers, they both had something stolen from them, and they both came to a crossroads in their lives.
Murakami chose one path, the path of a cop. Yusa chose another, the path of a criminal.
Even in the climactic struggle between Yusa and Murakami, their clothing becomes muddied, and like a scene in Drunken Angel, they become almost indistinguishable from each other.
Kurosawa is certainly making a point here. Times certainly have changed. There is no more black and white, but shades of gray. Yusa is one of the unfortunate ones who got dealt a bad hand, and Kurosawa makes sure the audience shares Murakami's empathy for him.
Murakami is an interesting character as well. As previously mentioned, Murakami is an ex-soldier. His sense of pride and honor often get the better of him throughout the film. This is why Sato enters to straighten him out and guide him.
Murakami is wracked with guilt throughout the film. At the beginning, he stands at military-like attention before his "commanding officer". After a flurry of "sirs" his supervisor tells him that he isn't in the army anymore.
Each time Yusa commits a crime, Murakami's first questions is whether or not his gun is to blame. It is, of course, and Murakami becomes more and more degected throughout the film.
But he is also resilient. During his search for the weapon in the black market, the camera follows him around for what seems like an eternity. A clever bit of editing by Kurosawa again, for the scene is almost as exhaustive as Murakami's search.
Finally, Kurosawa once again turned to the musical technique of counterpoint (having the normal musical matching of emotion reversed so sad music doesn't always play over a sad scene, etc...).
The first, when Sato has tracked down Yusa to a hotel, an upbeat song called "La Palma" is playing while Yusa confronts Sato. The scene is incredibly tense. The audience knows what to expect visually, as Yusa has been tipped off about Sato, but the music throws this expectation off.
The second counterpoint occurs when Murakami confronts Yusa in some woods near a house. In the house a woman is playing piano. Kurosawa shows us that even while a tense gun battle is going on outside, inside life goes on as peacefully as ever.
Finally, when Murakami brings Yusa down they lie exhausted in the grass. In the background, we see and hear children walking and singing. Yusa begins to wail. Perhaps Yusa is crying out over the loss of innocence that one has in their youth, perhaps not, but it is nonetheless a very powerful scene.