Kurosawa Diary, Part 5: Stray Dog

Getting back to the diary after a long break. I watched Stray Dog Sunday night, continuing my project of watching all of Akira Kurosawa’s films (at least those available) in chronological order. I had seen Stray Dog once before, long ago, on VHS. The Criterion DVD was a big improvement.

As I’ve noted before, in his early days Kurosawa was incapable of making two good films simultaneously–or at least two that appear to be good from a distance of 60 years and the Pacific Ocean. Fortunately, Stray Dog is one of the good, odd-numbered films, although it’s not at the same level as No Regrets of Our Youth or Drunken Angel.

This 1949 police procedural follows a young, rookie detective (Toshiro Mifune) who loses his gun to a pickpocket. Tortured by guilt, he becomes obsessed with finding the stolen Colt, which is getting used in a series of violent crimes. Takashi Shimura plays his mentor in his sensitive fatherly mode.

Stray Dog works best as a straight-up thriller. It’s at its weakest when it tries to say something meaningful about the relationship between the police and the criminals they chase. Kurosawa draws some parallels between the young cop and his query, but they’re forced. And when the mentor tells his young charge that he should stop worrying about these parallels and simply hate the criminals, it doesn’t ring true. After all, the first time we Shimura, he’s questioning a jailed suspect in a way that feels more like a pleasant social call than the third degree.

Speaking of questioning techniques, in another scene Shimura’s character tells a very scared suspect not to worry that he’s be beaten as he (presumably) was in the army. “We don’t do that.” I suspect that line was inserted to appease the American occupation censors. They liked reminders that the new government was more humane than the wartime one.

I hope to watch it again today with the commentary track. If there’s anything worth repeating, I’ll let you know.