Film Review: Stray Dog (1949)

Stray Dog is one of the earlier film noir styled films from Akira Kurosawa. It’s an interesting example of the genre, and it also makes for an interesting snapshot of post-war Japan. The premise has Toshiro Mifune playing a rookie homicide op whose weapon is stolen by a pickpocket while on the bus. The detective ends up being partnered with a veteran detective as they make their way through Tokyo’s underworld to find the gun.

The film stumbles a little in the opening, going pretty quick in the first 15 minutes before slowing down to something of a crawl until the film’s mid-point. From this point, the story steps into high gear.

That said, Stray Dog is more of a procedural type of Noir as opposed to a suspense thriller. While there are some shades of grey in the story, the antagonist is not present until the very end. It’s not that the character isn’t doing anything – it’s that they aren’t on camera until very late in the film. We see glimpses of some of the people in his life – and a glimpse of how he lives through his shack, but all those views are ultimately through the lens of the views of the police.

This also leads to one of the dramatic differences between this type of film and most of the other noir films I’ve seen – in Stray Dog, the police are both human and competent. The key to getting the gun back is good, solid police work. The police aren’t omnipotent or omniscient – indeed, the investigation takes time, which leads to the antagonist killing someone with the gun – but they aren’t incompetent. Compared to Italian Giallo films (their answer to noir), or the French Noir films I’ve seen, the police are generally characterized as being unable to tell their ass from a hole in the ground. Similarly, in American noir, the police are competent, but often also corrupt.

I’m not sure if the reason for this choice in the story was sincere, or a decision made because of concerns about American censors, but it gives the film a feel that is very different from most other Noir.

While apparently, Kurosawa wrote off this film, it’s a movie that makes for a tremendous snapshot of Tokyo in a period of time, and it’s also really interesting seeing a movie from early enough in Mifune’s career where he could convincingly play a wet-behind-the-ears rookie.

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