Stray Dog review by The Grim Ringler

I have said it in another review for an Akira Kurosawa film but it bears repeating in the short history of film few directors have made films with as much passion and depth as Kurosawa and none have managed to reach the scope of his films. Kurosawa, a legend who died several years ago, was best known for his grand Shakespearean adaptations, which he mixed with ancient Japanese feudalism, layering one world atop another to create a vibrant surreality. But those were not the only films Kurosawa made. Far from it. And with Stray Dog we get a taste of how masterful he could be with a very simple yet engaging story of regret and guilt.

In Stray Dog we find a young police officer in Japans police force commuting in a crowded bus in a middle of a sweltering summer. As he is stepping off the bus he realizes someone on the bus has stolen his pistol and he gives chase after the thief but is unable to catch up to them. Shamed, he returns to his precinct to tender his resignation, fearing the worst now that his gun is in a probable criminals hands. His chief refuses to accept the resignation though and instead sets the young officer (brilliantly played by Toshiro Mifune) the task of finding his gun before it can be used for any crimes. The young officer takes to the streets then, dressing shabbily and walking the poor sections of the city in the hopes of getting some information. As the days stretch on and the heat climbs higher we see the toll all of this is having on the young officer as each step he takes he seems to feel more and more desperate. Things take a dark turn when there is a robbery that was done with a pistol and it appears it may be the officers. Losing the last of his hope, the officer is assigned to assist an older policeman that knows the streets better and has avenues of query to explore that the young man had no access to. And as the two begin their investigation they begin getting closer and closer to the truth of who has the gun, and why they have it. As they get closer though it also becomes apparent that in order to serve the law sometimes one must lie down with those that break it and you must sometimes help criminals in order that the greater good be served. In their search they find a young woman who is the lover of the man that has stolen the gun, and who is the very reason it was stolen so he might buy her the beautiful things she deserves. And as the man is found out a trap is set to capture him, but the trap fails and he escapes, having wounded one of the officers and now free again, a thief, a murderer, and now having shot a policeman, even deadlier than he was before. But the game is not up, and redemption is still in reach for the young officer who had lost his gun, if only he can reach the killer before he can escape again.

Unlike some of his later films, Kurosawa makes a very quiet, very slow noir drama that is more about the characters than it is about the plot. And without the brilliant physical acting that Mifune does the film would never hold together as strongly as it does. In ever scene you see Mifunes pained conscience as he deals with the outcome of his mistake. And in the film no characters are all evil or all good, they are just people. You see this best with the thief himself, who had begun it all with the theft of the gun because he wanted to make his lover happy and wanted to give her something nice. Everything is gray in this world and as the young policeman learns this he sees how the world truly works.

Shot in black and white, the film is a gorgeous testament to the brilliant way Kurosawa saw and used his landscapes to mimic his characters and what they are going through. There is one long sequence in the film where the young officer is wandering through the slums of the city looking for clues and each step in that sweltering heat you can see he is getting slower, heavier, and more desperate. And when the rain does come that night and he is still out walking the streets it isnt relief we feel but frustration as its yet another obstacle he has to get past. The film goes through some fairly long moments of tension that only builds because of the lack of dialogue, and when the finale does come there is still a sense that everyone has been scarred by the evils committed with the gun.

A friend bought me Stray Dog from one of the inexpensive Asian dealers (HK Flix or DDDhouse) but the DVD was all region, had chapter selection and sported a very good print of the film. As far as I know this is the only way to track down the movie on DVD but it seems as if itd be one of the movies Criterion would pick up for release eventually. But however you see it, you should see it. It is a long, slow movie, but the trip is worth it. Brilliant acting, wonderful direction, and a story so simple and tragic that it makes you believe every moment is true.

9 out of 10 Jackasses
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