Happy New Year, from Nerdy Inc.!
To kick this brand spankin’ new year into gear (and to get us to fulfill our resolution to watch more movies), we’re going to be launching a new segment that explores individual filmmakers and artists in an effort to provide room for lengthy discussion. In these segments, we encourage you to watch along, join the discussion, and offer comments and analysis of your own. Whether you’re already an expert on this particular artist, or you’ve never touched any of their work, the goal here is to broaden our understanding of film and what it can do for us. Think of these videos as a primer into a larger world of film.
This month, we’re taking a look at Japanese director Akira Kurosawa. We’ve picked out a handful of influential works that have had a great impact on cinematic history, both in regards to the techniques involved and the people he inspired. We’ll be rolling out videos throughout the month, so make sure to subscribe and keep an eye on our website for the next segment. If you want to follow along, most of Kurosawa’s work is currently available on Hulu as part of the Criterion Collection.
There are a few spoilers below, so we recommend checking out the film first!
Foreign cinema gets a bum wrap in the United States. Some people are averse to subtitles, others maybe feel like they won’t relate to the material, or perhaps worst of all, they feel that foreign films are only meant for wine-sipping film connoisseurs. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Every film is made by another human being, after all, and leverages universal themes that we find in our own brand of cinema. Occasionally, you may need some extra context to help you understand why certain choices were made, but each of Kurosawa’s films are incredibly accessible. In fact, we wouldn’t have some of the most important American work without him.
Think of Kurosawa a Spielberg or Scorsese. Each of these directors simply know how to tell a story through film. Their shots are well composed, they create tension out of the image, and understand the importance of screenwriting as a solid foundation. Kurosawa’s career includes over thirty films in 57 years, and the variety of genres he works with is absolutely astounding. Even though he most known for his epics, including The Seven Samurai, Kurosawa really has something for everybody. Enjoy Pulp Fiction’s narrative style? You’ll love how he plays with story structure in Rashomon. Think The Lord of the Rings has some of the best battle sequences you’ve ever seen? Well, you’ve never seen Ran. Do you believe Sergio Leone defined the spaghetti western? Yojimbo and Sanjuro featured the bad-ass Man With No Name well before Clint Eastwood thundered onto our screens.
The point is that Kurosawa’s films were made by someone with a deep passion for film. Always experimenting, striking off in new directions, and skilled enough to swing from the deeply personal Ikiru to the sweeping epic of Kagemusho, Kurosawa’s brand of cinema is one that was made for us to enjoy. You can just as easily sip wine while you talk about the framing and impact of every shot as you can grab a beer, kick back, and enjoy the visual spectacle of a major battle or samurai duel.
But before we get to the grander epics of his works, we’re going to start small. Stray Dog is one of Kurosawa’s quieter films, made a year after his landmark Drunken Angel. Filmed in 1949, the movie explores a post-war Tokyo through the eyes of rookie Detective Murakami, who has his Colt pistol stolen from him. The film follows Murakami and his superior officer Detective Sato as they track down the perpetrator through the sweltering Tokyo city streets.
The heatwave is a very important backdrop to the movie, and we’ll see that the use of weather is one of Kurosawa’s trademarks. It’s a simple device, but works to back up the rest of the film. Initially, Murakami begins his search to save his own hide. His obsession comes from righting a wrong that embarrassed him. However, once the perpetrator begins killing people with his own gun, the tension mounts as the heat rises. It has to break at some point, and Murakami’s obsession with finding the gun and now the killer increases as the oppressive heat takes its toll.
The pinnacle of this fever dream is an extended nine minute sequence where Murakami is wandering around the Tokyo underbelly, looking for a fence who might have sold the gun. Kurosawa and assistant director Ishiro Honda blur and compress any sense of time and place, focusing on the detective’s shuffling feet and weary eyes as he wanders through the street. It’s an excessive scene that seems to take an unnecessary amount of time getting to the point, and yet it tells us so much about the time and place it was shot.
Tokyo was a struggling city in the latter half of the 1940s, unable to secure much federal funding to rebuild after the firebombing in 1945. For the residents of the city, recovery was a timeless blur that took forever to go nowhere. The aimless wandering of the protagonist amidst the sweltering heat induces a numbing sensation that hammers home the feeling of many living post-war Tokyo.
Of interesting note is the assistance of Honda, who filmed most of the Tokyo city underground. If that name sounds unfamiliar, you may know him by his other work that features a giant monster born from repeated nuclear testing. Stray Dog is certainly no Godzilla, but the exploration by these directors trying to make sense of their post-war world is a bond that drew them together for much of their careers.
The war didn’t just leave a scar on the city itself. The unquestioning morality of good and evil that once stood so resolute is now in jeopardy. As Murakami discovers more and more violence committed because of his stolen gun, he begins to question the nature of humanity with his superior. He starts to compare himself to the man committing the crimes, Yusa, who is also a war veteran. Where Murakami turns to law enforcement as a way to scrape by, Yusa turns to crime. The fragility of Murakami’s place in the world is front and center. As he delves deeper into the world of crime, he begins to shed his rookie status, becoming a hardened detective in the process.
As a result, he begins to see some of the traits of his adversary within himself. He can’t just see bad for the sake of bad, admitting that he himself could easily have turned into a criminal if he let himself. Murakami knows that during the war men were pushed, however slightly, into beasts. He begins to pity them, which is something his superior Sato tells him is a result of their new world, apres-guerre.
It’s a hard-boiled story to be sure, filled with all the classic noir stylizations you could hope for. But underneath there lies something deeper. Yusa isn’t just an adversary for Murakami. He’s a representation of everything Japan was seeking to stamp out. He’s a violent man, wielding a gun, which post-war Japanese citizens typically did not have access to. He’s a product of a violent era in his country’s history, a reminder of the immediate past. He hides in the underbelly of the city, and amongst the crowd at a baseball game, threatening to strike at any moment.
What makes this so effective is Murakami’s reflections about the war and himself within the context of the story. He fears he’s becoming the man he’s hunting, but their relationship speaks to a duality in Japanese culture during this turbulent time. Will they pick up the pieces and fight for good in the world? Or will they take advantage of the situation and exploit the era to their own advantage? As Murakami questions himself, he’s also questioning the future of Japan.
As much as Stray Dog is a reflection on post-war Japan, it also functions as an important chapter in film noir history. It was the first real crime procedural to come out of Japan, and also one of the first buddy-cop movies that would pave the way for the genre to come. Stray Dog is still one of the best examples of its kind thanks to the drama Kurosawa is able to create in every scene.
For example, the heatwave that builds for the entire movie finally breaks during one of the high points of the film. As Murakami struggles with one of Yusa’s former lovers as she toils over living a just life or succumbing to thievery, Sato has finally pinpointed Yusa’s location and makes a phone call to Murakami for backup. The skies finally open up, drenching the entire city. As the thunder clashes and the rain pounds down, a final act of violence is committed as a result of Murakami’s stolen gun.
It’s such classic film noir and is easily the highlight of the film. Kurosawa blends music, movement, and thematic elements together into a masterful sequence that builds tension, which finally breaks with the storm. You could lift the scene directly into any modern thriller and it would be just as effective.
Stray Dog is a relatively straightforward film compared to the rest of Akira Kurosawa’s career, but it is this straightforwardness that allows him to strike out in confidence with his following films. As we’ll see with Rashomon, he’ll begin experimenting with narrative styles and more complex plots as he moves on. Still, Stray Dog is a bastion of solid filmmaking that manages to stick with you long after viewing, despite its rather simple nature.
If you’re a fan of film noir, Japanese culture, or want to see where the buddy-cop stories got their start, don’t miss out on Stray Dog. Cinema is meant to be enjoyed on a purely visceral level, but I hope the context provided from this discussion will make it all the more enjoyable. So go crack a beer, pour a glass of wine, and dim the lights. Next week we’ll have a look at Rashomon and the discover the real truth that hides behind the camera.
Steve is resolved to watch more movies this year. Tweet encouragement at him.