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Stray Dog – Akira Kurosawa – 1949

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All Films Noir were imbued with an Existential Angst that had been intensified by World War II and the inability for the U.S. to live up to all of the optimism that crushing the Axis powers had generated at home. However the style had an earlier origin in Pre War Germany with the Expressionism of artists like Lang, Murnau, and Karl Freund, and in the U.S. the economic Depression of the 30s had developed into the brooding and nihilistic Pre-Code Crime films like ‘Baby Face’ and ‘I Escaped from a Chain Gang’. So the style has Pre and Post War elements; the War amplified a trend that was building on it’s own, a result of modernization in general, which the War, and it’s terrifying conclusion, seemed to signify perfectly.

Of course this angst was felt even more strongly in Japan where the War left them in ruins economically, physically, and psychologically. ‘Stray Dog’ is Kurosawa’s exploration of that Post War angst, and his attempt to exact some kind of morality from a world in turmoil. It’s built from top to bottom out of Noir elements and themes, but with a moral complexity and social awareness that is extremely sophisticated even for Noir. Part Dostoevsky (‘Notes’ and ‘Crime and Punishment’), part American Film Noir (style, constant reference to Post War Allied influence), the film is a bulky chimera with a lengthy running time, many characters and scenes, and a multitude of social issues discussed and visualized.

The most important question raised by the film is whether or not criminality originates in the individual or the society at large: the ol’ Nature vs. Nurture. Kurosawa absolutely REFUSES to simplify the issue here, and each time you think he’s reached some sort of solid ground he wobbles the table and you’re hung. Sato is the main proponent of Nature, and he’s portrayed as the only center of moral certainty in the film. When we meet Sato (played by Shimura), as in all Kurosawa’s films, he becomes an anchor that we can attach to. His children symbolize the real logic behind his, ultimately narrow minded simplification. Their protection is his main concern; it’s not that it isn’t obvious that Yusa was driven mad by circumstance, it’s that to dwell on the cause is “not good police work”. I think this is why so many critics view the ending as one that shows cops/criminals to be one and the same. Their business lies in the Other. The Black Market relies on want caused by the failure of the Law to provide; conversely the Law chases down criminals rather than attacking the social roots of crime. In both cases this is an unconscious psychology, and each group feels like its working independently of the other.

Even though Kurosawa sees more shades of gray than Sato, I wouldn’t say he fully comes down on the side of Nurture either. The key is in understanding what Kurosawa’s concept of a hero is. In all of his film’s he has protagonists beset by a corrupt world and forced with an Existential choice. One of the most interesting formal properties of ‘Stray Dog’ is the fact that this happens earlier in the character’s life. At the start of the film he’s made his choice; the film is about the ramifications of adhering to the values that your moment of Existential crisis provokes in you. Murakami wants to protect the city, but he can’t accept Sato’s simple view of the world because he saw the War turn so many good men bad. He’s seen the powerful effect that a violent, desperate environment can have on men who’s Nature is peaceful, and he sees a kindred spirit in Yusa. They’re both Vets who had their bag stolen upon their return home, but they CHOOSE two different paths. This doppleganger device is at the root of Kurosawa’s Moralism; one has a choice between Good and Evil even in the most awful circumstances, and Yusa represents a threat to future generations (symbolized by Sato’s children and the children that march by as soon as Yusa’s apprehended) that can be understood but never condoned.

Two halves of the same coin

Visually you can tell that Kurosawa is still learning here, and while it is undoubtedly a gorgeous film, it lacks the polish of a movie like ‘Rashomon’. This is probably part of the reason that Kurosawa later disowned the film, saying that “other people liked it” but he did not. One thing his rather ramshackle visual style does accomplish though is an intensely authentic vibe. It feels like a lived in city with a network of connections between these characters and their surroundings, and there’s a wild urgency in the chases that would be ordinary suspense with a more refined sensibility. The scenes of the dancing girls, the endless footwork, and the prevalent use of objects in the foreground would all become anachronisms for Kurosawa in the coming decade. This all combines to create an amazing Urban Naturalism that feels more like a documentary then most of the American procedural Docu-Noirs that were coming out around this time.

Overall the movie is especially fascinating because it’s novel to see Japan’s perspective on this material in this style. Movies like ‘Gojira’ (1954, Ishiro Honda, who worked second unit on ‘Stray Dog’) are almost unbearable because this country had a fucking nuclear bomb dropped on them by my people, but in ‘Stray Dog’ Kurosawa shows something far more disturbing than the aftermath of a nuclear blast. The moral wasteland that the psychology of defeat had provoked, the ‘social climate of violence and sexual malaise’ (to quote Cronenberg) is far more terrifying than the white light/white heat of the End. The End promises some rest, but ‘Stray Dog’ shows that the End is merely the beginning.

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