Stray Dog

An early film from Akira Kurosawa that anticipates his 1963 masterpiece High and Low.



Akira Kurosawa has long been one of those rare directors who receive universal acclaim from critics and audiences alike. Yet paradoxically, especially when compared with the filmographies of Alfred Hitchcock or Stanley Kubrick, Kurosawa remains an undiscovered artist.


The Seven Samurai, Yojimboi, Rashomon, Sanjuro, Ran—period films every one, and titles that even the most casual film lover could reel off instantly. But there is another Kurosawa still unknown to Western viewers who equate "Kurosawa" with "samurai”: the urban dramatist. Though Kurosawa's cinematic style was influenced by American Westerns and silent Russian films, the morality of his works was rooted in literature, particularly the humane existentialism of his favorite novelist, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, a philosophy Kurosawa explored in his lesser-known yet masterful dramas set in contemporary Japan.


Stray Dog, now out on Criterion, is a welcome opportunity to see those cinematic and literary influences first coalescing in Kurosawa's art. Released in 1949, Stray Dog was certainly not his first film, but it was only the second pairing of Kurosawa regulars Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura.


Stray Dog opens abruptly with the revelation that Mifune, a rookie cop and former soldier recently returned, has had his pistol stolen by a pickpocket. Ashamed, Mifune relentlessly hunts down the culprits, further complicating matters with his impetuousness. As the gun's eventual recipient, another former soldier who resorted to theft as a means of coping with Japan's post-war poverty, begins using it to commit crimes, Kurosawa teams Mifune and elder cop Shimura in a mentor relationship that forces Mifune to question the role of free will in the battle between good and evil.


Heady stuff for a noir film, though Stray Dog's treatment of its themes is often too explicit (revealing its origins as a Kurosawa-penned novel), even down to the title, a metaphor for the criminal who transforms from a Stray Dog to a rabid dog. But Stray Dog has its pleasures, notably Kurosawa's already distinctive composition (i.e. his triangular arrangements of three characters on screen) and his youthful experimentation with camera movement and placement. Kurosawa's depiction of the Tokyo black market also foreshadows his rendering of the drug world in 1963's High and Low, a kidnapping thriller that puts films like Ransom and Man on Fire to shame.


Stray Dog's often slack pacing will likely turn off all but the most ardent Kurosawa completists, but for those who have yet to become so, films like Ikiru and High and Low will prompt a quick conversion.


--Joshua Avram

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