Friday, September 17, 2004

Stray Dog Directed by Akira Kurosawa

In 1995, Michael Mann directed a film called Heat. A really good film in its own right, it also boasted something that has not happened before or since, something of a milestone to a fan of great acting: Robert De Niro and Al Pacino together in the same scene. The scene is a profile two shot of the actors discussing their conflict over coffee. While watching Kurosawa's 1949 film, Stray Dog, I got the same feeling seeing Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura in a medium two shot as I did watching De Niro and Pacino. In a word - awe. I hate to sound like I'm genuflecting at a well-worn altar, but these actors, all four of them, have it. They remind me of the reason I started watching movies in the first place. Which was...I be entertained. I would like to think that as I have grown older I have also become more mature, both in my attitude and in my taste. Due to this, hopefully, entertaining me has become a more difficult endeavor for the film industry. So, why does Stray Dog entertain?

I like Kurosawa. Like being the operative. I thought Ikiru was top notch. Seven Samurai was pretty sweet. Hidden Fortress was a lot of fun. None, except Ikiru, really knocked my socks off though. I actually found Rashomon to be a bit dull and Dreams to be absolutely horrid. None of these films really entertained me the same way that Stray Dog entertained me.

Importantly, it isn't one of Kurosawa's period pieces. While being visually impressive and thematically pregnant, Kurosawa's period films, like almost all period films, leave me a bit cold. Call it laziness on my part; call it a lack of understanding, but they just do not do it for me. That being said, Kurosawa's are the best I have seen. So please do not throw your stones just yet. Stray Dog is a good old 1940's crime story, replete with all kinds of Americanisms - baseball, Broadway gals, and a score of hard-ass cops. Toshiro Mifune is the young rookie who loses his gun; a gun that shows up in a series of robberies. Bad news for the guilt-ridden greenhorn. Enter Takashi Shimura, the sage-like veteran who has seen it all. He builds the rookie's confidence and acts as a mentor. Together they search for the gun and, more importantly, the criminal behind the gun.

Sounds like something directed by Wilder. But, even though he was considered the most American of Japanese filmmakers, Kurosawa still had a ton of Japanese blood flowing through his veins. Amidst the search for the gun, Kurosawa sketches a portrait of Japanese post-war life. Using a wide-angle lens that he would eventually drop in favor of a telephoto, Kurosawa shows the decrepit environ that the lower-class Japanese lived in. Shacks substituting for houses, a run-down market where it is nearly impossible to buy anything, people bartering for food ration cards - all this is examined under Kurosawa's unflinching gaze. Amazingly, he doesn't reprimand or condemn. Even though there are some truly despicable things done in the film, they are shown as products of the time, not decisions of the people. Yeah, yeah - it could be seen as self-righteous blame displacement, but I do not think that was Kurosawa's point. I think his point was that there is hope and solidarity amidst the Japanese people, even in dire straits. Mifune's character never gives up - he is stubborn as a mule. Rather than fire the rookie for losing his gun, the Homicide chief softly reprimands him and gives him some advice. Instead of going without food, the people do whatever they can to survive.

So what was my point? Oh yeah - entertainment. I think my tastes have matured. But, I'm still a bit of a kid at heart. With Stray Dog, Kurosawa allowed me to have my cake and eat it too. It provides the mental stimulation filled with deep thoughts and stuff, and also the action of a classic crime story. Gosh, I love film.


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