Posted by David Kalat on August 4, 2012
A boilingly hot summer day, a crush of commuters, a moment of carelessness. With these universal ingredients, Akira Kurosawa set up a film that would mix the grim obsessions of film noir with a documentarian’s observation of postwar Japanese life. Talk about universal–Stray Dog is a mashup of pulp pop and reportage, of true crime and intimate drama, of buddy cop movies and art house cinema, of East and West. There isn’t much a movie can do that Stray Dog doesn’t put on its agenda.
That being said, the international critical acclaim that greeted this film requires some dissection, because there’s something really weird going on here. Stray Dog was never a barn-burning commercial splash, and it wasn’t even distributed in the US until 1963 (almost 15 years after it was made) but it was an award-winning and highly regarded art house release that contributed substantially to Akira Kurosawa’s growing renown, and there’s something screwy about that.
Despite the panting dog whose presence in the opening titles was meant to signal overwhelming sumer heat, there is no literal dog in this hunt. The “stray dog” of the title is a policeman’s gun, stolen from him during a crowded bus ride. The rookie cop, played by Toshiro Mifune, goes into an existentialist apoplectic fit and commits a significant degree of the force’s resources to tracking down and recovering the missing weapon.
The result has been cited as a prototype of the buddy cop movie genre, with the sage old veteran Takashi Shimura taking the greenhorn Mifune under his wing in the hunt for the gun. The relationship between the two men will be familiar to anyone who spends any time watching crime thrillers–it anticipates the setup we saw here a few weeks ago when we talked about Morgan Freeman and Bad Pitt in Se7en.
The premise also allows the movie to descend into the gritty realm of the underworld to depict the lives of the have-nots who might have an incentive to traffic in stolen guns. But whereas Se7en depicts a fantasy nightmare of a city whose corrupt elements have been cooked up to suit a high-concept gimmick, Stray Dog honestly and unflinchingly depicts actual postwar conditions.
And in fact it is this uniquely Japanese perspective which makes Stray Dog so peculiar.
A thriller about a cop who loses his gun? You couldn’t remake this plot here because it wouldn’t make a lick of sense.
I’m not saying that if an American beat cop lost his gun, there wouldn’t be administrative consequences, but it would never inspire this level of anxiety. Our society is so awash in guns already, letting one more into the mix would not change anything. (Whereas the plot mechanics of Stray Dog depend on the idea that the availability of one new gun is such a novelty, that it’s movements can actually be tracked.)
In other words, the premise and narrative structure of Stray Dog are predicated on specific characteristics of Japanese society, and it’s larger thematic preoccupations are an exploration of postwar Japanese malcontent. This movie is fundamentally Japanese in every respect and has to be understood and appreciated on that level to make much sense–
And that, right there, ladies and gentlemen is what’s so odd about it.
Let’s take a step back and make some notes about the Japanese film industry overall. For one thing, it was a late bloomer. Japan was conspicuously late in developing a sophisticated film culture and professional film industry, lagging years if not decades behind other countries.
Meanwhile the largest film market in the world, the US, developed an insular film culture and industry that effectively locked out most foreign competition. The fact that Japan and the US had been antagonists in the biggest war ever fought in human history didn’t help matters much, either.
In 1956, Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai became the first Japanese film ever shown in the US at all. And then that same year Godzilla became the second.
Now let’s take stock of their respective audiences. Seven Samurai earned accolades as an art house phenom from an up and coming cinema auteur. And by the standards by which art house imports were judged in those days, it was a huge hit. By “huge hit” we’re talking a box office take of around $200 grand. That’s what “huge hit” meant for a subtitled import that only played a handful of cities. Godzilla made a couple of million, which was a whole different kettle of fish.
So scoff if you will at Godzilla as a popcorn-oriented B-movie (I don’t think any of my readers would scoff, but go ahead if you feel so inclined), it marked out a bright-line distinction between mainstream commercial success in the US and the very best success an art house pic could aspire to.
And during the 1960s, a wave of Godzilla movies came out of Japan to find mainstream commercial success in American movie theaters. I’m not going to dwell long on the discrepancy between how these films were received in the US versus Japan, because I’ve written a whole book on the topic, but suffice it to say these were movies that were originally created as a specifically Japanese take on a certain genre, steeped in a Japanese worldview and Japanese cultural signifiers, but which were marketed to and enjoyed by an American audience oblivious to those cultural differences. Absolute ignorance of Japan is no barrier to enjoying Godzilla.
I’m coming back to Kurosawa, Mifune, and Stray Dog, but bear with me a moment while I jump forward to the late 1990s and early 2000s for the next major breakthrough of Japanese movie culture into the US: J-Horror. The J-Horror cycle we looked at here a month ago is comparable to the Godzilla cycle of the 60s and 70s. I won’t dwell on this either–I wrote a whole book on this topic, too, y’know–but this was another instance of movies drawing from the Japanese experience and specific Japanese motifs to create pop culture which was then ravenously consumed by an audience largely oblivious to the original signifiers.
It’s not like American audiences have ever been well trained to understand Japanese culture. The American media seems to delight in the portrayal of Japan as The Weirdest Place on Earth. When Japan is discussed in the news, it is usually in conjunction with some human interest story about, say, Japanese scientists who use dehydrated food to make special inks with which to print pornographic manga, so that the act of reading it is equivalent to a three course meal. Or vending machines in Tokyo subway stations that dispense robots who will cut your hair to match your favorite cartoon character.
The American media’s determination to portray the entire country as a bizarre theme park attraction is matched by the Japanese belief that they are in fact an inscrutable culture. Hundreds of years of isolation left an enduring cultural mindset of singularity and idiosyncrasy, that has never really abated. In researching both of my two afore-mentioned books, I had various conversations with Japanese filmmakers who consistently and predictably put forward the theory that Japaneseness could never be comprehended by any non-Japanese. I adamantly disagree, but that’s an argument for another day. The point I wish to make here is merely that any cultural product about Japaneseness has a hurdle to get over if it’s going to connect to a wider audience, if the prevailing prejudice is that Japaneseness is equal to obtuseness.
And this is what we find in the success of Godzilla and J-Horror. They provide two goalposts marking out our territory–precedents for how to make movies in Japan, about Japan, and for Japan that slip loose of those Japanese roots and conquer American theaters–namely, to deliever a form of entertainment that can be enjoyed on its own level even if the cultural signifiers are misunderstood or ignored. Now let’s return to Stray Dog and see what it’s up to.
Described on paper, this movie sounds very alien: rookie cop loses gun to a pickpocket and is terrified that it will be used in the commission of a crime that he could have prevented had he kept control of his weapon. So he heads out into the criminal underworld to find it, but is stymied by his absolute and profound lack of understanding of how the criminal world works. His clumsy and naive efforts largely serve to make things worse, but through his experience he comes to learn what life is like for the desperate and the destitute, and how to better a police that population.
We’ve noted above that the gun-friendly culture of America already renders the central premise of this story kind of odd, but more importantly, American cop movies have never presented such a gulf between cops and robbers. If anything, our movies (and especially the film noirs to which Stray Dog is most commonly compared) see cops and robbers as being fundamentally similar, separated by only the thinnest and most fragile of distinctions.
In other words, this movie is ostensibly working within a certain set of genre conventions–Kurosawa openly cited American film noir and French pulp fiction as his reference points for this film–but defying the expectations of those conventions in order to cleave closer to a uniquely Japanese experience. And yet, in practice, Stray Dog isn’t alienating at all. While watching it, nothing about its premise or assumptions feels unfamiliar. Far from it, the movie operates as if it is a universal statement on the human condition. And this is due entirely to Mifune.
He looks so young here, so babyish. The macho confidence that swaggers through Seven Samurai or Yojimbo is nowhere to be seen. Instead we have a guy who is an authority figure in name only, working his way through a steep learning curve to earn that authority by the closing reel. This is no slouch on Takashi Shimura–he’s always fun to watch–but Mifune is the glue that holds all this together.
According to the story Kurosawa told in his autobiography, he was magentized by Mifune’s unprecedented ability to convey emotions with subtle, efficient expressions–that Mifune was some kind of thespian concentrate, who could accomplish with little gestures what other actors could barely hope to get across with their entire arsenal of tricks.
One of the ways by which to judge a great actor is their range, but this is an attribute more easily measured over the span of a career rather than a single film. Over the course of his collaboration with Kurosawa, Mifune’s astonishing range became evident–and this blogathon celebrates that diversity of performance from this brilliant actor. But every once in a while you get a single role whose demands are so singular as to highlight a given actor’s skill in one performance. Stray Dog is such a film. Mifune’s twitchy discomfort in early scenes, his helpless bluster in the face of a criminal class he simply doesn’t fathom, and his eventual heroic resolve show one man’s journey through the dark night of the soul to maturity. This is a movie about Japanese economic privation, which comes across as an exemplar of buddy cop thriller conventions, and endures as a universal statement on humility and tolerance. That’s a lot to pack into 2 hours, and a lot to put on one actor’s shoulders.
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