August 26, 2010

The Gun is Lost, But Noir is Found

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From the opening moments of Akira Kurosawa’s post-war film noir thriller Stray Dog, originally released in 1949, the unrelenting heat of Tokyo’s crowded streets seeps into the audience. The sweat drips off millions of faces that may as well be anonymous — the film’s anxiety oozes off the screen onto the viewer, slowly forcing us to cling obsessively to a hope that seems impossible. The film follows rookie cop Murakami (Toshiro Mifune) after he has his pistol stolen on a bus. Dignity gone, Murakami hits the skids in hopes of finding a seam to the underworld and his gun. As is often the case, not all is what it seems, and the story spirals deep into trouble our hero has never seen. Guiding Murakami through the process is veteran cop Sato (Takashi Shimura). Kurosawa is the godfather of Asian cinema, having helmed such classics as Rashomon (1950) and Seven Samurai (1954). He strikes again here.His films can be defined by their simultaneous celebration and rejection of classical Hollywood cinema: Clear, bold narratives are certainly a major part of Kurosawa’s work, and he draws upon Western influences from John Ford to Shakespeare. There is, however, a wandering, dreamlike quality to his work, especially when capturing traditional or social elements of his native Japan. Such is the case with Stray Dog. As we follow Murakami in his seemingly hopeless search for his gun, it’s hard to ignore the film noir influences — streaky cutting shadows, criminal underworlds and femme fatales abound — but Stray Dog also includes endless sequences of Tokyo’s side-by-side prosperity and destitution. In a too-long scene (almost nine minutes) where Murakami poses as a vagrant and searches the slums for clues, the sheer mass of faces is astounding. Each has a story and soul, in theory, but here they are reduced to little more than stray cogs left behind a monstrous machine.Yet while such spatial crowding could quickly become overbearing, Kurosawa contrasts the sweaty, panting mayhem with a Tokyo that feels empty. Long streets stretch into deserts and are left lonely and unguarded because of the oppressive heat, present throughout the film by a variety of oscillating fans, mopped brows and matted hair. The heat wilts everything onscreen, particularly the characters. As a result, things seem to start slowly. While the first half of the film is mainly concerned with Murakami’s gun (which seems trivial at first — no one’s really worried about it except for him), the action slowly crescendos as a storm begins to move in, and both audience and characters are left waiting for the rain clouds to burst.Yet even when they do, it’s not the sort of dramatic, romantic bloodbath that we’ve grown to know in American film noir. What’s really fascinating about Stray Dog is Kurosawa’s Far East interpretation of this dark, brooding style born out of American disenchantment. His film, too, is concerned with the fallout of World War II, except we’re looking at what was the enemy this time instead of a home-grown G.I. Joe. Stray Dog is much more intensely personal than Touch of Evil or Out of the Past. At some points, the criminal narrative is put aside in favor of developing the relationship between the two cops, and the film is better for it. The polite, cautious progression of action captures the spirit of Tokyo, for better or worse.  Stray Dog is certainly not Kurosawa’s best work, but it is a film that showcases a master’s style. Balancing a gripping narrative and gorgeous scenes in which temporality seems to be suspended (just wait for the desperate struggle through the reeds), it’s a movie that allows a new look at film noir. Outside interpretations of proven methods are often the best way to improve on what works, and Kurosawa dropped some serious knowledge with a haunting film that never makes me want to sweat again.

Original Author: Graham Corrigan