A stray dog becomes a mad dog. A mad dog sees only straight paths, and can’t shoot very well either. This we learn from Stray Dog, a 1949 Kurosawa film starring Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura. The two actors would later become world famous as samurai, but in this film, they navigate a decrepit, post-war Tokyo during a heat wave, patiently going through the steps of a police procedural. Shimura has a full head of hair and constantly wipes sweat from his face with rag: in The Seven Samurai, he’s bald, and does his signature gesture of absent mindedly scratching his chest.
The film is usually classed as a film noir in style, but it seems more like a straight procedural. Of course, the entire opening credit sequence treats us to the image of a panting dog – that tips us off that things are not the norm. Mifune plays Murakami, a complete greenhorn homicide detective who’s gun is stolen from his pocket on a crowded bus. He’s mortified, and offers to resign, but the seasoned detectives tell him to cut the crap, “This isn’t the army!” and they assign Sato (Shimura) to help him on the case and show him the ropes. Sato is a zhlubby family man who dispenses philosophical wisdom and police tips with world-weary authority.
The action takes us through the seamy precincts of the city, a city without air conditioning – everyone sweats buckets. As Murakami’s gun is implicated in one crime after another, he is consumed with anxiety, foreboding, and guilt over his stupid carelessness. Sato tells him, if it wasn’t your Colt, it would be another Browning.
Murkami tails a showgirl who knows something and visits her home. He won’t leave until she talks. She blames the world for the crimes of Yusa, her boyfriend, it’s so unfair. Some people have everything while they have to scrounge for scraps. Yusa had his knapsack stolen on the way home from the army – that’s what set him off into crime: who would do such a lousy thing! Murakami tells her that he too had his knapsack stolen the same way: two paths, a crossroads. One became a stray dog and chose crime, one the straight and narrow. That fate thing again.
From here the film takes off into another realm, of brilliant poetry, that only someone like Kurosawa can create. A cleansing rain breaks the heatwave as the climax comes -Sato is shot trying to capture Yusa. Murakami and the girl hear it happen over the phone.
Sato will live, and Murakami catches up with Yusa. Murakami has no gun, he left it with Sato, but Yusa has his! The chase leaves the town, and continues into the woods as they blunder and crash through lush, flowering meadows and undergrowth. Beautiful flowers everywhere!
Murakami catches up with the mad dog who is shaking with fear in this standoff which could be, or will be, right out of Sergio Leone.
Murakami’s shot with his own gun, but Yusa is so scared, he just wings him.
It all happens on the lot of a suburban residence where a woman is playing the piano. What was that noise? Who are those men? Nothing going on – she goes back to her piano.
We get an almost hyper-real set of images of Murakami’s suffering as the standoff continues
The blood drips slowly from his hand onto the pretty flowers at his feet. Time is standing still…
Yusa is out of bullets: a little more running through the flowers, and he’s caught and handcuffed. The hunter and the mad dog lie in the foliage, out of breath, while children walk by in the background, singing. The juxtaposition is marvelous, and we know from earlier scenes that Murakami has developed a sympathy, almost sentimental, for his prey.
Yusa, looks at the sky, the flowers, and like a captured dog, begins to howl horribly. It’s all over for him, he’s finished. Why did it have to happen this way?
The film is elevated beyond procedural, beyond noir, into the realm of tragic humanism. Sato tells his young protegé that he’ll stop sympathizing with the poor creeps who turn to crime after he’s arrested a few more of them.