Quick — name an Akira Kurosawa film. Chances are one of the great director’s samurai epics will pop into your head, but Kurosawa was no one-trick pony. His kidnapping caper “High and Low” remains one of my all time favorites, and the crime drama “Stray Dog (Nora Inu),” screening at the Pacific Film Archive at 8:30 p.m. on Saturday, July 13 as part of the series “Dark Nights: Simenon and the Cinema” is, despite considerably less in the way of polish, almost as good.
Intended as homage to author Georges Simenon’s detective character Inspector Maigret, “Stray Dog” began life as — believe it or not — a Kurosawa-penned novel. The novel never saw the light of day, but Kurosawa eventually turned it into a screenplay with the help of collaborator Ryûzô Kikushima. While the onscreen result didn’t satisfy the director, who considered it an abject failure, film critics and cineastes tend to disagree with his assessment.
Set during a stifling Tokyo summer punctuated with sudden, torrential downpours (a Kurosawa signature: see also “Seven Samurai”), “Stray Dog” stars an impossibly youthful Toshiro Mifune as Murakami, a wet-behind-the-ears police detective with an embarrassing problem: A pickpocket has lifted his Colt revolver. Prepared to be fired for losing his gun on a city bus, Murakami throws himself on the mercy of Inspector Nakajima (“Monster Zero”’s Gen Shimizu).
Rather than firing his young officer, Nakajima instead sends him to the Larceny Division to review mug shots of the city’s finest cutpurses. The discovery of a photograph bearing a resemblance to the female perp sends Murakami, disguised as an itinerant ex-soldier, on an epic journey through the seediest quarters of post-war Tokyo in search of the dame who stole his gat.
Ably supported by veteran detective Sato (doleful Kurosawa regular Takashi Shimura), Murakami tracks down the villainess, gangster’s moll cum chorus-line girl Harumi (16-year-old Keiko Awaji, still working in film as recently as 2011). Unfortunately, she’s since passed the gun along to a trigger-happy lowlife named Tachibana, who’s already fired it in the course of at least one strong-arm robbery. Can Murakami and Sato locate him before he uses the gun to deadlier effect?
Part police procedural, part noir, and part neo-realist drama, “Stray Dog” reflects the increasing influence of all things American on post-war Japanese culture and society. From the iconic Colt to Harumi’s sleazy jazz dancing, the good ol’ U.S. of A — despite the fact that there isn’t a single occidental character to be seen — is never far away. There’s even an extended and enthralling baseball sequence featuring two of Japan’s most prominent teams (the Yomiuri Giants and the Nankai Hawks) in which the umpire announces “play ball” in English!
Footnote: A curious musical moment arises in “Stray Dog” when an out-of-character zither motif reminiscent of “Harry Lime Theme” from “The Third Man” puts in a brief appearance. It must be coincidence, as both films were in production concurrently and “The Third Man” didn’t play in Japan until 1952, but it’s really rather startling.
Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. Read more Big Screen Berkeley reviews here.
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