Decade Reviews – Stray Dog (1949) – Reviewed 6/24/04 & 11/4/14

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A decade ago, I was a teenager in high school. I had my first job at my local movie theater and used my newfound disposable income to get a Netflix subscription.

Over the summer of 2004, 17/18 year old Matt wrote 21 movie reviews and posted them on IMDb. Recently, I dug up these reviews and decided to revisit each movie and evaluate how my tastes have changed over the last decade.

So for each of these posts, I will write a present-day review and then copy/paste the original review after. Then I’ll compare the two and give a summary at the end. You can find all the reviews herefollow me on Twitter here and check out The Obsessive Viewer Podcast here. Now, lets talk about Stray Dog.

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My 2014 Review

Akira Kurosawa‘s Stray Dog is a crime noir thriller about a rookie homicide detective trying to track down his gun after someone pickpockets it from him during a heat wave. Seasoned detective Sato (Takashi Shimura), a man who exudes calm and cool in his investigative techniques, guides Murakami (Toshirô Mifune) in his search. As Sato mentors the young detective, the pressure on Murakami mounts.

straydogkurosawaFilmed during the post-WWII allied occupation of Japan, Stray Dog captures a unique glimpse into life in that period. Murakami follows leads into the underground black market and back alleys of Japan’s streets, where desperate people trade their ration cards for guns. As Murakami (a war vet) learns more about the suspect he chases, he realizes they are victims of the same circumstance at opposite ends of the spectrum.

A signature of Kurosawa’s filmmaking is his use of weather as an aid to the storytelling. In Stray Dog, he deftly depicts the misery of people at the mercy of summer heat. Nearly every scene shows characters fanning themselves, sitting in front of a weakly turning desk fan, wiping their faces with a handkerchief or simply hitting the oscillate button on a fan. The heat and discomfort permeates the screen in such a way that I have to imagine it’s an allegory for life in postwar Japan. Or perhaps it’s simply a tactic used to build tension in the story.

stray dog mifuneMifune fits into the role of naive and inexperienced Murakami well. The character’s anxiety builds throughout the movie to the point where his shame and reactionary behavior impedes the investigation. That’s where Sato comes in. Murakami sees traces of himself in the suspect they’re hunting while Sato sees the potential in Murakami as a detective. The mentor/mentee relationship is a big part of why the movie worked so well for me and leads to some very poignant moments late in the movie.

Stray Dog leaves us with a somewhat bleak view of crime in postwar Japan and perhaps a somewhat hopeful comment on the future of Japan and the Japanese people. Kurosawa wasn’t very fond of the movie. Even still, I found it to be riveting and exceptionally well crafted. From the performances and the implied social commentary to the intensity of the hunt for the thief, Stray Dog doesn’t disappoint and offered a peek into Japanese history that, frankly, was never really on my radar until now.

8.5/10

Buy it Full Price – Worthy of purchase regardless of price. But you’ll want to see it first, just to make sure you want it in your collection.

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My 2004 Review

Akira Kurosawa…That is all that needs to be said.

24 June 2004

*-Catch it on TV **-Worth a Rental ***-Buy it Used/On Sale ****-Buy it New/Top Dollar *****-Worthy of a Blind Buy

Until early May of 2004 I was, for lack of a better label, an Akira Kurosawa virgin. I had never had the privilege of watching one of his masterpieces and every time I had the opportunity something got in the way. In May I found myself with a hundred dollars (a small fortune to a high school student with no job) and staring at Kurosawa’s Four Samurai Classics dvd collection at Best Buy. The box set included the Criterion editions of Seven Samurai, The Hidden Fortress, Yojimbo, and Sanjuro priced at $82.99. I saw this as a bargain since Criterion edition dvds usually run around $40 a pop, so I bought it without hesitation. After viewing all four films over a weekend I craved more Kurosawa and spent what money I had left on Rashomon, thus beginning my foray into Kurosawa’s art.

I have been extremely satisfied with the five Kurosawa films I have seen and was pleased to receive Stray Dog in the mail today from Netflix. I began watching it within about 20 minutes of getting it and from the beginning I was hooked. The film stars Toshiro Mifune as rookie detective Murakami in 1940’s Tokyo. Murakami’s pistol has been stolen from him while riding a crowded bus on a hot day. Disgraced at himself for having lost such an important item he sets out to find the culprit and enlists the help of veteran detective Sato (played by Takashi Shimura). Together the two detectives hunt down the man responsible. However, things get worse and their investigation intensifies as they learn that the weapon is used in an armed robbery. Sato becomes a mentor to Murakami and takes him under his wing as they get closer and closer to their perpetrator.

Toshiro Mifune’s performance is magnificent. He is not the over confident Kikuchiyo from Seven Samurai, or the calm and cool ronin from both Yojimbo and Sanjuro; instead he is a rookie detective in 1940’s Tokyo. Mifune portrays a Murakami filled with tension and self-loathing. As his gun is used in more acts of violence, Murakami sinks deeper and deeper emotionally by placing the blame entirely on himself. Takashi Shimura is equally impressive as the veteran Sato. These two actors play very well off of each other. Their chemistry alone is enough to make you want to see the film, luckily it is not the only reason. Akira Kurosawa tells the story with amazing pacing that seems slow but never boring. The use of forshadowing [sic] had little to do with subtilty [sic] and added to the tension of the film as the detectives closed in on their suspect until the tense climax, which I will not spoil for you.

All in all Stray Dog was two hours of intelligent storytelling combined by [sic] skillful acting. I would be tempted to give it a ***** rating solely because it is Kurosawa, however he gave me enough reasons to do so in the film itself.

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Summing Up: Then and Now

As I type this, I’m about to read my 2004 review for the first time in a decade. I’m prolonging reading it because the title alone makes me cringe. “Akira Kurosawa…That is all that needs to be said.” No, Matt. That’s the opposite of what film critics do!

*Reads review*

Okay, that wasn’t quite as bad as I thought it would be. Though, “I would be tempted to give it a ***** rating solely because it is Kurosawa” is one of the more embarrassing things I’ve ever written.

My feelings toward the movie didn’t change as my tastes (hopefully) evolved. So either I wasn’t quite as full of shit as I thought I was in 2004 or I’m just as full of shit now, as a 28 year old. Either way, at least the pretentious film snob Matt Hurt of a decade ago picked a quality filmmaker to worship blindly.

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2 responses to “Decade Reviews – Stray Dog (1949) – Reviewed 6/24/04 & 11/4/14

  1. You are correct when you say your ’04 version wasn’t that bad. You fall into some similar traps, like the phrase “all in all” and overlong backstory about your DVD collection, but your character analysis is pretty good for being written by an 18-year-old.

    I loved the analysis of the heat as symbolic of the lingering tension after the war in your ’14 review. It’s the type of critical thinking 18-year-olds simply don’t do, and this particular Decade Review is probably the best use of this feature you have created. Cool stuff!

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    • Thanks, man!

      It helps that Stray Dog is a fairly straightforward movie. I like to think if my 2004 counterpart wasn’t so full of that whole pretentious “OMG these movies are old and in Japanese” subtext, I could have picked up on more things.

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