The western Critics probably still live in the imperialist world and think they dominate every aspect of human expression, be it Science, Social Science, Humanities or Arts across the globe. For them Satyajit Ray will always be a student of Renoir’s Humanism, the crime thrillers made by Kurosawa will always be a noir. Categorizing these great works of art into predetermined western terminologies is highly unfair and I find it derogatory. Even in the present era if someone who does not belong to the west makes a film which has a nonlinear screenplay, he is called Tarantino of his country. In a previous article on Ray, Hollywood Rays I have pointed out that Ray had tried the nonlinear storytelling decades before Tarantino.
Stray Dog (1949) is also described as a film noir. This film has three main characters, rookie homicide detective Murakami (Toshiro Mifune), his partner veteran detective Sato (Takashi Shimura) and the Villain. In the beginning, a voice over tells us that the days are very hot and the sun is not showing mercy on crowded Tokyo. This hot weather is often used throughout the film to increase the tension. The story starts with detective Murakami losing his Colt pistol in an overcrowded bus. He reports this to his superior and tries to find it by himself roaming the mean streets of Tokyo in a very hot weather. These scenes of Tokyo’s underbelly are shot on location brilliantly by Kurosawa’s assistantHonda with a handheld camera. The more Murakami searches for the 7 round Colt, the more he gets obsessed with the search. Clearly he is ashamed of his carelessness and feels disgraced. After a failed attempt to get back the pistol, Murakami learns from the Headquarter that his pistol is used in a crime. He even offers to resign but his superior rejects his idea with a superb line, “bad luck either makes a man or destroys him. Are you going to let it destroy you?”
Enters veteran detective Sato, assigned as Murakami’s partner to solve the crime and catch the criminal Yusa. Now starts the real police work with Sato in action. But at this point, my attention shifted towards the Title of the film Stray Dog. Who is the stray dog, the criminal or the police? Their lives seem somewhat similar. Yusa is never introduced till the penultimate scene and the only visible stray dogs on the roads of Tokyo are Murakami and Sato in search of an unseen man who is committing crime after crime with Murakami’s pistol. Sato is a seasoned police officer. He is cool calm and composed. He goes by the procedure. Whereas Murakami is a desperate man, new to the force as it is his first case. He has several questions in mind and at one point of time, he also finds himself sympathizing with the criminal.
But Sato is there to answer his questions and to give him insights into how police can work more effectively by considering a criminal only a criminal. For him, people are good or bad. But Murakami after knowing more about Yusa through his girlfriend he finds himself similar to yusa. Here in the film, an important point is made. In exactly similar circumstances, Murakami chooses to become a police officer where Yusa chooses the wrong path of becoming a criminal. In the real world too, we are defined by the choices we make in certain circumstances. Life is fairly unfair to all. It is us who decide the path be taken that will define us. Eventually, they catch the criminal and it becomes Murakami’s first arrest.
This film is not just a police drama; it also shows post-war Japan’s society very effectively. It shows the Japan that we from the younger generation can’t imagine. Incorporating rice ration cards and the underground economy into the story is not coincidental. Lives of upper-class rich citizens are not shown per se but the undertone here is class struggle. Murakami feeling sympathetic towards Yusa is a statement made to show how have-nots feel for their fellow have-nots, especially the younger ones. Close up scenes are used here when showing black markets and crowded streets and the working class. This makes the viewers more uncomfortable. Some scenes are visual extravaganza like Murakami waiting in Yusa’s girlfriend’s room without looking at her or the scene before Sato gets shot and of course the close shots of the black market. A Western critic would call it Italian neo-realism.
So , Stray Dog becomes French film noir, Italian neo-realism, Hollywood buddy cop drama or a Swedish crime thriller. Where is Kurosawa and his Japan? Why give credit to Kurosawa only for his Samurai Films. This kind of treatment is purely unfair and uncalled for. This is a timeless classic that has given several benchmarks to the film world and one of them is the favorite of Hollywood i.e. Buddy cop drama. How many times we have seen a rookie assigned with a veteran as his partner. I cannot count. Maybe you should try.