A Month of Kurosawa: Stray Dog (1949)

To celebrate the upcoming release of my book, Akira Kurosawa: A Viewer’s Guide, due out Dec. 15 from Rowman & Littlefield — preorder here! — I’ll be doing capsule reviews all month covering every single Kurosawa film and posting (very) brief excerpts. These will be short impressions and recommendations, nothing more. For a full, detailed analysis of each, grab the book!

Stray Dog (1949)

“Masterpiece” is probably a word that gets thrown around a little too easily, especially when discussing movies, but it’s hard not to use the word when discussing 1949’s Stray Dog, a gritty crime noir by Akira Kurosawa that peels back the curtain on postwar Japan’s underground crime scene and presents some stark moral questions in the process.

Stray Dog once again pairs up Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura, but unlike Drunken Angel, they are allies rather than adversaries. The pair play cops scouring the city for a firearm stolen from Mifune, trying to track it down before it’s used to murder someone. Throughout it asks the question, are we responsible for the actions of others?

From the book:

Kurosawa may have intended to shine a light onto organized crime with Drunken Angel, but that picture ended up being a meditation on personal failures more than a study of the criminal underworld. With Stray Dog, he more closely hits the mark. Dancers. Drunks. Showgirls. Thieves. Pickpockets. Gun peddlers. In an ambitious montage sequence, we’re taken through a tour of the desperate; the bold; the dishonest; the destitute. .

Stray Dog presents a master class in technique while also presenting a gripping story. It takes its time to unfold, allowing you to really immerse yourself in the world Kurosawa is painting. Mifune begins to come into his own here, too, while Shimura’s indelible charm draws you to him throughout. These guys are always a great team.

So yes, as long as you’re prepared for the slow burn, this is a must-see. No question.

Just how strongly do I recommend this one, whether or not you’re a Kurosawa fan? From the book:

Stray Dog enjoys a reputation on par with many of Kurosawa’s best works, in no small part because while it’s a film focused on exploring Japanese society, it does so in a way that is utterly relatable to worldwide audiences … Stray Dog is simultaneously a tense police thriller, an example of potent social commentary, and a deftly directed motion picture. It features Kurosawa’s strongest deconstruction of postwar Japan to date, and perhaps his strongest overall.

Check out my upcoming book for a full analysis exploring this film’s ideas, themes, good points, and bad

You can get the movie in this excellent edition by Criterion.