Stray Dog’s plot hinges on the fate of a single handgun. A young Tokyo homicide detective Murakami (Toshiro Mifune) has his Colt sidearm stolen by a pickpocket during a particularly sweltering ride on a city bus. Murakami is horrified when the Colt is soon used in a violent crime. His partner, Sato, (Takashi Shimura), provides a veteran voice, advising the young Murakami as he attempts to retrieve his weapon, before it causes more harm.
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Producers: Akira Kurosawa, Sôjirô Motoki, Senkichi Taniguchi, Kajirô Yamamoto
Writers: Ryûzô Kikushima, Akira Kurosawa
Cinematographer: Asakazu Nakai
Editors: Toshio Gotô, Yoshi Sugihara
Music: Fumio Hayasaka
Cast: Toshirô Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Keiko Awaji, Eiko Miyoshi, Noriko Sengoku, Noriko Honma
Premiere: October 17, 1949 — Japan
US Release: August 31, 1963
US Distributor: Toho Company, Janus Films, The Criterion Collection
This was the third Kurosawa film to feature Mifune and Shimura, to list their other collaborations seems almost hyperbolic (they include Kurosawa’s most acclaimed films, Rashomon and the Seven Samurai), and this film conveys a distinctive noir cool for Kurosawa. The action takes place in Tokyo, during the dog days of the postwar years, with the director filming on location. He catches teeming markets, squalid tenements, and an impressively modern baseball stadium.
Stray Dog falls into that genre of film concerned with a character’s relation to a single defining object. An obvious example of this genre might be 1948’s The Bicycle Thief, with another being the terrific anthology Tales of Manhattan (1942), whose stars (Charles Boyer, Henry Fonda, Rita Hayworth, Charles Laughton, Ginger Rogers, and Paul Robeson) are each affected by a mystical evening jacket.
In Stray Dog the Colt hangun comes to represent malaise and the disintegration of traditional Japanese life. Murakami and Sato are witnessese to a changing Japan. They watch with unease the implications of widespread urban poverty, Japan’s disaffected and unemployed Apres Guerre generation, and the proliferation of weapons.
Stray Dog’s central conceit—that a single handgun is a terrible and destructive weapon— resonates especially strong for contemporary viewers. The epidemic of violence that we take for granted was still just gestating in 1949. Today, handguns are everywhere, onscreen and off. Even comedies have experienced a sort of arms race in recent years with “Action Comedy” becoming a new film formula. In Stray Dog, handguns are so difficult to come by that in order to track the Colt, Murakami must “wander the alleys downtown looking desperate” before he is approached by seedy characters, willing to sell him a firearm.
In the era of conceal and carry, a film centered on the illicit movement of a single gun certainly feels novel. But the novelty doesn’t make the message any less powerful. When Marukami and Sato find the killer, melting into the squalor of a bombed out Tokyo, they do not find a villain. The film’s final villain, far from any criminal element, is the deadly machine itself; and Kurosawa declares in no vague terms: these weapons destroy lives.