Every year on the anniversary of Toshiro Mifune’s birth, I tell everyone I can to watch Nora Inu (released in the US as Stray Dog). It’s one of my all-time favorite movies, one of the best noir movies to come out of Japan, and an incredibly strong example of Akira Kurosawa’s films. It’s also, strangely, the Kurosawa/Mifune joint people talk about the least.
First, let’s all remember the hotness that was Toshiro Mifune:
If you were expecting to see him in film-faux samurai garb, sorry to disappoint you. Mifune appeared in nearly 170 films as an actor, including 16 of Kurosawa’s, and most of them weren’t period pieces. He was an extremely versatile, expressive, and talented actor, with a wide range — which included dark, murky, detective film noir like Stray Dog.
Mifune originally worked as a photographer; he grew up in his father’s camera shop, and when he was drafted during WWII, he served in the Aerial Photography unit. Afterward, he got a job as an assistant cameraman for Toho Productions (home to Godzilla, and hundreds of other movies). It was there that he was “discovered” as an actor, first for his looks, and then for his ability to throw himself into a role, drawing on his wartime experiences, and general disregard for propriety during a performance.
He wasn’t afraid to be everything he possibly could, as an actor. You can see that onscreen, and Stray Dog is no exception.
Kurosawa saw Mifune during a screen test and immediately hired him. Mifune’s first role was in Snow Trail (1947), the story of three bank robbers who hide out on a snowy mountain lodge with an unsuspecting family; though Senkichi Taniguchi directed it, Kurosawa wrote the screenplay. The next year Mifune starred in the Kurosawa-directed Drunken Angel, and in 1949, they did Stray Dog together.
The short, spoiler-free description of the film is this: A rookie detective loses his gun, which is later used in a crime. To recover it, he teams up with a veteran detective on the verge of retirement. They traverse the darkest parts of Tokyo looking for it.
(If you’re thinking Kurosawa’s plot was “borrowed” repeatedly by Western filmmakers over the last 68 years, you’d be right. But he borrowed from Western directors too, especially John Ford. There was a lot more conversation – purposeful and acknowledged – between Eastern and Western cinema than most people realize.)
The longer description is this: Kurosawa used Stray Dog, Mifune, and another of his favorite performers – Takashi Shimura – to act out the complexities of the father/son dynamic within a noir story, just as he did with Drunken Angel, Rashomon, and Seven Samurai.
Here, Mifune is “Detective Murakami”, the son saved by his wise old mentor, “Detective Sato”, played by Shimura, while “Yusa Shinjuro” (the bad guy in the film, played by Isao Kimura) shows the negative alternative of how Murakami could’ve ended up.
After a long, hot, day, Murakami loses his gun to a pickpocket, which sets off a string of crimes he feels responsible for. His supervisor, seeing his determination to retrieve the gun, puts him together with Detective Sato in hopes that the older man can cool Murakami’s obsession. Sato has children of his own, and slides easily into the role of Murakami’s surrogate parent.
During the film, these characters talk about Yusa, whose first name literally means “second son,” as if the young criminal were a wild animal, a “stray dog” in danger of becoming a “mad dog”. Murakami, too, is in danger of this, having come from the same background as their criminal; both men even had their backpacks stolen when returning from the war.
In the end, Yusa, feeling trapped because the police are closing in, shoots Sato with Murakami’s gun, making the younger detective responsible for wounding his own surrogate father. His quest for redemption leads him to a muddy struggle with Yusa, where Murakami is wounded himself, but does not submit until the criminal is cuffed. In the end, he’s left to wonder how close he got to darkness, and if he’ll ever recover.
In addition to exploring the father/son relationship on a personal level, it also works its way through the traditional (at the time) Japanese “father as imperial authority” dynamic, altered forever by so many anchorless young men coming back from the war, who struggled to regain their place in society. It shows us parts of Tokyo society that weren’t often seen in films from before WWII, too: actors and criminals, broken households, and the often-degrading ways women survived alone in a hard world.
Plus, the cinematography is technical perfection. Look at these stills!
Stray Dog is heartbreaking and violent, frenzied and gorgeous, visceral and thoughtful, all at once. Just like real life.
I have the Criterion Collection version and recommend that.