- Kurosawa takes De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves concept the year before, a stolen object (in this case a colt pistol) as the driving force for the narrative. At some point this film evolves into a compelling man-hunt police procedural (like say Fincher’s Seven) with gorgeous compositions
- Kurosawa’s trademark wipe editing
- I wonder if Kurosawa shot the film chronologically- you can almost feel him get better over the course of the film—the compositions get stronger and stronger over the course of the film, the opening has a bunch of montages of the doggedly determined rookie detective (played by Mifune) searching—montage after montage (but Kurosawa is a skilled editor—particularly love his work with dissolves here the searching over Mifune’s eyes)
- A standout here at the 40 minute mark—Kurosawa doing his Welles/Wyler depth of field composition—the woman who fenced the colt in the foreground front right, Shimura in the middle and Mifune in the back left
- Mifune and Shimura are typically brilliant. Shimura’s relaxed command over the screen is juxtaposed with Mifune’s anxious youth (also riddled with guilt)—again like Morgan Freeman and Pitt in Seven or Lethal Weapon with the rookie and vet pairing
- Again Kurosawa gets a little montage happy—the baseball highlight reel and the montage of the sweaty chorus girls (though I do like his dedication to sweat and heat playing a role in the film like it’s Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing)—fans, sweating, fits the depressing setting and Post WWII pessimism
- at 81 minutes there is a jaw-dropper of a composition. The man whose wife is murdered by the colt thief is in his garden stricken with grief and Kurosawa frames him between the back shoulders of Shimura and Mifune
- There’s another strong composition at 92 minutes with the water in the center of the frame and characters paired on both sides
- A painting through a rainy window at 99 mins
- Kurosawa is supremely gifted at shooting a duel or showdown—the two shot in space in the woods here squaring off at 115
- Free-flowing camera throughout
- Strong imagery with both lying in the flowers near the end and the final frame of Shimura lying down in the foreground with Mifune at the window in the background
- Only three films stronger for sure in 1949- Late Spring, White Heat, The Third Man
- HR/MS border- leaning MS
I absolutely loved catching Stray Dog as a part of this study. A truly fantastic film and one that previews many of the brilliant elements that will typify Kurosawa films going forward in a nascent form. It’s an interesting theory that he shot this chronologically and improved as he went, but that belies the absolutely jaw-dropping deep focus composition with a subtle camera track in that comes 16 minutes in after Mifune has been pursuing the woman, but before the montage of him scouring the black markets. I think it’s astute that you praise the editing of the montage that follows as Kurosawa was actually intercutting his own footage of Mifune, with footage of the real black market that his second unit director captured at his behest. That aspect of Japan was disappearing even as they entered the editing phase of the film so Kurosawa made such an extensive sequence of it almost to serve as an historical document. Also, it’s interesting to note that Kurosawa shoots directly at the sun through an awning during this sequence a year before his more widely credited “debut” of the technique through the leaves in Rashomon.
I’ve said for years that no director has ever made better use of rain than Kurosawa (and eventually we get evidence of that here) but this recent study is also expanding that for me from rain specifically, to weather conditions generally (snow in The Idiot, fog in Throne of Blood, etc.). Here, obviously, is his most powerful depiction of suffocating heat, but that recurs almost as extensively through his films as rain I have found. I even learned (via a little commentary I read on High and Low where heat is also a massive factor) that he would choose to shoot many of his “hot” scenes during winter so that the effect of the heat would have to be deliberately designed in the filmmaking. He felt if you just shot during the summer you’d take the heat for granted and it wouldn’t be communicated nearly as effectively through the visuals. Just one of many delightul little details about one of cinema’s most singular geniuses.
Kurosawa is a genius. Stray dog is perhaps his best 40s films leading into his jaw-dropping 50s period. Do you agree. Up to 1949 what is the best film he had made?
As for rain, what are some of your favorite/best scenes involving rain?
Some of my favorites/best are
Tears in Rain
Singin in the rain
and maybe Kurosawas 7 samurai shots in the rain (and all the other movies he uses rain. Especially that perfect shot in Ikiru towards the end when Shimura is singing. That’s snow tho. Im not sure if it counts)
https://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/news-bfi/features/how-akira-kurosawa-films-weather . I really like this article I read a day ago. It was a coincedence to see your comment. If you are interested you can give the article a read.
The rain in Seven Samurai is phenomenal, but then rain is obviously essential to Rashomon as well. I can’t think of any filmmaker who unleased torrents of rain like Kurosawa did, even here in Stray Dog, a downpour finally breaks the suffocating heat as we ramp up to the climax. I think he used it to add a visual dynamism to the frame. The now defunct youtube channel everyframeapainting had a really good video about how Kurosawa implemented movement into his compositions in evocative and powerful ways. I like the article you linked and can certainly see how the wind in Ran functions in a similar manner, and obviously I already mentioned the fog in Throne of Blood (fire is also a big factor there). And then of course the iconic snowfall in Ikiru. Master of the elements indeed.
Drake would have to answer the 1940s question, though I think his grades for each film indicate that he considers Stray Dog the best. I will catch up on the pre-Drunken Angel Kurosawa films once I’m done the Mifune study (2 left… and then I may do Ikiru next if that’s where Drake is at that point). Of the three 1940s Kurosawas I’ve seen so far, Drunken Angel is terrific and The Quiet Duel is not without its merits, but Stray Dog is the cream of the crop.
Oh and as to your question, I love the two examples you list. In the Mood for Love also uses rain to extraordinary effect… but none of these are quite the torrential rain that Kurosawa favoured. Not that that diminishes them as incredible scenes obviously.
Oh and just as an aside, I’ve heard you mention a couple times about you finding or being unable to find screengrabs. Are you aware that you can capture your own by simply pressing Ctrl + PrtSc on any frame of your choice, and then simply pasting onto whatever page you like? Won’t help for the films you watch on blu-ray (unless you have a blu-ray drive on your computer), but certainly for anything you watch through any of your streaming services.
@Matt Harris- thanks. Think we’re working with different contraptions.
I recently started my Kurosawa study that I had been putting off for so long, and it’s been a joy to be able to read both your reviews, Drake, and Matt Harris’s ever-present comments. I have just finished Scandal, which means the next is Rashomon and from then on it’s banger after banger, but I have to say that, while Stray Dog and Drunken Angel are incredibly well put together, my favorite Kurosawa from the 40s ended up being One Wonderful Sunday – such a gorgeous film.
I’m excited for what the future of Kurosawa’s filmography holds for me.
This film does not get enough credit for its influence on the “buddy cop” genre. But really its the classical old wise veteran cop schooling his young more emotional partner similar to Seven (1995) with Morgan Freeman’s Somerset teaching Brad Pitt’s hot headed character, David Mills. With Kurosawa there is obvious such a focus on his work in the Samurai genre that some of his contributions to other genres are often overlooked.