Bombay Showcase

It takes two to tango

The business of being in the police force demands the best of human qualities: from intelligence to muscle power. But the profession is not necessarily lucrative; that’s why good, mediocre and below-average candidates throng it.

Akira Kurosawa’s police procedural Stray Dog (1949) starts with one such rookie cop, Detective Murakami (played by the great Japanese star, Toshiro Mifune), losing his gun to an unidentified pickpocket during a bus ride in post-war Japan. Overcome with disgrace, Murakami gets fixated with the idea of recovering his gun.

Picking up a lead, he tails a female pickpocket day and night. Out of pity, she gives him a clue and Murakami lands up at the black market in the disguise of a down-on-his luck war veteran.

Neorealism at its best

Murakami’s encounter with petty crooks and hustlers, and his wanderings in the lower depths of Tokyo, is historically significant documentary footage shot in secret by Kurosawa’s assistant Ishiro Honda (later famous as the director of the original Godzilla). The film is bathed in the gloom of neorealism: the desperate, the homeless and the disenfranchised run amok on the streets and in the ghettos. This frantic search in the impoverished ravages of war is akin to Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief, which had released just a year earlier. Modern filmmaking wisdom would accuse Murakami’s excursion into the seedy underworld of Tokyo as being too long — running for more than eight minutes — but Kurosawa takes this section of the film to set up the main theme.

Murakami begins to understand a bigger tragedy. He identifies with Yusa (Isao Kimura), a disillusioned war veteran, who has stolen his gun. Both of them are at opposite ends of the law because of a certain choice made to survive in the ruins of war. Murakami’s growing knowledge of the crimes being committed with his stolen gun possesses him. His calm surface can hardly mask the raging chaos within.

As the theme, choice in post-war Japan, begins to take shape, we are introduced to Detective Satô, played with impeccable grace by Takashi Shimura, who is the complete opposite of Murakami. He is as calm as the Japanese Nobel Prize winner Yasunari Kawabata’s spare winter prose. His long experience on the field and patience starts showing the novice the way. The duo’s discussions on crime and the changing times — from pre- to post-war, from absolutism to moderation — set the template for the rest of the film. This interplay of opposites in solving a crime on a larger canvas, unbeknownst to Kurosawa, later metamorphosed into the buddy cop sub-genre: from the Lethal Weapon and Men In Black franchises in Hollywood to a desi series like Dhoom.

Some of Kurosawa’s aesthetic ideas, which later became his trademark, are spotted in the film. From the start, we feel the heat; quite literally. Characters sweat, fans whirr, the sun never stops its cruelty. The rain finally arrives in the climax, a welcome relief from the stifling, humid atmosphere. This idea of weather as an allegory, and rain as a metaphor for liberation, would be supremely executed in Seven Samurai five years later.

The other element is the compositional brilliance, characters masked through different devices present in the geography of a scene; and the use of foreground, middle ground and background to separate the characters and frames within frames. His later films would extend this cinematographic universe into a world of rich poetry.

Another noteworthy element is Kurosawa’s use of music as a visual counterpoint. In one of the key scenes, Sato is trying to call Murakami from a hotel phone booth, the hotel manager sways to an upbeat song while flirting with his young colleague in the foreground. The suspense rises because Yusa, the killer, is lurking somewhere. In the climax, Murakami confronts Yusa in the woods, but we are shown a woman in a neighbouring home, playing the piano, blissfully unaware of the violent skirmish. At the end of the fight, even as Murakami emerges victorious, Yusa’s breakdown is juxtaposed with a group of walking, singing children, much like the march of life which continues irrespective of our personal follies.

Film noir influences

Kurosawa grew up on a steady diet of hard-boiled detective novels, and he set out to create a Japanese interpretation of Inspector Jules Maigret, the immortal detective created by popular French writer Georges Simenon. But to his displeasure, and to the world’s great fortune, he failed. This unplanned failure marks the birth of an auteur outgrowing his influences and preparing to carve out his sovereign state on the map of cinema. What started as genre drill ended up as a film rife with socio-political commentary.

Rashomon, released a year later in 1950, is widely hailed as the film that turned global attention to Japanese cinema, and the first masterpiece from the master. But look closely, and you can argue that Stray Dog is the first legitimate chef-d’oeuvre from Kurosawa. Like a dozen of his brilliant works, Stray Dog can be read in multiple ways, defying genre labels.

And that’s the beauty of Akira Kurosawa, the sensei, the versatile genius, and perhaps the only one who can claim the title of the Shakespeare of cinema.

The writer is a journalist and a screenwriter who believes in the insanity of words, in print or otherwise; he tweets @RanjibMazumder

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Printable version | Feb 25, 2021 7:07:44 AM |

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