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Thursday, May 17, 2012

Akiru Kurosawa | Nora inu (Stray Dog)





sweating it
by Douglas Messerli

Akira Kurosawa and Ryūzō Kikushima (screenplay), Akira Kurosawa (director) Nora inu (Stray Dog) / 1949, USA 1963

A rookie police detective, Murakami (Toshirō Mifune), has his colt pistol stolen by a pickpocket and a woman accomplice on a tram, he chasing after the offender the minute he perceives it is missing; the robber, however, eludes him, and the detective, in a time when guns are rare commodities, worth hundreds of dollars in the underground market, is horrified by the event. He expects a severe reprimand and, perhaps, even the loss of his job. Yet basically, his higher-ups offer sympathy rather than censure, as they attempt to calm down the excitable young officer.

      Partnered with the highly experienced Officer Sato (Takashi Shimura), the two attempt to track down the gun, discovering almost as quickly as they begin, that the pistol has already been used in another robbery, the victim having been shot. Kurosawa brilliantly parallels his hero’s emotional turmoil and his seething sense of guilt by setting the series of the film’s events in a Tokyo heat wave, where everyone portrayed is wet with sweat. Murakami’s restless energy, as he stands poised to jump into action upon even the slightest of leads, is balanced by the facial calm of Sato, who not only can point to numerous departmental commendations—plastered over the walls of his humble home—but is blessed with three children and a supportive wife, a situation which Murakami can only negatively compare with his own, particularly after he shares a simple dinner at Sato’s home, his children having all fallen asleep in one room like, as Sato’s wife describes them, a patch of pumpkins.

    Mifune’s hot-headed actions, every muscle in his body poised to spring into action, creates in Murakami a character that is perhaps not so very different from the criminal himself, as we gradually discover that both, as Sato characterizes them, are figures après le guerre (a phrase he can barely utter)—former soldiers who have returned to a Japan that is not only without meaning, but without jobs, homes, food, and stability. Both Murakami and his prey have had even their backpacks stolen upon they trip back to the city; both have had to suffer the horrors of war, only to be met with the deprivations of post-war Japanese life.

    As Sato makes clear, however, the difference between them is immense, one working in a system of justice and guilt, the other attempting to justify his criminal activities by his sense of isolation. Bit by bit, through Sato’s knowledge of the underground world and small snippets of information provided by their informants, the duo tightens the noose in their search for Yusa (Isao Kimura), first through the pickpocket’s woman accomplice, then through a gun-dealer Honda, and finally, through a woman friend of Yusa's, the showgirl Harumi (Keiko Awaji)—but not before the criminal robs another woman, this time killing her with the same weapon that begin in Murakami’s coat pocket, and, ultimately, almost killing Sato himself.

     What doesn’t get said in the film's subtle narrative, a work which Kurosawa himself underestimated given the technical bravura of his film—a work which the director repeatedly compared to the filmmaking of Jules Dassin and the fiction of Georges Simeon—is the fact that the two men, rookie cop and criminal, share not only the war-time experience and the devastating return to a defeated nation, but evoke—as in so many post-war Japanese movies—a sense of sexual deprivation and a aura of sexual incompetency, a failure to interrelate with the opposite sex. Several times it is hinted that Yusa is disinterested in “the ladies,” despite his friendship with a ladies’ man, Yakuza-like figure. Although she is described as Yusa’s girlfriend, Hurami insists that Yusa was simply a boy next to whom she sat in school, which helps to explain her determined loyalty to him; for despite the fact that he has apparently asked nothing sexual of her, he has still awarded her a beautiful dress, which she boldly dons when faced with the detective’s taunts, and which she later abandon's, leaving it outside the window in the rain.

      Throughout the film, family and acquaintances describe Yusa as crying inconsolably, which upon his capture, the film visibly and aurally recreates, helping us to realize that he is a weak, suffering being and perhaps, within the sexual definitions of his culture, simply “unmanly.” I have already discussed the scene in which, while visiting Sato’s peaceful and loving home, we perceive that Murakami is a man without any of these homey comforts. His intensely disdainful reactions during his long questioning of Harumi, moreover, make it clear that the detective is not at all comfortable with women, and is perhaps even hostile to the opposite sex, revealed also early in the film in his statement that he was forced to stand next to a woman smelling of “cheap perfume”—the accomplice who symbolically steals his masculinity by nabbing his gun.

     While Sato attempts throughout to point out the vast differences between the detective and criminal, we feel, even at film’s end, that his distinctions are supercilious given the intense relationship between the two, made utterly transparent with the long, final struggle within the swampy waters, where each temporarily tops the other only to have the position reversed. At fight’s end, the only difference between the two is the detective’s placement of his opponent in handcuffs, as they both, side by side, stretch out, trying to regain their breath, Yusa breaking down into a plaintive moan.

      Within that context, they both are different kinds of “stray dogs,” wild beasts set apart from the social norm in that they can “only see what they are after”—which in the detective’s case is the other man. At least the criminal has an illusion of freedom, escape, or the symbol of a woman, in Harumi’s case, with whom never consummates a true relationship. Although everyone in this film is bathed in sweat throughout, the sweat of the two central figure’s bodies clearly represents men in a kind of “heat,” a sweat of desire which cannot even be cooled down with the rains that finally fall over the city and its environs. Their sweat is not a response to the weather as much as it is a disease of outsiders caught within a society that can only perceive them as dangerous.


Los Angeles, May 16, 2012

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