Stray Dog


The first noir crime film in Japan, in Kurosawa’s Stray Dog (1949) rookie detective, Murakami, gets his pistol stolen while he’s riding a crowded bus. Humiliated, Murakami (Mifune) takes responsibility for his carelessness and begs his boss to fire him. The pragmatic boss brushes his request away and pairs the rookie with a veteran detective (Shimura) named Sato. The two set out to track down the pistol.

Plagued by guilt, Mifune is obsessed with finding his pistol and disguises himself to search the black markets of aprés-guerre Tokyo. We see the squalor and darkness of these markets (which aren’t quite as bad as the poverty in Dos’ka den). These scenes are beautifully and masterfully shot to show this underworld full of hustlers, prostitutes, bums and drunks.

Aprés-guerre is a term Murakami and Sato discuss at length as Sato notices the difference between the pre-WWII generation and the aprés-guerre generation. A WWII veteran, Murakami expresses his sympathy and understanding for the culprit whom he imagines is a product of a rough society. Yusa, the thief, also is a veteran so Murakami identifies with him and knows how the war damaged the soldiers.

However, Sato tells him that thinking is generational and won’t help a cop do his work. If a cop’s philosophy views a criminal as being without choice or responsibility, the officer just won’t be able to work as he should, Sato asserts. Sato reminds Murakami that he’s chosen law and order, while Yusa’s chosen exploitation and crime. There is a difference, a big one.

As time passes, the missing gun is used in robberies and a murder. Murakami knows the pistol had all seven bullets and the plot becomes a race to get to the gun. In this race, the heroes’ search takes us through Japanese society from local watering holes, to a packed baseball field, to a burlesque hall, to a filthy shanty and to Sato’s simple, loving home. Along the way we’re treated to Sato’s wise practice.  It’s fascinating to see him deal with each subject, be it a showgirl or a pickpocket, with just the right approach. His understanding of people makes chasing and shootouts unnecessary.


I learned about Stray Dog from the commentary feature with the Drunken Angel DVD. Mifune and Shimura starred in Drunken Angel. Here they both play completely different characters. Mifune moves from angry gangster to exemplary rookie cop and Shimura shifts from righteous drunk doctor to wise, veteran cop. Another pivotal performance was given by Keiko Awaji, who plays a showgirl, an uncooperative witness. In the extra features, Awaji explains how she didn’t want to be in this or any film. She wanted a career in operettas, but she got talked into this role. She was terribly pouty and unpleasant about the filming process and this difficult attitude made her performance work. Go figure.

I never intended to get into Japanese films as much as I have. I now have been so impressed with the stellar performances that it’s clear that it’s high time I learn the names of these actors.

Here’s a compilation of Mifune’s performances:


I Will Buy You


Kishimoto and the player’s girlfriend

A social critique of post WWII Japan, I Will Buy You shows how baseball became corrupted and how athletes became commodities in the 1950s. Directed by Masaki Kobayashi, I Will Buy You shows the machinations surrounding a college baseball superstar’s entry to pro sports. The story focuses on Kishimoto, a driven scout who’s hellbent on signing Kurita, a hot college hitter. To do this he needs to woo Kurita’s greedy family, his girlfriend who’s leery of the materialism that’s taken over Japan and finally his deceptive, self-centered mentor.

buy you

Kishimoto (right) with his boss

I Will Buy You is in the shomin-geki genre, which consists of dramas about the problems of ordinary society. Here Kobayashi takes on the world of Japan’s most cherished sport, baseball. (I had a student who insisted that the Japanese invented baseball.) Kobayashi brilliantly challenges viewers to see how calculating, conniving and avaricious it’s become.

People think the Japanese are oblique and indirect, but in I Will Buy You characters are explicit in what they want and how they feel about Kurita, who’s rarely on screen and he’s objectified like no other film character I can think of.

The film had a compelling story and covered sports in a way an American film wouldn’t. The end surprised me. With so many characters standing in the shadows, the masterful cinematography reminded me of film noir minus the murder or crime.

The Black River


Mask Kobayashi paints a bleak picture of Tokyo during the 1950s in The Black River. Set in a neighborhood beside a U.S. Army base, Kobayashi shows how Japan’s become corrupt. When Nishida, an upright student/bookseller, moves into a decrepit apartment building that’s more of a shanty than a building, we meet a motley crew consisting of parasites, prostitutes and a couple good guys who don’t stand a chance of fighting city hall given that most of their neighbors would sell out their own mother given the chance.

Soon both Nishida and Killer Joe, a Japanese low level gangster, fall for Shizuko, a lovely, innocent young woman. Joe shows his colors early on by ordering his hoodlum pals to attack Shizuko. It seems they’re going to rape her, but Joe happens by and fights them off. He professes his love and while Shizuko is briefly wooed, Joe then forces himself on her and she’s reviled. The next day Shizuko visits Joe to tell him she was going to report him to the police, but decided she’d be willing to marry him to salvage her reputation. What a sacrifice! It’s hard to believe that a woman would even have to consider such an option, but in some times and places that’s how people thought.


Meanwhile Joe’s plotting with the greedy landlady to evict the residents of the shanty. Both will make out like bandits if they can get the not-so-beautiful losers out of the place.

The film then criticizes the greed, pettiness and lack of morality in society without blaming the problems on the American Army.The Black River shows how the characters contribute to their own troubles. Certainly, Shizuko was a victim in many ways, but she winds up but her choices also lead to an end where I saw no happily ever after for her.

Charlie Chan: The Scarlet Clue


Since I still enjoy Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce in their Sherlock Holmes films, I decided to try a Charlie Chan film for last week’s “old movie.” They are commingled in my mind as a local TV station used to rotate Charlie Chan and Sherlock Holmes films. I remember watching many Sherlock Holmes films, but had only vaguely remembered Charlie Chan. No I realize why.

Filled with stereotypes and wooden performances. Charlie is played by a white actor whom make up artists make to look Asian. While a Chinese immigrant would speak English imperfectly if he started speaking the language after age 14, this actor’s broken English was a bit much, very annoying. I’m glad we’ve moved to a time when this would be unheard of. The story was thin and weak though the means of poisoning the victims was rather clever. I won’t be watching more of this series.

The previous week’s “old movie” was It’s a Wonderful Life, the classic film that needs no introduction or review. I shared it with my students the last week of class.