Most people familiar with Akira Kurosawa think of him as the guy who directed a lot of samurai movies. The high visibility of "Star Wars" in contemporary pop culture only serves to point movie viewers to Kurosawa's period pieces ("A New Hope" is a loose re-make of "Hidden Fortress", and the Jedi and the Sith are basically noble samurai and ignoble ronin, or leaderless-warriors-turned-mercenaries). However, Kurosawa directed numerous non-samurai, non-period projects.
Early in his career, Kurosawa was already working with the man who would become his favorite lead actor--Toshiro Mifune. One of the first Kurosawa-Mifune collaborations was "Stray Dog", a police procedural drama about a rookie cop who attempts to retrieve his gun, which was stolen from him on a crowded bus. Those of you familiar with Mifune's "older", bearded look will be in for a shock to see how young he looks in "Stray Dog", released in Japan five years after the end of World War II. However, despite his youthful appearance, Mifune already had the commanding physical presence that made him so memorable in so many classics.
"Stray Dog" has a fairly simple story. As I already mentioned, Mifune plays a rookie cop trying to retrieve his gun. However, Kurosawa uses this simple starting point as a way of examining post-war Japanese society. Mifune's character has to dress up as a bum in order to infiltrate underground connections, where people can use their rice ration cards to rent guns. This leads to several sequences with Mifune wandering through crowded streets and markets, giving audiences the opportunity to see the ugly side of life. This also means that the well-groomed, morally-upstanding cop has to behave like his opposite in order to catch the gun thief.
On the whole, "Stray Dog" is a competently-made drama/thriller. There are several complex framings that use on-screen space effectively and innovatively. For example, Kurosawa likes to place one object or person in the foreground and two in the background on either side of the foregrounded object/person, thereby creating a triangle with the foregrounded object/person dividing the background objects/persons. The movie is also effective at conveying the haunting landscapes and social-scapes of a war-ravaged Japan.
However, the main narrative itself is a source of many problems. For one, the movie is very slow at times. There are too many scenes that echo each other. While I understand that repetition can be used to make a point or to reflect the monotony of characters' lives, it isn't necessary for this movie. Also, the Mifune character keeps on apologizing for the fact that his stolen gun is responsible for several murders. Yet, his superiors never mention the fact that, while the wrongful deaths are regrettable, the repeated appearance of the same gun helps the police in tracking down the culprit. I know that I'm niggling over details, but having seen Kurosawa's "High and Low", I'm aware of the director being capable of covering all the angles in terms of discussing police work. Therefore, it was disappointing to see that this one important detail was overlooked. Still, I'm quibbling, because this movie was made before "High and Low", lol.
"Stray Dog" was made during the late-1940s, so it was probably inescapable that the 1.33:1 (full-frame on 4:3 monitors) image isn't very good. The source print has numerous scratches, and there are times when grain and contrast prevent one from seeing things clearly. Several shots are rather soft as well. However, you can see that the print is "clean" in terms of how well you can see the aforementioned imperfections. Obviously, a lot of effort was made to ensure that "Stray Dog" look as good as possible.
The Dolby Digital 1.0 Japanese reproduces the actors' voices very well. In fact, the dialogue sounds like it was recorded for a movie made within the past ten years. However, everything else sounds substandard. There's a great deal of hiss, sound effects are thin and weak, and the music is wobbly. All of these problems have to do with the recording technologies available at the time, though, so the track isn't "bad" so much as it is outdated.
Optional English subtitles support the audio.
A cursory glance reveals that there aren't that many extras on the DVD. However, they're both substantive in nature, so you don't get any fluff about how everyone was great and had a great time. Rather, you learn about themes, structures, visual style, and professional histories. There's a comprehensive audio commentary by Stephen Prince, author of "The Warrior's Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa". There's also a thirty-two-minute documentary on "Stray Dog" from the series "Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create". These are the kinds of extras that can be enjoyed with repeat viewings because it takes several stabs at the material before you can fully digest what they offer.
A mini-booklet provides chapter listings, movie production credits, DVD production notes, essays about the movie, and DVD production credits
There are a lot of things in "Stray Dog" to admire, especially Toshiro Mifune's commanding performance and presence as well as Akira Kurosawa's framing and mise-en-scene compositions of actors and objects. However, Kurosawa's skills as a writer as well as an editor were not impressive in 1949. At 122 minutes, the movie is too long by about half an hour, and matters pertaining to police procedures are not as well-planned as seen in "High and Low". "Stray Dog" is an interesting look at Kurosawa and Mifune's early years; it's amazing to see how far they would eventually progress together.