This is a first in a series of reviews of movies by Akira Kurosawa that can be rented from Netflix other than the most familiar (Rashomon, Yojimbo, Seven Samurai, etc.) These movies are part of the Criterion Collection and have excellent supplementary material.
Stray Dogs was made in 1949 and stars the 29 year old Toshiro Mifune as a rookie cop named Murakami whose handgun is pickpocketed on a crowded trolley car. Even though the loss of a gun can lead to firing, Muramaki’s captain has mercy on him with the understanding that he must find it right away or face the consequences. His desperate search constitutes the plot line in the same way of the stolen bicycle in DeSica’s 1948 The Bicycle Thief. Without a gun or a bike, the main characters are finished economically. Additionally, both films are graphic reminders of the costs of WWII on defeated Axis powers. Rubble can be seen everywhere on location in Rome and Tokyo while people struggle to stay afloat economically.
Of course, there is a big difference between a bicycle and a gun. The worst thing that can happen with a bike is that you lose your balance, fall down, and skin your knee. But a stolen gun can be used for criminal activities. As such, Muramaki’s search is as much to protect the innocent as well as his own livelihood.
A scene from Stray Dog in which the hero (Mifune in a white cap) stakes out a nightclub where a dancer might lead him to the man who has his stolen gun. Unfortunately, the original Youtube clip was deleted for copyright violations. The one below uses an obtrusive musical clip that it would be best to mute.
One of the most striking scenes in the entire film consists of Muramaki going undercover as a down-at-the-heels WWII veteran walking through the slums of Tokyo trying to smoke out a gun dealer who might have the stolen weapon. This is an 8 1/2 minute dialogue-free segment that a Bright Lights Film Journal article describes as follows:
This sequence, shot by Inoshiro Honda of Godzilla fame, is like an anti-travelogue for a ruined city. Honda had to shoot in secret, as these were actual black markets full of criminals, whores, vagrants, and other social cast-offs. The camera unflinchingly shows the crush of humanity — lines of dirty urchins; flophouses crammed with the poor; ex-soldiers standing idly on the streets; furtive transactions; all set against a backdrop of clogged, grimy alleys in Tokyo’s killing summer heat. Everything that once-proud, orderly Japanese society had become by this time is on display here in tableaux that are echoed throughout the film, and offer a key motivation for the crimes of the gun-thief.
Stray Dog has inspired a couple of remakes, the first being a 1973 film set in Okinawa that is not available in DVD. What is available is the 2002 Chinese movie The Missing Gun that is also about a war-damaged society, but one that is rooted in hyper-capitalist development rather than armed conflict as reflected in my 2005 review:
Now available in DVD, The Missing Gun tells the story of a small town Chinese cop who loses his gun. As with other neorealist films coming out of China like Not One Less or Blind Shaft, this is a China of losers, not upwardly mobile characters of the sort featured in Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat.
Policeman Ma Shen (Wen Jiang) has woken up with a bad hangover and the frightening realization that he can’t find his service revolver. In China, cops are held responsible for their guns to the extent that a missing gun can result in a loss of a job and even jail time. His search for the gun assumes the dramatic dimensions of another more famous search, namely the missing bike in Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief. Unless he can locate the gun, Ma Shen will be ruined.
The film is structured around his pursuit of some leads turned up at the wedding party for his sister the night before, where his gun was last seen. After drinking himself into a stupor, the gun was snatched from him.
One can easily understand why Ma Shen would drink himself into oblivion. His life does not offer too much. His wife constantly berates him for being a lousy husband and father to their young son, who is the brat of the century. When his wife and son come to visit him after he has been jailed, the son practically gloats over his loss of freedom and warns him that he should not interfere with his right to watch television if he is released. As with practically everything that comes his way, Ma Shen reacts to his son’s taunts impassively.
Indeed, the only thing that seems to stir him is the mission to regain his weapon. Although traditional values seem to be disappearing rapidly in China, the cops are deadly serious about the question of guns in the wrong hands. With its characteristically dry humor, The Missing Gun includes a scene in which the police chief lectures his subordinates about the dangers presented by Ma Shen’s missing weapon. Even though it only has 3 bullets, a good shot could kill six people with it since a properly aimed weapon can kill two people at once (shades of the Warren Commission!)
The cops are typical products of the new China. When the subject of bonuses comes up, the chief questions whether material incentives would erode their élan. He answers his own question by claiming that it is good to accept them, since they were sponsored by the Communist Party. The film is characterized by a kind of ambivalence about the changes taking place in the country today. We discover that the only true bonds of solidarity exist between Ma Shen and several old friends from the village who were at the wedding party and who were in the Red Army with them. For them, the Red Army was the one time in their life when they felt like they were really capable of self-respect.
The symbol of the New China is Zhou Xiaogang (Shi Liang), who runs an illegal liquor factory. Zhou drives around in a fancy Japanese sedan and wears Italian designer suits. When Ma Shen grabs him by the lapels to extract information, Zhou cries out “Italian, Italian!”
Director Chuan Lu makes the most of on-location settings of labyrinthine alleys and empty plazas that evoke De Chirico paintings. He also uses the surrounding mountainous countryside to great effect. One scene involves a mad bicycle chase between Ma Shen and a fleeing criminal (who might have stolen his gun) across a Chinese countryside that is as beautiful despite its sense of desolation.
The Missing Gun is an interesting look at China today. Now available at local video stores, it is well worth watching despite its refusal to conform to conventional expectations about cops and robbers. Perhaps that is what makes it all the more interesting.
Made in 1960, The Bad Sleep Well once again stars Toshiro Mifune as Nishi the secretary to a crooked CEO whose daughter he has married. The film begins with the wedding scene filled with corporate bigwigs sitting around banquet tables and Nishi and the bride at the dais. The entire press corps is in attendance just as it would be at a party for one of Donald Trump’s kids. The reporters are a kind of Greek chorus as they comment on the crimes of all the corporate chiefs in attendance, starting with the father of the bride.
In the middle of the ceremony, an enormous wedding cake is wheeled in—the supplier unknown. A collective gasp is heard when the guests recognize it as modeled on the corporate headquarters of Nishi’s boss and father-in-law, with a flower sticking out of the window of a higher floor, the place from which a top executive hurled himself a few years earlier. It turns out that the man sacrificed himself for crimes by his higher-up’s. We learn that loyal salarymen are expected to commit hara-kiri just as was the case in feudal Japan.
With a new scandal brewing, Wada (Kamatari Fujiwara) is expected to kill himself for the sake of the firm as well. He is seen standing at the precipice of a volcano after writing a suicide note planted under a nearby rock. Just as he is about to hurl himself into the flaming lava, Nishi pulls him back and convinces him to join him in taking vengeance on the company since it was Nishi’s father who had thrown himself from the window. Nishi was also the person who sent the grim reminder of this event in the form of a wedding cake.
While The Bad Sleep Well is a pointed social commentary on Japanese corporate malfeasance, it is much more than that. Nishi’s quest to avenge his father has the dimensions of Hamlet with the main character acting cruelly as he sets on a path of moral retribution. In one climactic scene, he castigates himself for not being cruel enough when he decides not to throw one of his boss’s corporate henchmen out of the same window from which his father flew.
As will be noted in future reviews, Kurosawa has a great affinity with Shakespeare making adaptations of King Lear and Macbeth. His ability to relate broader social and political issues to the personal tragedies of family members distinguishes a long film career as we shall see.