Postwar Kurosawa: The Stray Dog

The Stray Dog (野良犬)

1949, Toho

Prod. Soujiro Motoki

Dir. Akira Kurosawa 

Writer Ryuzo Kikushima, Akira Kurosawa, Cinematography  Asakazu Nakai, Music Fumio Hayasaka

Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Isao Kimura

Noise in suburb and city

Two detectives on hot trail of the suspect: Detective Sato, a seasoned detective who knows what it takes to solve a crime. Detective Murakami, a rookie driven by a sense of guilt because his Colt Automatic was stolen and used in the attempted armed robbery. They walk around all over the city immersed in heatwave, meeting shady characters, asking lots of questions. At the end of the day, Sato takes the rookie to his home in a quiet suburb. No urban vulgarities trespasses the sanctuary of family here. Over glasses of beer, they talk about the crime and the criminal. Sato says he never comprehends the psychologies of ‘‘Après-guerre”, postwar young generation.

Sato        : Ap-…, ap-…,
Murakami    : Après-guerre.
Sato        : Yeah, but to me, (the criminal is) thoroughly disgusting (akire-kaeru).
Sato and Murakami laugh.

When Sato says ‘akire-kaeru’, a pun on “après-guerre”, he throws his hands in the air, indicating the frogs (kaeru) croaking out in the field.

Apparently, lost in translation was this silly word play by an drunk old man. The English subtitles I have seen do not include the reference to frogs croaking. That’s fine since it does little to advance the plot or to contribute to narratives of the film. But I would like to point out that this is one of few instances in this film that the character makes reference to the sound/noise in background.

“The Stray Dog”, the pinnacle among the early Kurosawa’s works, is filled with music, sound and noise. Its innovative use of soundtrack in many pivotal scenes has been appreciated in numerous reviews and analysis. Especially, the final shootout between Detective Murakami and the killer, a piano etude being played in background, provides the best example of “counterpoint effect” between visual and audio.

The city is filled with music, noise and sound. The montage sequence depicts Detective Murakami going undercover to find the underground gun dealer. His wandering in this rotten world is packed with barrage of all the kitsch music imaginable.

‘Tonkin Flower’ Chinese
‘Roses from the South’ Tango
‘Bengawan Solo’ Southeast Asian
‘Tokyo Boogie-Woogie’ Boogie-Woogie
‘Aire Kawaiya’ Irish Folk style
‘Koi no Manjushage’
‘Under the Roof of Paris’
‘Barcarolle’ from ‘The Tales of Hoffmann’

According to Shinichi Kamoshita, these songs were actually so popular at the time that anyone from that era knows them by heart. Radio music programs were immensely popular among entertainment-hungry public, covering a vast range of music repertoire, from jazz to classical to Japanese folk songs. Radios were in boom. In many markets and shops, they had their radio on with their volumes turned up. The place must have been filled with bombardment of all music available. The soundtrack to the montage sequence is meant to recreate this chaos of sound.


Though these music fills the air, they are not actually ‘listened to’. Few people is paying attention to them. No one makes any reference to them. Urban streets were packed with people who were indifferent to each other and they still need flood of sounds to make sure impersonal voids were filled. The role of music in urban environment was changing. Kurosawa and Hayasaka were acutely aware of that change.

Kurosawa had been exploring the urban noises in the earlier works. In one of the scenes in “One Wonderful Sunday“, we “see” and hear the blasting sound of music coming out of the speaker out in the street. Here he shows the actual speaker itself so that we can identify the source of the annoying noise. In “Drunken Angel“, we hear absurdly cheerful “The Cuckoo Waltz” in the black market. In both cases, the character in the scene is not supported by the music; miserable Yuzo and Matsunaga, respectively, become painfully pathetic. Because no one pays attention to music, music doesn’t pay attention to anyone.

This relationship reciprocates even when the deadly violence takes place. Cracking sound of ‘La Paloma’ through the phone receiver is an impersonal, indifferent witness to shootout in the hotel, which seriously injured Detective Sato.

There is another kind of sound in the city. You could hear frail beings trying to survive. The dance hall, that’s where human release the energy into the thick air of city, is the arena of lust, desire, money and survival. The film captures the explosive energy of the time. We hear girls panting with exhaustion, young flesh and blood breathing heavily. In the background, the saxophone player doodles with notes. This is the noise they make. We hear the noises of life.


Suburb Lost

If urban development is symbol of chaos, suburb landscape is still that of tranquility.

Sato’s house, though he himself calls it a shack, is something akin to places of peaceful living for Japanese for many centuries. His place reminds me of “Staying cool under the arbour of ‘evening glory”, the painting by Morikage Kusumi, the 17th century master. The work portrays the tranquil happiness of family in summer dusk. The husband/father must be tired from a day’s work but satisfied with his simple life. The wife/mother also toiled for all day and was relieved from all the chores just before the nightfall. Their child is with them, probably asking questions about the world around them. The unity of family is tied to openness, listening to ambient noises of insects, small animals and birds. If you look at how this family is looking out into the space, you know they are listening to the world around them. When they felt breezy air, they realized they were not living by themselves, but they were part of the world around them, small elements in the universe, coexisting with infinite numbers of living forms. Sato’s reference to frogs croaking is reminiscent of this coexistence.


Staying cool under the arbour of ‘evening glory, by Morikage Kusumi


This sense of coexistence is lost to the urban dwelling, symbolized by Yusa’s pathetic shack. The path the postwar reincarnation took was upgrading Yusa’s shacks to something livable with concrete walls and elevators, You have a glimpse of intermediate upgrade in Kurosawa’s “High and Low” 14 years later, where Takeuchi, a medical-school-student-turned-a-sadistic-killer, lives with tormented desire.Kurosawa carefully used suburban landscape to stage the last of the mad dog. Shootout between après-guerre doppelgangers is placed in this Utopia, evoking the tranquil atmosphere of Sato’s house. When we hear the piano etude played in the background, do we expect Yusa also hears it? Does Yusa notice it at all? Does that affect his violent urge? When the two collapse on the ground, we hear the children’s chorus. Does Yusa, or Murakami, hears it? Do they notice irony of lost innocence? We think they do, but it’s us watching these two in the context of music. It’s us who feel “irony”, “contrast” or “counterpoint”. Absence of dialogue, or of any explanatory narratives forces us to project our own sensation onto the screen. Furthermore, does the piano player ever care about the desperate après-guerres? Does the children ever stop singing? This indifferent, cruel nature of sound/music is not exclusive to the city anymore: Postwar era welcomes urbanization of the suburb.

After more than half a century later, they were the landscapes lost forever. The small local railway station, where Murakami identifies Yusa, was Ohizumi-Gakuen station near the Toho studio. As you can see, the area around the station was still much left untouched in the film. Today, it is one of those nondescript Tokyo area railway stations, filled with concrete structures, mega-chain stores and taxicab stations. Frogs are no longer croaking, the pianos are played behind closed doors, no kids is singing out in the field. This transformation had taken place drastically after the war. In the same year as “The Stray Dog”, Ozu directed “Late Spring”, the complete moratorium on postwar process. He directed “Tokyo Story” a few years later,  carefully making Tokyo absent, as I have noted (1,2,3,4). Ozu couldn’t stand the chaotic nature of the world outside his hemisphere. Kurosawa, on the other hand, paints a bold picture on them, trying to swallow it. Is this the world après-guerre dogs created? Maybe. One thing is for sure. We don’t listen to noises around us anymore.

Ohizumi Gkuen Station in “The Stray Dog”


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Ohizumi Gakuen Station today

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Postwar Kurosawa: The Quiet Duel

The Quiet Duel (静かなる決闘)

1949, Daiei
Prod. Soujiro Motoki, Hisao Ichikawa
Dir. Akira Kurosawa 
Writer Senkichi Taniguchi, Akira Kurosawa, Cinematography  Souichi Aizaka, Music Akira Ifukube
Toshiro Mifune,
Takashi Shimura, Kenjiro Uemura, Miki Sanjo, Noriko Sengoku

In March 1948, Kurosawa, Soujiro Motoki, Kajiro Yamamoto and Senkichi Taniguchi formed “Eiga Geijutu Kyoukai (Cinema Art Society)”. Toho was at the last stage of Labor Union Conflict at the time and not a good place to direct a film. Kurosawa was deeply disappointed with the Union movement and left Toho for Daiei to direct his next film. “The Quiet Duel” is based on popular stage play, “Abortion Doctor”, by Kazuo Kikuta. The stage production (Minoru Chiaki as a lead) was a success, partly due to its provocative title. Kurosawa saw this production and was excited about its potential as a film material. Working title for the film was “Punishment without Crime”.

According to Hisao Ichikawa, the producer of this film, “The Quiet Duel” was a box-office hit, making more money than “Rashomon”. It may have to do with its controversial subjects, such as STD, single mothers and abortion. The film is quite frank with the basic issues of sex and life, some of which are still relevant today. 
In Japanese history, 1948 was the year of “Maternal Body Protection Act”, which allowed abortion in case of rape, danger to mother’s life or serious hereditary disease (in 1949, the Act allowed abortion on economical grounds). The population increase and accelerated food shortage were imminent problem and the law was enacted to combat this. So it says in many history books. In reality, the percentage of single mothers increased up to 4% (all-time record high) during the years of 1945 to 1950. Most of them were desperately in need of economical help. In order to prevent further increase in this figure, some critical measure was necessary. In addition, the increase in rape cases was serious issue.
The same year saw the enactment of “Sexually Transmitted Disease Prevention Act”. STD had become a serious headache especially in Occupation Forces (number of carriers among American soldiers doubled in first six months of occupation). Number of STD carriers among Japanese population was staggering as well. In one statistics, 20,000 prostitutes and 400,000 citizens were affected by STD during the postwar years. Japanese government and GHQ/SCAP needed public health policy in place as quickly as possible.
Against this social background, this film was released. As you can see, some plot elements of the film were designed for educational purposes, to warn people of danger of STD and to state case on abortion.

Many critics find this film a lesser entry to Kurosawa’s canon, some calling it a flat-out failure. “Girly naivete”, “improbable plot”, “powerful first ten minutes and the rest is bore” and so on. Some point out questionable plot devices, such as contraction of syphilis through operation, or use of Salvarsan in late 1940s instead of penicillin. The fact that this film is sandwiched between “Drunken Angel” and “Stray Dog”, two of the most popular young Mifune-Kurosawa is not helping, either.
But in many ways, I believe this film provided an important playground for Kurosawa’s examination into drama. Many of his works are variation on contrast, dichotomies of personalities with the same root. In “Drunken Angel”, Matsunaga has a girl played by Yoshiko Kuga as his counterpart, another TB patient. They share the same disease, but take totally different paths, one to total destruction and the other to hope. In “Stray Dog”, two war veterans are again at the opposite ends of the spectrum. One, a detective and the other, a criminal. But they also share the same experience, being robbed on the way home from war. This theme of two totally different paths from the same point in life is central to Kurosawa’s works. And in “Quiet Duel”, Fujizaki (Toshiro Mifune), the doctor, shares deadly syphilis with Nakada (Kenjiro Uemura), his patient in battlefront hospital during the war. One, tormented with the disease, abandons marriage with his longtime fiancee (Miki Sanjo). The other, totally irresponsible for his actions, endangers his wife and unborn baby. Their lives cross each other again after the war.
Rui Minegishi (Noriko Sengoku), ex-dancer, is a critical character in this drama. What is a “dancer”? During years of 1946 to early 50’s, shady theaters and shows sprung up like mushrooms in many key metropolitan areas, providing risque (mostly striptease) programs. Compared to today’s standard, they were quite tame, of course (1). But they were incredibly popular among under-nourished, entertainment-hungry male audience at the time. Minegishi must have been one of those dancers, probably lured by fairly good pay. She was a object of desire, a target of male libido released in the darkest nights of urban life. Pregnancy terminated her career and made her bitter. She despises superficial credo of humanity, especially those expressed by men, smelling rotten core under the fake skin.
She works as an intern nurse in Fujizaki’s hospital. In the beginning, she considers Fujizaki’s sincerity as fake. Learning of his disease further reinforced her belief. Then, upon eavesdropping his confession about how he contracted the syphilis and his giving up marriage, she realizes how wrong she was.
The long monologue by Fujizaki is such a moving revelation to us and Minegishi. His anguish, sorrow and desperation pierce through the already softening skin of her heart.
In his book “Nobody remembers ‘postwar’”, Shinichi Kamoshita defines the postwar Japan as a society of unfairness. “One came home from war, the other didn’t. One was accused of war crimes, the other was not. One has enough food, the other starves…..”(2) Fujizaki’s monologue is filled with that sentiment. Cursing on unfairness, randomness. Regret that cannot be regretted. There must be someone to blame, but there is no use in blaming. Punishment without Crime.
That is why Minegishi’s resurrection is the final note of this film. To overcome the sense of unfairness, you have to realize you are not the only one. We are all created equal for being unequal. Nothing is fair, we all feel miserable. Minegishi’s this realization, turned into deep-felt love, and reflected back on herself and on us. This film is trying to offer the beginning of the end for postwar trauma.

(1)The earliest show in record was performed in Shijuku Teito-za in 1947. It was called “frame show”. It was an enactment of the famous paintings, such as “Birth of Venus” by Rafael. A half-naked female model stood still in a large empty frame. For 30 seconds or so. Then, the curtain. This was a sensation at the time, attracting huge crowd for every showing. It may sound surreal, but during that 30 seconds, the audience leaked a deep sigh in unison. But soon, fierce competition among theaters kicked in, forcing girls “dancing” out of the frame. The principal figure of this entertainment was Toyokichi Tai, who would later become a Toho’s executive to produce many musicals.
(2) “Nobody Remembers ‘Postwar'”, Shinichi Kamoshita, Bungei Shunjuu Shinsho, 2005

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Postwar Kurosawa: Drunken Angel

Drunken Angel (酔いどれ天使)

1948, Toho
Prod. Soujiro Motoki
Dir. Akira Kurosawa 
Writer Keinosuke Uekusa, Akira Kurosawa, Cinematography  Takeo Ito, Music Ryouichi Hattori, Fumihiko Hayasaka
Takashi Shimura, Toshiro Mifune, Reizaburo Yamamoto, Michiyo Kogure, Noriko Sengoku

On August 20th 1945, only 5 days after the surrender of the Imperial Japan, the first (black) market opened in Shinjuku. This Shinjuku Market was a community of open-air, primitive merchants. In following months, the similar black markets opened in many key locations around Tokyo and other major cities in Japan. The operator of such black markets were tekiya (a sort of mafia/yakuza which specializes in open-air markets (1)), who supplied various merchandise to those shops, provided the protection and controlled the prices. The Shinjuku Market was operated and protected by Kanto Ozu-Gumi, the Shinjuku local tekiya. Territorial conflicts among tekiyas have been subjects of many yakuza films in Japan from 1950s to 1970s. One of such films is “Showa Zankyoden (昭和残侠伝, Dir. Kiyoshi Saeki, 1965)“, which describes how these tekiyas operated black markets in the years immediately after the war. Because of this supplier/protection relationships, many shop owners depended on tekiya to continue their illegal racket.
First shot of Showa Zankyo-den (1965)
Black Market in Shinbashi, operated by Kanto Matsudagumi (via. Wikipedia)

In one sense, this film is one of the earliest films to deal with “modern” yakuza (tekiya). “Modern”, in this case, means the corrosion of code of honor among yakuza members. Yakuza/tekiya was an operation based on strict master-subordinates relationship. The head of a gang was not only a director of the enterprise, but also acted as a paternal figure to those who followed him. Members of a gang have strict seniority system, brotherhood. The code of (pseudo)parenthood and (pseudo)brotherhood was one of the most favorite themes among Japanese genre writers, dramatists, and filmmakers. The hero has to break the code to save his love or his family and pays the price in the end. Or the hero revenges the corrupted brother who defied the code to satisfy his greed. Very primitive, but extremely effective melodrama. After the war, because of chaotic nature of the black market operation and sudden increase in semi-yakuza members, this relationship of honor slowly eroded. Or precisely speaking, the erosion of the code became the favorite topic among the writers and filmmakers (2).
The most popular and influential “modern” yakuza film is “The Battles Without Honor and Humanity (仁義なき戦い, 1973)” by Kinji Fukasaku. This film, as bloody as it is, depicts ruthless nature of those gangs without honor. It is quite interesting the story starts precisely in these black markets in Hiroshima after the war.
In “Drunken Angel”, preceding Fukasaku’s film by almost three decades, Kurosawa already pictures the loss of brotherhood among members under this profit-driven black market ventures. Even though Matsunaga is chased off from the position of black market operator partly because of his illness, in doing so, Okada and the Boss did not hesitate. The bloody duel between Matsunaga and Okada is least heroic. They drag themselves on floor, they don’t even try to stab each other in fear of being stabbed. This miserable, disgraceful duel would be reiterated and perfected in “Rashomon” a few years later.
Crucial background omitted from the film is how Matsunaga became Yakuza/Tekiya in the first place. This part of the story might have been obscured in order to pass GHQ/SCAP censorship. In any case, contemporary audience must have recognized the type, so-called “après-guerre” criminals. In the years immediately after the war, many ex-soldiers, young generations who lost their moral ground, went down the hill, gathering around black markets and gambling rackets. They started to form criminal gangs, exploiting those who needed their protection. It must have been extremely difficult for those who had their remaining days numbered, to find their honorable cause were dumped like garbage and to let themselves survive. Especially, those who had been ready to go Kamikaze attacks were considered the most morally eroded, called “Kamikaze-kuzure”, meaning “ex-would-be-Kamikaze pilots who went to the dogs”. Matsunaga appears to be one of those violent après-guerre criminals, with little intent to find purpose of his life.

The brilliance of the story lies in the contrast between sickness and violence. Matsunaga is searching for something honorable to justify his death, but TB does not give him one. He despises the sickness, not because he wants to live, but he does not understand the reason, or absence of it. Sickness is, in essence, arbitrary. You have little control over it, but doctors do. This further irritates Matsunaga, since somebody else, Dr. Sanada, has much power over his destiny. Dr. Sanada seems to look through Matsunaga’s tormented psyche and offers his help in his own way. In order to survive, Matsunaga would have to go through misery and humiliation, such as being damped by his girl, losing his power over black market, and rebuilding his moral. Yes, survival is tough.
In a sense, this film is a close cousin of film noir in Hollywood of the same period. Many noirs deal with the war veterans who experience hard time re-fitting into the postwar society. In some cases, noir character is an amnesiac, who does not remember the past beyond the war. This dislocation in time caused by war creates the tension for the plot, culminating in the revelation at the end. In many postwar Kurosawa films, and other Japanese films of this era in general, the past beyond the war is buried in deep subconscious, never let it loose again.
Toshiro Mifune gives such a powerful performance as Matsunaga, creating the character as lively as it can be. During the war, he was a photographer attached to Kamikaze unit. He took photographs of those who were on the final one-way trip, just before the takeoff. I really don’t know how deeply this experience affected his acting as a result, but it is tempting to imagine as such. In Mifune, Kurosawa found a physique and a voice, which embody his romantic but ruthless view of the world. 

(1) In its origin, ‘tekiya’ which had been a group of street merchants controllers, differed from ‘yakuza’, which had been a group of gamblers. But in later years, their operation and organization become less distinct from each other and some of tekiya groups have become influential yakuza.
(2) In reality, modernization of yakuza is transformation of guild-based group to profit-oriented enterprise. Prewar yakuza was descendant of guild of workers in male-oriented enterprise such as firefighters, dock workers etc. In contrast, many yakuza in postwar era formed modern companies in legitimate businesses as a front.

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