Akira Kurosawa’s truly great films were just around the bend, but before the world embraced Rashomon (1950), the director was happy to fill studio assignments with gritty urban desperation. Of these postwar efforts, Stray Dog is far and away the best—a police procedural that echoes American noir while injecting a strain of what can only be termed Japanese humility. (Intriguingly, the source material is Belgian: the cop fiction of Georges Simenon.) A rookie detective (fresh-faced Mifune) has his Colt pickpocketed on a bus and combs Tokyo for its whereabouts. He can’t believe his bad fortune; the sweltering summer heat seems to be emanating from his brow alone.
The first thing you notice is just how much detecting is crammed into the proceedings; a lengthy early sequence has our hero running down several bad leads, growing a beard, rubbing shoulders with the homeless and still coming up with bubkes. Kurosawa, like the Italians picking through the rubble in The Bicycle Thief, is held rapt by the details of a ruined society rebuilding itself. And still, his movie is wedded to the satisfactions of by-the-book genre plotting—Kurosawa never forgets his audience. The result is a film that’s traditional yet modern, one that even includes a ball game.—Joshua Rothkopf