Feature Four Frames

Heat as a psychological and aesthetic motif: Akira Kurosawa’s Stray Dog

Right from his directorial debut Sanshiro Sugata (Sugata Sanshiro, 1943), climate phenomena played an essential role in the films of Akira Kurosawa. In Sanshiro Sugata, for example, it is the wind blowing through the pampas grass, reinforcing the tension in the climactic fight scene between Sanshiro and his rival Higaki. In Kurosawa’s films, human drama is repeatedly linked to meteorological phenomena such as wind, rain, snow, and also heat. Far more than simply following convention, they are subtle metaphors reflecting not only the emotional state of the characters but also social conditions. They go beyond the typical representations of nature in Japanese culture and films, serving a symbolic as well as a kinetic purpose in Kurosawa’s cinema, a cinema so very much preoccupied with movement.  

© 1949 Toho Company

Oppressive heat recurs throughout this Japanese director’s œuvre and is magisterially explored in Stray Dog (Nora inu, 1949), where high temperatures recall the long and hot Tokyo summers but above all are signifiers of the mental state of the film’s main protagonist and of the Japanese people in the immediate post-war era. Stray Dog starts with a reference to the heat when a voice from the off accompanying the close-up shot of a panting dog says: “One stifling day …”. The dog makes only this one appearance, but Kurosawa, continually emphasizing the sticky humidity of hot summer days, employs heat as a central motif. The sweltering heat is not only mentioned in several of the dialogues, the mise-en-scene making it almost tangible too.

Stray Dog borrows elements from the crime film for its vivid portrayal of post-war Japan. Its main protagonist, Murakami (Toshiro Mifune), is a young police officer who is trying to recover his revolver, which has been stolen. His quest for the weapon becomes an inner journey during which Murakami is confronted with his own feelings of guilt and with his dark side.

His investigations leads him into the lower depths of the city – cheap bars, Tokyo’s black market and slum dwellings – visual signs of a society still recovering from the wounds of the recent war. The people on the crowded streets and the exhausted dancers in the cabaret are all shown sweating profusely. The heat – externally a sign of lust and hunger for life – contributes to the film’s portrayal of a society filled with a feverish energy and of human beings trying to escape from the anxiety and misery they endured for many years.

© 1949 Toho Company

However, the dancers with their energy are part of the entertainment industry. Offered for mere consumption, this represents no more than a short-lived form of escapism. Criticism of the consumer society and of pure materialism is expressed in other films by Kurosawa such as Ikiru (1952). Stray Dog, however, establishes strong links between mass consumption and the United States of America as the nation that has brought this economic system to Japan, a defeated nation that has sheepishly accepted this superficial lifestyle. A reminder of American influence is created by the shots of a baseball match and also by the fact that the stolen weapon is an American one – a Colt. The implied criticism is more fully expressed in the sequence in which Harumi (Keiko Awaji), one of the cabaret dancers and the mistress of Yusa (Isao Kimura), the man who is on the run with Murakami’s weapon, shows Murakami the western-style gown Yusa has managed to procure for her. Her desire for this elegant dress led him to commit a robbery during which he killed a woman with the stolen firearm. A mere whim, reinforced by the wish for a better life, has cost the life of a human being.

The almost nine-minute-long sequence at the black market in Tokyo, secretly filmed by Ishiro Honda, Kurosawa’s assistant with a small hidden camera, reveals the chaos and the fragility of a Japanese society slowly recovering from the ignominy of defeat. Technical means such as wipes, superimposition and dissolves, the transition from day to night and from heat to rain and back to heat represent the duration of Murakami’s search for Yusa at the black market in Tokyo’s Ueno and Asakusa districts. The fragmentation created by various cinematic devices contributes to the portrait of the cityscape as a symbol of a nation facing rapid change but lacking orientation.

Just as he does in other films with rain and wind, Kurosawa transforms sunlight and heat into pure cinematic expression, into vectors of movement. Filtered through the reed blinds, the sun casts patterns of shadow and sunlight on the bodies of the people and the objects in the black market, contributing to the fragmentation created through editing and other mise-en-scène devices. The film includes numerous shots of people drenched in sweat who are fanning themselves or wiping their faces with handkerchiefs, thereby adding movement to otherwise rather static dialogue scenes. 

© 1949 Toho Company

This same effect is achieved when Murakami plays nervously with his fan. His agitation and the way his hands tensely hold the fan reveal his inner turmoil, emphasizing that his quest for the lost weapon has become an obsession. Its loss is a source of shame and at the same time a reference to Murakami’s emasculation. A pistol can be a rather obvious symbol for the phallus, but Kurosawa’s subtle approach to post-war Japan undermines this stereotypical interpretation, suggesting instead how helpless Japanese men may have felt after defeat and under occupation.

The film also contains numerous references to the war and reminders of the fate of Japanese soldiers. In contrast to his older and more experienced colleagues and in particular to Sato (Takashi Shimura), who takes young Murakami under his wing, Murakami is less relaxed and seems to take life more seriously. While the other policemen wear short-sleeved shirts with open collars, Murakami wears a summer suit and a tie despite the fact that his face is covered with beads of sweat. When he reports the loss of his weapon to a senior police officer, he positions himself in front of the man’s desk respectfully and standing to attention.

Everything in his behaviour alludes to the fact that he was a soldier during the war, and it is his old and ragged military uniform that Murakami puts on for his visit to the black market. Far more than simply a disguise, this uniform is symbolic of a society still haunted by its recent past. The uniform, this reminder of the war, enables Murakami to become part of the urban underworld dominated by crime and misery. Scrutinizing the crowd at the black market and looking for Yusa, his eyes in close-up and superimposed over the bustling streets, Murakami merges into the crowd. His uniform is quickly stained by perspiration, sweat expressing the psychological burden the protagonist has to bear.

Murakami’s search in the chaotic world of the black market, where entire families and homeless soldiers live on the street, implies a return to the past. His feelings of guilt are heightened by the fact that Yusa has killed someone with his (Murakami’s) Colt. Questions of guilt and individual and collective responsibility become intertwined, embracing past and present, the violence of the war, and the crime committed by an ex-soldier who, just like many of his kind, is despised by his fellow Japanese. The “stray dog” is Yusa, the alienated former soldier, a representative of the many Japanese soldiers who have returned and are often treated no better than abandoned or even mad dogs.

Kurosawa’s film establishes a strong link between Murakami and Yusa, depicting both as traumatized. Yusa is an absence-presence in most of the film, an invisible threat to society, whereas Murakami’s violence is directed against himself. His vulnerability is revealed by his constant agitation, which comes close to hysteria in the scene at the hospital where Sato is taken after Yusa has shot and wounded him. Murakami’s obsessive behaviour is brilliantly expressed by Mifune’s intense acting style. In the hospital scene, he shouts and cries out, giving vent to his character’s confusion and despair.

© 1949 Toho Company

The doppelgänger motif is expressed in visual terms after Murakami has chased and managed to apprehend Yusa. Murakami is lying in the grass, the handcuffed Yusa next to him. Both are clad in white summer suits covered with mud, underlining their physical resemblance.

The chase and the subsequent arrest of Yusa, Murakami’s dark double, are an essential part of Murakami’s healing process. This is symbolized once again by the weather: the overwhelming heat replaced by torrential rainfall. However, the rain does not wash away all of Murakami’s fears and doubts. Exhausted by the chase, the two men are lying in the grass. The beautiful flowers growing there and the group of children passing by in the background singing the children’s song “The Butterfly” (“Chocho”) evoke the happiness of a world that has returned to peace. However, the innocence suggested by the children is deceptive. The joyful tune contrasts sharply with Yusa’s sobs and his long wailing cry, reminiscent of a wounded animal and a final expression of his hopelessness.

Yusa’s and Murakami’s knapsacks have been stolen. Harumi gives a justification for Yusa’s behaviour, saying that he became a criminal after his knapsack, containing all his belongings, was stolen. Unlike Yusa, Murakami has chosen law and order and assumes social responsibility. In the final sequence, his life (and, by extension, society as a whole) seems to have returned to normality, Murakami now wearing a short-sleeved white shirt and with no tie. However, his head lowered and with a sad expression on his face, he explains to Sato that he still has some sympathy for Yusa and is unable to forget him. Sato, who lacks his younger colleague’s war experience, suggests: “Forget about Yusa. No, as soon as your arm heals, you’ll be busy again. You’ll forget about Yusa, naturally”. Sato tells Murakami to take a look at the street, where crimes will continue to be committed. Murakami does so, looking at the street before directing his gaze to the sky. Has Sato’s optimistic but rather banal advice convinced him? The open ending suggests that the past cannot easily be erased. Kurosawa’s avoidance of a cathartic solution points to an understanding of society’s complexity and reinforces the film’s ambivalent portrayal of Japan in the early post-war years and, more generally, of the human condition.

By Andrea Grunert

Andrea Grunert is an independent scholar (Ph.D University Paris X, with a dissertation on the films of Clint Eastwood and the American frontier) and freelance writer and lecturer in film and cultural studies. She has published widely in France and Germany. She is the editor of three books published by Charles Corlet (France): Le corps filmé (2006), L’écran des frontières (2010) and De la pauvreté (2013). Her Dictionnaire Clint Eastwood is out in French bookshops, published by Vendémiaire.

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