Thursday, 18 February 2016

Akira Kurosawa on ‘Stray Dog’

Stray Dog (Directed by Akira Kurosawa)
A bad day gets worse for young detective Murakami when a pickpocket steals his gun on a hot, crowded bus. Desperate to right the wrong, he goes undercover, scavenging Tokyo’s sweltering streets for the stray dog whose desperation has led him to a life of crime. With each step, cop and criminal’s lives become more intertwined and the investigation becomes an examination of Murakami’s own dark side. Starring Toshiro Mifune, as the rookie cop, and Takashi Shimura, as the seasoned detective who keeps him on the right side of the law, Stray Dog (Nora Inu) goes beyond a crime thriller, probing the squalid world of postwar Japan and the nature of the criminal mind. – (via Criterion)

The following is a brief excerpt from Kurosawa’s autobiography, Something Like an Autobiography, in which he discusses the writing and production of Stray Dog.


Maupassant instructed aspiring writers to extend their vision into realms where no one else could see, and to keep it up until the hitherto invisible became visible to everyone. 

I first wrote the screenplay of Stray Dog in the form of a novel. I am fond of the work of Georges Simenon, so I adopted his style of writing novels about social crime. This process took me a little less than six weeks, so I figured that I’d be able to rewrite it as a screenplay in ten days or so. Far from it. It proved to be a far more difficult task than writing a scenario from scratch, and it took me close to two months.

But, as I reflect on it, it’s perfectly understandable that this should have happened. A novel and a screenplay are, after all, entirely different things. The freedom for psychological description one has in writing a novel is particularly difficult to adapt to a screenplay with­out using narration. But, thanks to the unexpected travail of adapting the descriptions of the novel form to a screenplay, I attained a new awareness of what screenplays and films consist of. At the same time, I was able to incorporate many peculiarly novelistic modes of expres­sion into the script.


For example, I understood that in novel-writing certain structural techniques can be employed to strengthen the impression of an event and narrow the focus upon it. What I learned was that in the editing process a film can gain similar strength through the use of comparable structural techniques. The story of Stray Dog begins with a young police detective on his way home from marksmanship practice at the headquarters’ range. He gets on a crowded bus, and in the unusually intense summer heat and crush of bodies his pistol is stolen. When I filmed this sequence and edited it according to the passage of chrono­logical time, the effect was terrible. As an introduction to a drama it was slow, the focus was vague and it failed to grip the viewer.

Troubled, I went back to look at the way I had begun the novel. I had written as follows: ‘It was the hottest day of that entire summer.’ Immediately I thought, ‘That’s it.’ I used a shot of a dog with its tongue hanging out, panting. Then the narration begins, ‘It was unbearably hot that day.’ After a sign on a door indicating ‘Police Head­quarters, First Division,’ I proceeded to the interior. The chief of the First Detective Division glares up from his desk. ‘What? Your pistol was stolen?’ Before him stands the contrite young detective who is the hero of the story. This new way of editing the opening sequence gave me a very short piece of film, but it was extremely effective in drawing the viewer suddenly into the heart of the drama.


Stray Dog is made up of many short scenes in many different settings, so the little sound stage we used was cleared and redecorated with lightning speed. On fast days we shot five or six different scenes on it. As soon as the set was ready, we’d shoot and be done again, so the art department had no choice but to build and decorate sets while we slept.

At any rate, the filming of Stray Dog went remarkably well, and we finished ahead of schedule. The excellent pace of the shooting and the good feeling of the crew working together can be sensed in the completed film.

I remember how it was on Saturday nights when we boarded a bus to go home for a day off after a full week’s hard work. Everyone was happy. At the time I was living in Komae, far out of the city near the Tamagawa River, so toward the end of the ride I was always left alone. The solitary last rider on the cavernous empty bus, I always felt more loneliness at being separated from my crew than I did joy at being reunited with my family.

Now the pleasure in the work we experienced on Stray Dog seems like a distant dream. The films an audience really enjoys are the ones that were enjoyable in the making. Yet pleasure in the work can't be achieved unless you know you have put all of your strength into it and have done your best to make it come alive. A film made in this spirit reveals the hearts of the crew.


– Excerpt from ‘Akira Kurosawa: Something Like an Autobiography’ (Vintage Books, 1983)