Kurosawa: Past and Present Tense

TERRENCE RAFFERTY – The New York Times

Copyright The New York Times
WHEN you think of Akira Kurosawa, you think, most likely, of swords and flags, of castles under siege, of men in dark armor and women in brilliant kimonos, of horses galloping to battle in driving rain. The movie that brought Kurosawa — and Japanese cinema as a whole — to the attention of the world, “Rashomon” (1950), was set in the distant past, and practically all the most celebrated films of the remaining 40-plus years of his career were historical dramas, too: “The Seven Samurai” (1954), “Throne of Blood” (1957), “Yojimbo” (1961), “Sanjuro” (1962) and “Ran” (1985). So it might seem a little strange that Film Forum’s centennial Kurosawa retrospective should begin (on Wednesday) with a nine-day run of the 1949 urban noir “Stray Dog,” in which there isn’t a horse or a castle in sight, and where the weapon of choice is a Colt pistol.
It shouldn’t. Of the 30 movies Kurosawa directed, better than half tell stories of present-day Japan, and a fair number of them, including “Stray Dog,” rank with his greatest works. “Stray Dog,” his ninth film, is a kind of police-procedural thriller, in which a young Tokyo homicide detective named Murakami (Toshiro Mifune) roams the crowded streets of the postwar city in search of his stolen gun. At first he merely feels humiliated, but before long much more painful emotions take hold. He learns, to his horror, that his gun is being used to commit robberies: one woman is seriously injured; the next dies. Murakami, crazed with grief and guilt, combs the seedier quarters of the sprawling city, where everybody looks hungry and desperate, wearied by an unrelenting summer heat. He trudges through this unwelcoming terrain with the grim persistence of a soldier making his way home after a lost campaign.
Murakami is in fact a veteran of his country’s disastrous recent war, and so, it turns out, is the criminal he’s tracking. His partner, a more experienced detective named Sato (Takashi Shimura), has to caution him not to feel too much sympathy for his prey. The young cop’s conflicted emotions generate an unusual sort of suspense, a heightened apprehensiveness. The world of “Stray Dog” is one in which anything can happen, in which people no longer know with any confidence how to act rightly: a world whose standards of behavior have become dangerously slippery. Murakami winds up wrestling with the killer, his criminal alter ego, in a muddy field, a place that doesn’t look like it belongs in a city — in civilization — at all. It looks a bit like the primeval forest in which the action of “Rashomon” takes place, that shadowy no man’s land of ambiguity and moral confusion.
And as in “Rashomon” the filmmaking in “Stray Dog” conveys an extraordinary sense of urgency, a fierce need to capture the complexities of human behavior while everything is still fresh and volatile. These are strikingly unsettled-looking movies, composed with care but betraying nonetheless a profound uncertainty about the forms society, and film, should take in the postwar world: nothing fixed or stable, everything at risk. You can feel Kurosawa’s excitement at the prospect of reinventing the conventions of his national cinema, and at the larger idea that the Japanese might have a chance, after long catastrophe, to reimagine themselves.
In a way Kurosawa’s modern-day films (the Japanese call them gendai-geki, to distinguish them from jidai-geki, historical films) reveal more of that almost messianic streak in his nature, his serene determination to remake the world — or at least to show the strange, turbulent process of its remaking. In “No Regrets for Our Youth” (1946), he had even allowed himself to entertain the possibility of a kind of back-to-the-land redemption for his shamed nation, and trotted out an impressive array of heroic Soviet-style cinematic techniques to drive the message home.
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