Stray Dogs and Wandering Montages

A couple of months ago, I watched Kurosawa’s Stray Dog (1949) with a friend when it was playing at the Pacific Film Archive. For those unfamiliar with it, the film traces the story of a policeman after his gun is stolen from him and used in a series of violent crimes for which he feels personally responsible. He attempts to chase down the gun before it’s used again, in a film filled with moody tension as he, and viewers, wait for the other shoe to drop. Shot entirely in black and white, Stray Dog provides fascinating glimpses of post-war Tokyo, and it’s a really fantastic piece of storytelling.

But I’m not writing today to review the film, although I will note that if you haven’t seen it, it’s well worth tracking down a copy for your viewing pleasure. Like Kurosawa’s other films, Stray Dog uses complex camera angles, elegant lighting, and a great score to create a compelling visual story that lingers long after you watch it. It has a certain kind of aesthetic quality that’s not seen in a lot of film today, where the goal is not just to tell a story, but to tell it beautifully and with grace, even when the story itself at times becomes quite ugly.

One of the striking scenes in the film takes place when our hero Murakami (Toshiro Mifune) walks through downtown Tokyo in search of an illicit arms dealer, hoping to connect with the person who might have his gun. A source has told him that if he wanders around looking desperate, he’ll eventually be approached by someone offering a gun for sale or rent.

In a modern-day US film, this might involve a montage that takes place over the course of 90 seconds or so. A series of brief, stuttered clips meant to convey that the detective spends hours or possibly days searching, feeling increasingly disheartened and frustrated. His grubby clothes, originally put on to create a picture, would become authentically dirty, and the music would take us quickly through the montage and to the end, where, of course, our hero meets up with someone promising access to a gun if he meets ‘the bitch with the flower’ at a certain cafe.

That’s not how the narrative played out here, though. Instead, Kurosawa lingered over this part of the film, cutting back and forth from a variety of camera angles, showing us Murakami’s feet trudging through a variety of districts, Murakami eating noodles, Murakami slumped against a wall. The montage was lengthy and detailed, conveying an actual sense of time elapsing and growing frustration—the hasty detective is forced to work at the pace of a beat police officer, patiently waiting for his break, and it chafes at him. It’s a brilliantly-done montage that speaks to certain expectations of the audience as well as vision on the part of the creator.

The modern US audience watching the film, I could tell, was uncomfortable. People around us in the theatre shifted and coughed, and remember, this was the sort of crowd that thinks going to see a Kurosawa film on a Saturday night is a good use of their time, so they were a rather pre-selected group to begin with, the sort of people who ought to have patience for a lengthy and stellar montage. But a lot of them weren’t demonstrating that patience, and were visibly relieved when the film picked up its pace again, returning to the faster track of getting closer and closer to the people involved in the crime and their audacious deeds with the gun, which had taken on a life of its own at this point.

I, on the other hand, actually really loved the montage. One part of me enjoyed it on a purely historic level, because it was a fascinating slice of what Tokyo looked like after the war, taking us through a series of winding streets and businesses and homes. Unwittingly, Kurosawa created a historic document with the devoted and elegant exploration of Murakami’s search, showing us not just Murakami’s changing moods but also the changing world around him, and the generational shifts that were happening in the Japan of the time. It was something that wouldn’t have been captured in a much shorter montage, which by nature would have had to focus specifically on the character rather than his environment to pack a similar punch for viewers.

And I liked how the montage drew us along with Murakami’s journey not just as observers, but participants. We were part of his quest instead of simply watchers, with every minute creating more personal investment in the outcome of his search. That’s something I don’t often see in modern US films, which tend to be presented not as immersive experiences but as entertainments, performances for us to watch rather than directly engage in. One storytelling style takes us inside the world and forces us to stay there, while the other allows us to step back.

I confess that I really enjoy being taken inside the world, rather than left on the fringes. It pushes me to go deeper into the film and think about my responses to it as well as the characters, and it makes the film more memorable in the long term. I find myself still talking about films like these long after I’ve seen them because they aren’t throwaway, popcorn entertainment designed to fill me up for two hours and then quietly vaporise, drifting out of my mind almost as soon as I watch them.

What Kurosawa demands and expects of his audiences is respect for the medium, and love for what can be created by someone who is passionate about film and dedicated to storytelling. And I like a filmmaker who is willing and ready to do these things.