By TERRENCE RAFFERTY
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.
“No Regrets” is a surprisingly affecting film, but it’s clear that Kurosawa isn’t wholly comfortable with either its simple moral solutions or its borrowed aesthetic. It took him only a couple more years to figure out a better way. In “Drunken Angel” (1948), which Kurosawa often referred to as his breakthrough, he devised a style that somehow combined the formal restraint of traditional Japanese cinema with the irreverence and nervous energy of Hollywood movies: it looked entirely new, like nothing else Eastern or Western.
The drunken angel of the title is a gruff neighborhood doctor named Sanada (Shimura), who does bend the elbow rather too enthusiastically but is utterly dedicated to his patients’ health: a man who goes to great lengths to save even those who don’t seem worth saving, like the consumptive yakuza Matsunaga (Mifune, in his first film for Kurosawa). Although Matsunaga is a nightmarishly bad patient, with about as much respect for doctor’s orders as he has for the law, Sanada gives it his all anyway, scolding and cajoling and making rude remarks (putting his own well being, at times, in some peril). “Drunken Angel” is an unlikely mixture of soap opera and gangster movie, and although it’s less consistently electrifying than “Stray Dog,” it’s a very satisfying picture: Kurosawa’s style feels appropriate for the time and the place and characters, and redemption is achieved, believably.
The great jidai-geki are all represented in the Film Forum series, which ends with a two-week run of Kurosawa’s spectacular 1985 “King Lear” adaptation, “Ran,” and they are among the most thrilling movie experiences a viewer can have. But the gendai-geki, less picturesque, contain some of Kurosawa’s most inventive filmmaking, and some of his most provocative reflections on the human condition in the last, violent century. “Ikiru” (1952) and “The Bad Sleep Well” (1960) are remarkably trenchant examinations of the mid-century ills of bureaucracy and big business. And as much as I love “The Seven Samurai,” there are times when I think that the Kurosawa movie I’d take to the proverbial desert island would be his 1963 kidnapping thriller “High and Low.”
That film, which is based on, of all things, one of Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels, is also a police procedural, but to an even greater extent than in “Stray Dog” Kurosawa blows up the genre and puts the pieces back together in a completely new way. He begins with the moral dilemma of a businessman (inevitably, Mifune) deciding whether to pay the ransom for his chauffeur’s abducted son — an amount of money that would effectively wipe out his assets. This first part of the movie has a claustrophobic chamber-drama feel to it, with the camera roving through a single set, in long, long takes.
But when “High and Low” finally gets out of the house, it’s there to stay, as the police track the kidnapper through hot, bustling Yokohama and take us into a real world that is, if anything, even more disturbing than the devastated Tokyo of “Stray Dog.” Although there’s more prosperity in evidence — the businessman’s modern house sits complacently on a hill — there’s more disappointment too, more class resentment and festering envy. The movie’s construction is eclectic, radical, counterintuitive: it changes focus as swiftly, and as exhilaratingly, as the climactic battle of “The Seven Samurai.” And like that film, “High and Low” is for all its jangly modernity about the struggle to survive. Some do, some don’t, in every time and every place. The movie ends with a scream that sounds almost primal. Even without the armor and the horses and the swords, Kurosawa always made films about history, because he knew that we were living it.