Film Noir and Akira Kurosawa

Akira Kurosawa

Akira Kurosawa is one of the most celebrated film directors in history. Born in Tokyoin 1910, Kurosawa became an assistant director at Photo Chemical Libraries in 1936. Kurosawa spent most of his time as an assistant director under the famous Kajiro Yamamoto learning everything from location scouting and film development to script editing and lighting. Yamamoto encouraged Kurosawa to master screen writing if he ever wanted to be a good director. Kurosawa would go on to write or co-write all of his own films. Kurosawa began his directing career with Sanshiro Sugata (1943) and went on to achieve Western popularity with Rashomon (1951) and most notably The Seven Samurai (1954). This essay will trace both the legacy of Kurosawa and the manner in which his films, namely The Stray Dog (1949), are rooted noir and filled with popular film noir elements.

Kurosawa once said, “I am very fond of Georges Simenon and I wanted to do something in his manner” (Richie 58). Simenon was a 1930’s French author famous for his crime fiction novels which heavily influenced French film noir. Simenon’s influence can be seen through his writing which downplayed violence and action in exchange for a dark visual and thematic atmosphere. By claiming admiration of Simenon, Kurosawa clearly identified his films and inspiration in the film noir style.

Vice and nightclubs in The Stray Dog (1949)


In The Stray Dog, a rookie detective named Murakami has his gun pick pocketed from him on a crowded bus. He then goes through the difficult process of tracking down the thief, who is using the gun to rob and murder, and is led to a ring of underground gun racketeering. With the help of his partner, Sato, and the thief’s (Yussa) sweetheart, Harumi Namiki, Murakami is finally able to arrest the thief, Yussa, and retrieve his gun.

The Stray Dog is filled with common film noir plot elements both in terms of characters and setting. The film takes place in a post-war, war ravaged, urban underworld in which Murakami finds himself involved with the black market, all of which are characteristics found in almost every film noir. The urban setting was similarly characterized by urban angst and contained grungy, shabby housing. Like other noir films, The Stray Dog moved out of the studio and was consisted largely of location shooting in Tokyo.

      The film also features the scene of Sato having been shot by Yussa and left for dead in the night rain in a dark, urban alleyway. This type of dark scenery is a staple of film noir and can be seen in several Kurosawa films.

While not made up of many of the off angle shots found in many noir films, The Stray Dog does contain a great deal of wide angle shots mixed with claustrophobically tight close-ups. The opening scene where we see Murakami on the bus is an excellent example. The film also opens with a voice-over narration which provides background information on the character and sets up the storyline. Voice-overs, narration, and flashbacks are all characteristic of film noir both in America and Europe.

Tight, claustrophobic close-up.

The main character, Murakami, is a typical noir private eye detective charged with bringing justice to an equally typical crime and punishment plot. He represents the commonly emasculated male character, which is the result of him losing his gun, the one and only thing he has that distinguishes him as a detective rather than a common man. We also see veterans returning from and the lives and the challenges they face in reentering society. Kurosawa conveys these struggles through Yussa and Sato, one of whom takes up a life up crime and the other who enters law enforcement.

The Stray Dog also features a weak female character, typical of European rather than American noir. In the film, Harumi is clearly important to the plot and central to tracking down Yussa, but hardly represents a femme fatale typical of American film noir.

      Kurosawa addressed social themes of law and order, where policemen and government agents are charged with destroying the enemy. Like many American noir films, the ending witness resolution and finality through the obtaining of justice in which the criminal meets his inevitable fate.

In Kurosawa’s High and Low (1963), we see the story of a rich shoemaker, Gondo, who is told his son has been kidnapped for ransom. After learning that it was in fact someone else’s son who had been mistakenly kidnapped, Gondo weighs the decision of whether or not to pay the ransom anyway. After deciding to, the film shifts gears and begins to focus on the search for the kidnapper, which in the style of many film noirs, is inevitably successful.

The ending of The Stray Dog sees the two men fighting on the ground; good and evil together and as one. In High and Low, however, we know that there is a clear good and evil. It is separated, in fact, by prison bars. In the final scene though, Kurosawa “is showing us something entirely different. He is suggesting that, despite everything, good and evil are the same, that all men are equal” (Richie 170). In this way, Kurosawa actually moves away from noir’s existential focus on the individual and portrays man as ultimately equal and united.

High and Low (1963)

Similarly, Kurosawa plays with the title of The Stray Dog and challenges the viewer to pick up on the irony of the dialogue. When Sato says that “killers are like mad dogs. You know how a mad dog acts. There is even a saying about them” ‘Mad dogs can only see what they are after.’” Ironically, Murakami fits this description just as much as the thief. After losing his gun, he himself has become a mad dog bent on finding his gun and arresting the thief at any cost, even against such unlikely odds.

Akira Kurosawa made a name for himself as one of the greatest filmmakers in history both through his deep and brilliant screenplays and through his masterful directing technique. Through his films we can see extensive elements of film noir in both his characters and plot setting that are reminiscent of their American and European counterparts.

by Alex Daley


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