It doesn't surprise me that when Akira Kurosawa made a cop movie, he was influenced less by American film noirs than by Jules Dassin's shot-on-location procedural The Naked City. Kurosawa was more a naturalist than an expressionist, more elemental than chiaroscuro, so the whole shadows-and-light thing probably didn't impress him as much as it did others. As it is, there are faint parallels with an American procedural noir made the same year, Alfred Werker and Anthony Mann's He Walked By Night, though these shouldn't be overstressed. It comes down to an increasingly desperate manhunt for a seeming supercriminal, but for Kurosawa the criminal matters less than his pursuer, while in He Walked By Night the criminal is the most fully (or nearly) developed character. What Kurosawa mainly seems interested in is personal responsibility, as shown by his protagonist, a rookie police detective whose stolen gun is used in the criminal's crimes. As the rookie, Toshiro Mifune is driven by an already-awful sense of guilt that grows worse as robberies and a murder are traced back to the stolen gun. When the criminal nearly kills his new mentor (Takashi Shimura, inevitably), the rookie's guilt nearly breaks him, despite every well-meaning effort of his more seasoned colleagues to put all the blame for the crimes on the criminal. Once he starts using it it's his gun, not yours, they tell him, but you can't blame the rookie for feeling as bad as he does, especially once you understand that it's exactly that acute sense of responsibility that sets him apart from his antagonist (Isao Kimura). Both men are war veterans who were robbed on their way home. One man lashes out at society for that offense, among others, by becoming a criminal, while our hero becomes a cop. It's not that he blames himself for getting his stuff stolen, but it's his refusal to surrender to cynicism or rage, or to hold the whole world responsible, that makes him a hero.
Mifune is still young here, though Rashomon isn't far away, but it's still impressive that someone we recognize as one of cinema's mightiest badasses can so convincingly play someone so green and, in some ways, naive. Just the same, the film is nearly stolen from him by Keiko Awaji, playing the criminal's showgirl sweetheart, whose tough exterior is under siege by the rookie and her own mother. She gets one of the film's most memorable and gratuitous scenes as one of an dance team hoofing away at some seedy theater. Their routine over, the showgirls stagger back to their dressing room and collapse en masse in an almost orgiastic sprawl of exhaustion. Kurosawa lingers, half-leering, half-sympathetic, as the dancers catch their breath. As one might expect, he has a number of nice set pieces distributed throughout the picture, from Mifune's Droopy Dog-like stalking of a possible lead on the sale of his gun to the stakeout of a baseball stadium and the use of the PA system to lure the criminal into a trap. I said Kurosawa was an elemental director, and there's plenty of rain here to prove it, and an even more effective evocation of oppressive summer heat. Stray Dog is a slickly-made film and I suppose some will take it as further proof that Kurosawa spent too much time aping western genres and archetypes, but the emotional element of the film and Mifune's intensely emotive lead performance set this Japanese cop movie apart from its more world-weary or hard-boiled American models and mark it as an unmistakably personal film.