Stray Dog

Written by Michael Clawson

80/100

On another in a long line of sweltering summer days in post-war Japan, rookie cop Murakami (Toshiro Mifune), exhausted from a night without sleep, boards an uncomfortably packed city bus after leaving the gun range, and upon deboarding, realizes his colt has been pickpocketed. On foot, he chases after the man he suspects is the culprit, but loses him. Murakami is an honest, upright new recruit, so he immediately reports the incident to his chief, who isn’t anywhere as concerned as Murakami is about there being one more gun out there amid the general public. From the chief’s perspective, the difference is marginal, but to Murakami, it’s devastating. Any blood drawn by the gun will be on his hands, and the guilt bearing down on him is as oppressive as the brutal seasonal heat.

Initially, Murakami seeks out the thief on his own. A colleague helps to lead him to the realization that there might have been an accomplice, and sure enough, when Murakami sifts through mugshots of previously booked pickpockets, he recognizes a woman from his miserable bus ride. He tracks her down and tails her around the city in one of two extended montages in which Kurosawa dexterously condenses action down into a suspenseful string of shots. The second such montage comes shortly thereafter as Murakami puts on dirtied up civilian gear and prowls the backstreets and alleyways of downtown, hoping he’ll be approached by a pistol dealer. Murakami picks up a trail that looks like it could lead him to the thief, and joins up with the more experienced officer Satō (Takashi Shimura, another Kurosawa regular) to see the trail to its end.

The colt does indeed inflict harm before Murakami is able to retrieve it, and that only strengthens his single-minded determination to find the criminal. But how much violence or illegality is he really preventing even if he does get the gun back in his holster before it’s been emptied of bullets? With his obsessiveness, it’s as if he thinks all crime and wrongdoing rested squarely on his shoulders, and there’s something heartening about his optimistic albeit naive thinking that he alone can prevent so much suffering. The culprit, after all, turns out to be a desperate veteran, only one of many in the aftermath of traumatizing war. A commentary on the social ills of post-war Japan thus lies beneath what on its surface is an expertly crafted film noir.

Stray Dog Trailer

Stray Dog is currently available to stream on the Criterion Channel

Gojira (1954)

Written by Nick McCann

91/100

Pretend, reader, that you were a citizen of Japan in mid-summer of 1945… yeah that sucked. The atom bombings of World War 2 left a permanent stain on that country and the world. The nuclear age was born and affected everything that followed. Cinema of course took notice. While America was taking advantage of this themselves, the land of the rising sun was brewing something straight from the heart at Toho Studios. That turned into one of the greatest monster movies ever.

This first outing in the long running series does not mess around. Instead of tongue-in-cheek fun as seen in most American sci-fi, “Gojira” tells a grim tale with a blunt real-world parallel. There is suspense from the start and director Ishiro Honda maintains a solid pace throughout. Frankly it can get horrifying! As a viewer, you are always reminded of the gravity of the situation. It leaves little room for respite and earns its tone. Even when the message is dead obvious, it never feels intrusive. It works both as a monster movie and a stern warning for what destructive power awaits us in our future.

That power is encapsulated in Godzilla himself. He still looks threatening to this day. His design iconic and the performance by the suit actor–great. He may be a guy in a rubber suit but he always feels like a looming presence, on and off screen. The special effects are of course dated in spots. Yet Godzilla’s rampages still have a dark and explosive quality, be it a collapsing model building or raging fire. Sound design is also intense, between Godzilla’s mean, echoing roar and a barrage of cannon and machine gun fire.

Accentuating this is some gritty camera work. The low angle coverage and overall look of the black and white film stock makes it all the more foreboding to watch. It’s directed as if this were an actual event, capturing all aspects of the chaos and subsequent aftermath. Lain over top is a grim score by Akira Ifukube. With it’s brash sound, it gives everything heightened power. Not to mention the times when it doesn’t play and lets sound effects take over are quite effective.

Last of note is the cast. They may not have the most deep personalities or dynamics, but they are well on the money in their performances. Akira Takarada is a dependable leading man while Momoko Kochi is a good emotional center as she takes in more of the situation. Two standouts though are Takashi Shimura and Akihiko Hirata. Shimura as the paleontologist Yamane has a wise presence and shows heartfelt sorrow for Godzilla’s scientific potential. Then there’s Hirata as Dr. Serizawa, a man troubled by his creations and feels guilt at the possibility of what it could entail. As he becomes more involved, you can track how much everything weighs on him.

Anyone who says monster movies are trite need only look to this movie for proof of a quality execution. “Gojira” is just as much of an eye-opener of social commentary as it is a thrilling monster movie. Through its titular creature and blockbuster filmmaking, it’s dour story is a stern warning as to what nuclear power means for humanity. It also laid the stepping stone for what has now become a legendary franchise. Don’t miss out.

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