How a Stray Dog Becomes Rabid

The Criterion Collection

My family and I moved to Los Angeles at the beginning of what would turn out to be California’s hottest year on record. For my wife, who had grown up in L.A. and loathed the winters of the East Coast, this was, if anything, good news — it was as if California were welcoming her back, making up for the Snowmageddons and the hurricane weather she’d endured in her time there. But I had trouble seeing it the same way.

As someone who’s never really understood the appeal of summer, I knew L.A. would be an adjustment, but the unrelenting intensity of that year still caught me off-guard, and the sun – the omnipresent sun – soon became the driving force behind every little thing that went wrong after the move: I knew the commute would be rough, for instance, but I hadn’t been quite prepared to spend four hours a day on the road, watching the heat radiate off the cars idling around me, the windows up and the AC on full blast. I knew Los Angeles would put a strain on our finances, but I didn’t expect to have our car repossessed six months in. After that, I would walk the kids to preschool; less than five minutes out the door, I would be covered in sweat, and their little faces would quickly become beet red. I had expected some minor hardships like I had expected the warmth, but they had all managed to exceed these expectations. The more things went wrong, the more oppressive and maddening the heat became. Because when fortunes start to turn, the easiest thing in the world is to blame outside forces; to set the scenario up in such a way that it becomes an insurmountable wall that you can bang your head against.

It’s probably not a good sign to find common ground with a murderer, but in this sense, at least, I can see where the antagonist of Akira Kurosawa’s Stray Dog (1949) is coming from. Yusa (Isao Kimura) is a young man for whom the world has become an escalating series of misfortunes aimed squarely at him. He saw men become monsters during World War II and, upon his return, he found a world unwilling or unable to welcome him back. On the train ride home someone steals his knapsack, all his worldly possessions — a sign, it seems, that his troubles will not end just because the war is over. Now he lives in a homemade shack not fit for human habitation. He has no money and no job. In the winter his shed is an icebox, and in the summer, an oven. Outside his hut, a stray cat mews pitifully, begging for food. In what Yusa views as an act of mercy, he crushes the starving cat’s skull beneath his foot. Because for Yusa, to feed the cat would be to give it false hope.

Yusa is already plenty miserable, but it isn’t until a string of unbearably hot days hits Tokyo that he finally snaps and decides to do something desperate. A narrator first introduces us to this reality, but his words are superfluous — the hot spell’s influence is visible in every frame of Stray Dog. Characters are constantly wiping sweat off their faces, necks, and even armpits, fanning themselves with whatever object is at hand, while every exposed body part glistens with sweat and every article of clothing is soaked through. Whatever morality Yusa still clings to, whatever spirit he still has left, is finally broken during this heat wave.

So Yusa gets a gun. He needs one in order to rob a bank to give himself the life he deserves and to buy gifts for the showgirl he lusts after. Yusa’s mania isn’t caused by the weather, of course — it was only a matter of time before he finally broke — but when the world seems out to get you, every little indignity becomes another reason to despair, and for him, the summer sun is inescapable. So he rents a gun from a dealer in the city in order to change his own fortune. Unfortunately for him the gun is the stolen property of a policeman, one whose mania, though employed towards a different goal, stems from the same place as Yusa’s — a need to prove to the world he is more than just the things that happen to him.

What we learn about Yusa we learn through the journey of this policeman, a rookie detective named Murakami (Toshiro Mifune) who has every reason to hate the stifling atmosphere just as much as Yusa, if not more. His misfortune begins with a moment of carelessness brought on by the current heat and the sleeplessness of the previous night. On a crowded bus, an exhausted Murakami stands pressed up against the other passengers, sweat dripping from his face. He does not notice that the woman who stinks of cheap perfume has slipped her hand into his pocket, does not register its sudden lightness until he has already gotten off at his stop, finally free of the suffocation of the bus.

For Murakami, the transition back to civilian life was no better than Yusa’s. He too, had his knapsack stolen on the journey back — an occurrence more common than one would hope — and he too became frustrated and disillusioned. But where Yusa took this misfortune and used it to rail against the world around him, Murakami internalized it, extending his responsibility to everything he touched and that touched him.

After he learns about Yusa’s story from his sister, not long after the first bullet from his stolen Colt leaves a man wounded, Murakami sits down with Sato, the veteran detective assigned to the case (Takashi Shimura, playing perhaps one of the earliest examples of a detective too old for this shit) and, over beers, tries to explain why he doesn’t hate the criminal who is using his gun to hurt others. He understands where he is coming from, understands how he feels, and even though Murakami may have chosen a different path, he knows how close he came to being Yusa himself, to being that kitten crying in the rain. “They say there aren’t any bad men,” he tells Sato, “just bad situations.”

But Sato has been around much longer than Murakami; he’s had too many encounters with the Yusas of this world. “You can’t forget the many sheep a lone wolf leaves wounded,” he says, adding simply, “The bad guys are bad.” For Sato, the only thing the two men have in common is misfortune.

It’s not that nothing gets to Murakami. He feels every slight at least as deeply as Yusa does. He is not left unaffected by the unrelenting humidity or the havoc Yusa causes. But for Murakami, the heat is no excuse, his fatigue is no excuse; instead he sees their influence on him as his own personal failures, his lack of will, his lack of strength. His stolen gun is not something that happened to him, but something he failed to stop from happening.

When forensics pulls a bullet from the body of a murdered woman, he asks if it was one of his that killed her. His fellow officer replies, without hesitation, “No, it was one of Yusa’s.” But Murakami refuses to recognize the difference.

At the hospital, after a bullet leaves Sato seriously wounded, Murakami demands once again to know if it was his gun that did the deed. No one will answer; no one can look him in the eye. He collapses by the door of the operating room and screams at Sato, begging him not to die, and he continues to do so as his colleagues drag him away.

For my family, the nadir of that first year wasn’t quite so dramatic, but it did end with us in the hospital. My two-year-old son contracted a fever that caused him to seize — something he had never done, something we had never anticipated. He was fine — these types of seizures are more common than one would think, the doctor told us — but I couldn’t help holding it against our new home. It was as if the temperature outside had invaded my son’s body — the endless summer had gone from mildly annoying to actively harmful. I began to look at every cloudless day as a personal affront; a way of telling me that I was not welcome there. It wasn’t true or fair, of course, and I knew that, but I couldn’t quite let it go.

Because our problems weren’t nearly as dramatic and because we were not in a movie, I didn’t go out and rob a bank to get back at the world or to pay for the medical expenses we accrued. I didn’t hurt anyone or scream at the universe, but I wanted to. I was tired of taking responsibility for everything, even though everything was clearly my responsibility. I was tired of feeling like a failure. And it’s so much easier to get mad at something that can’t fight back than to take on the blame yourself.

Somewhere between Murakami and Yusa lies Harumi (Keiko Awaji), the showgirl with whom Yusa claims to be in love. Harumi doesn’t feel the same way about Yusa, but she appreciates his kindness, and she too feels the world has misused her. When Murakami confronts her, asking after the fugitive’s whereabouts, she rebuffs him. Sure, he bought her a dress using stolen money, but so what? She would have stolen it if she had the guts. “They deserve it for flaunting these things,” she tells him.

Why should Harumi care about what injustice Yusa has perpetrated? What kind of world treats its veterans this way? At least this time events have transpired to work in her favor. She puts the dress on in front of Murakami and twirls for him, telling him all the while how wonderful it is. But her words come out as screams.

Earlier in the movie, Murakami trails the woman who stinks of cheap perfume. He knows she can shed some light on the whereabouts of his gun, but she is refusing to do so. The woman spends the entire day trying to ditch him, to exhaust him, but he is dogged, determined, and finally, she gives up. She comes out to him in the cool of the night and tells him what he wants to know; doing so is a great relief. The woman sighs and lies back, appreciating the slightly less stifling night air, looking at the clear night sky. “In the last twenty years,” she sighs, “I’ve forgotten how wonderful the stars are.”

There has to be a happy medium between Yusa and Murakami. There is only so far you can get, blaming the sun, because the sun is just a big dumb star that will shine on you whether you welcome it or not. But you can’t take everything on yourself, either, even if you should. That is another sort of madness that can leave you collapsed outside a hospital door, consumed by guilt. The pickpocket may not have it all figured out, but at least she knows when she must finally let go, lie back, and appreciate the stars.

When Yusa is finally caught, he too, has the opportunity to lie back and look at the sky — to rest, if only for a moment, and if only while wearing handcuffs. It is a beautiful summer day, the heat wave has finally broken. Above him are flowers in bloom; a dragonfly flits by. In the background he can even hear children singing. He sees beauty in the world, but realizes he abandoned it long ago. Like Harumi and Murakami before him, he screams, but he knows there is no one who will listen.

In the hospital, a recovering Sato tells Murakami to look out of the window at the city below him. Out there, he says, there are many Yusas, and a few good people who will become their next victim. Murakami may not yet be able to get Yusa out of his head, but soon he will blend in with all the other arrests Murakami will make. Soon he will just hate them, that’s all.

In Stray Dog, it’s a thunderstorm that finally breaks the heat. It even contributes to Murakami catching Yusa at last — he slips in the mud when fleeing Sato and stains his new linen suit, giving Murakami the opportunity to identify him. The heat will no longer be there to drive people mad, at least for a little while, though something else will no doubt come along to take its place.

In California, it still hasn’t cooled down. An even hotter year followed that one, and there is still no rain in sight. But for us, at least, the heat broke. Things slowly improved and continue to do so. I’ve stopped cursing the summer, although I still miss the rain. And I will try to remember that it’s just another season; we will remain exactly who we are, but eventually the heat will break.