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Stray Dog: The title

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    Vili Maunula

    As a discussion opener for Stray Dog, I would be interested to hear your take on the following question: “What or whom does the title of Stray Dog refer to?”

    Is it detective Murakami (Mifune), Yusa (Kimura), some other character, the gun, the whole Japanese post-war society, or something entirely different?

    An interesting linguistic point about the title, by the way, is that alone the Japanese word “nora” stands for “rural” or “agricultural”. I don’t know if there is any level of word play going on, but unless I am mistaken the title could in some sense also be viewed as meaning “Rural Dog”.

    We have now had two films in succession with a strong canine presence, as Sanjuro was on a number of occasions likened to a dog in Yojimbo. Can anyone think of other dogs in Kurosawa’s movies, and what function they might serve?

    Finally, does anyone know what sort of connotations dogs have traditionally had for the Japanese? In the west, they are typically seen as man’s best friends, the best animal companions there are, yet at the same time “dog” as an English word also has a strong pejorative meaning that stands for something filthy, uninteresting or of poor quality (cf. “You stole my gun, you dog!”).

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    Fabien

    Note that the french title brings in different meanings.

    One could translate Chien enragé into “rabid dog” as well as “furious dog” or, by extension, “wild/uncontrollable dog”, which translations are a bit different from the Stray dog.

    In french also, dog (“chien”) takes on several figurative meanings and may be used to designate human individuals or human behaviors, based on the roles or functions the dog is usually or tradionally attached to.

    It varies from surveillance/guarding under some higher authority to moral weaknesses and vileness.

    Certainly it would be interesting to know what are the mainly used figurative meanings of “inu” and “nora inu” in the japanese society.

    By the way, I wonder about what you said on “nora”.

    Doesn’t the ? (ra, ryô) give a “good” concept to the whole expression?

    (bbPress doesn’t seem to appreciate my kanjis, here it is : ryoo kanji)

    About the dog in other Kurosawa’s films, the only one I could catch for the moment is in Dodesukaden.

    I’m pretty sure that the yellow-dressed worker says “nora inu” when he explains to his friend (the red-dressed worker) that his wife treats him like he was a leashed dog (“un chien tenu en laisse” in french subtitles).

    I can’t give my personal answer to the main question, but I will watch again the film in the next days and try a guess.

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    cocoskyavitch

    Here’s a good link for some typical Japanese expressions involving “dog”:

    http://japanese.about.com/library/weekly/aa011706a.htm

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    Jeremy

    I was under the impression the whole “man’s best friend” thing is universal. The Japanese did use the dog as a worker and protector in the farm, much the same as every other nation.

    The kanji for “nora” by itself may mean “rural” but when compounded with the kanji for “inu”, it doesnt necessary mean its literal English translation should be use. Many kanji definitions change based on the surrounding kanji, and rarely does literal translation work well in Japanese.

    I’m just throwing this out there, I have no expertize on the subject.

    .

    Stray Dog, I always consider to refer to Murakami, as he ventures into the unknown in search of his gun(bone?). He is the stray in the new Tokyo, however it’s plays on a the reversal of a negative concept. Where typically the stray is a dirty dog, among clean town. Murakami is a clean “dog” in a dirty town. He the good among the bad, and being a rookie, it appears to be his first venture in the black markets.

    I’m pressed for time at the moment, I will get back to this.

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    Ugetsu

    ‘A stray dog becomes a mad dog’ says Sato in the baseball game, referring of course to the thief.

    This seems to me to be the theme of the movie – how once someone is cast adrift in society it takes only the flutter of a butterflies wings to turn him into a dangerous animal.

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    Jon Hooper

    I agree that in the first place the title refers to the thief, but it may also refer to Murakami to some extent. There is obviously much made in the film of the connections between cop and criminal; I think either Richie or Prince makes the point that both had their fortunes destroyed by the war (or end of the war), and that they followed divergent paths. Murakami seems to be most afraid of losing his job and his position in society (of which the gun is a symbol). In other words, he is afraid of becoming a stray dog himself. The point being that the line between cop and criminal is very thin indeed.

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    Ugetsu

    I know its an unlikely comparison, but in some ways I think the theme is similar to Ozu’s ‘Tenement Gentleman’ made about the same time. That film ended with a plea for society to embrace its orphans on humanitarian grounds.

    Murakami in the film is clearly a man without a family. He is obviously enthralled with and maybe a little jealous of Sato’s happy homelife. For Sato to take him to his home for food and drink is, I assume, his way of trying to make Murakami feel like he belongs. For a society like Japan which places such an emphasis on belonging to a group, the immediate post war period, with so many widows, orphans, wandering ex soldiers, the stress must have been immense. Kurosawa and Ozu was addressing these concerns directly.

    Its interesting that Sato, by far the wisest and most humane character in the movie, also has the most extreme view of the mad dogs of society – he just wants to eliminate them. Murakami, despite his physical toughness, is the one who empathises. While Sato is the one who makes the observation that ‘stray dogs quickly become mad dogs’, it is Murakami who sees that it is not inevitable – a ‘stray’ can be come domesticated.

    In some respects therefore, I think that while Ozu was saying to audiences ‘these are tough times, lets all remember we are in the same boat’, Kurosawa was delivering a much tougher message to filmgoers. ‘We have created a country of strays – we can either embrace them and make society a little better, or we can reject them and find ourselves at war with the mad dogs’.

    So the stray dog was the thief… who became a mad dog. Murakami was a stray dog, who becomes a faithful guard dog. But there were numerous other strays shown in the movie…. and it is left up to the audience to decide which way they would go.

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    cocoskyavitch

    Well done, Ugetsu and Jeremy! Two dogs and lots of dog-allusions. Shimura’s head against a bank of clouds, (hot dog-days of summer before the storm), Mifune’s (Honda’s!) boots stomping the streets, doggedly, in the bad part of town, the flowering weeds of the hottest part of summer in the field near a train station, the steam rising from a cold popsicle in the dog-day heat.

    Mifune is the dog who won’t let go of a bone. He will become society’s guard dog. (In Japanese mythology an inugami is a spirit resembling a dog, arising from a dog and can carry out vengeance or can be a guardian. Another symbol of a guardian dog is borrowed from the Chinese “FU” dog often seen represented in male and female form outside main gates and entrances-resembling a dog/lion and called “shishi” in Japanese). And, the criminal is the stray dog turning into a mad dog.

    But everyone in the film is dog-tired, hot, weary, beat down, even Japan itself is beat. The scene at the broken fountain symbolizes this demoralization, exhaustion, heat and loss of direction.

    In the end, the criminal will be caught (another dog metaphor is “Inujini”-“die like a dog”- in other words, throw one’s life away).

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    Jon Hooper

    I think what Richie writes in the Films of Akira Kurosawa is pretty near the mark.

    The title indicates one side of the film’s debate about “evil” – is the criminal a product of society, or should we, as Shimura’s Sato does, realise that evil is evil and that there is always a choice? Sato insists that he too lost everything, but that he made a choice and chose to work for good. Murakami, on the other hand, recognizes the common humanity in everyone. The film’s position and Kurosawa’s would seem to be closer to the latter – in the great final scene, when the criminal’s response to beauty reduces him to tears, Kurosawa seems to be arguing for our shared humanity; he seems to be rejecting the view that criminals become “mad dogs” and should therefore be eliminated. What is a stay dog but an animal that is forced to survive because it has been outcast from human society?

    By the way, whenever I watch that opening credits scene of the dog I can’t help thinking of that story Kurosawa told of the dog being bisected by the train.

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    Vili Maunula

    Thanks for your insights, everyone!

    Fabien: By the way, I wonder about what you said on “nora”.

    Doesn’t the [Ra] (ra, ryô) give a “good“ concept to the whole expression?

    That’s an interesting point, Fabien. I don’t know if the kanji for “good” (良) gives the word any intrinsic positive connotation, but the fact that it happens to be written with that kanji may still have some sort of an effect on those who read and think about the title. Jeremy is absolutely right in that individual kanji in a compounded construction have no direct contribution to the meaning of the word (pretty much like the letter “o” has no meaning whatsoever in “dog”), but this doesn’t stop us (or Kurosawa, for that matter) from looking at the composition of the written word. The Japanese in fact are quite good with their orthographic puns.

    So, following Fabien’s comment, if we look at each kanji in 野良犬 (“nora inu”) on its own, what we have here is something like the sequence “wild-good-dog”. This is actually quite descriptive of the movie, as the story (like many have noted in this thread) is about one wild and one good dog: Yusa and Murakami.

    Furthermore, note also the meaning of 犬 (“inu”). The WWWJDIC gives it the following meanings:

    (1) [noun] dog

    (2) [noun] snoop (i.e. a detective, a spy, etc.)

    (3) [noun-prefix] counterfeit; inferior; useless; wasteful;

    Could we say that Murakami is of the type (2), while Yusa is type (3)?

    Obviously, in order to arrive to these readings, you need to give the writing system quite a bit more symbolic importance than it has, as well as be selective with your reading. “No” (野), for example, could (if we throw away the context in which it is used) just as well be translated as “field” — which come to think of it now is actually the place where the movie pretty much ends! The movie, in a sense, takes us backwards from 犬 “inu” (the first shot of the film) to 野 “no” (the capture of Yusa) — two scenes that are even linked sonically, as both feature heavy breathing on the soundtrack. The narrative bridge in the middle of these two scenes, of course, is Murakami, or the “good one” (良).

    I wouldn’t take this argument too seriously, but there you have it, the title dissected.

    Jeremy: Stray Dog, I always consider to refer to Murakami, as he ventures into the unknown in search of his gun(bone?). He is the stray in the new Tokyo, however it’s plays on a the reversal of a negative concept. Where typically the stray is a dirty dog, among clean town. Murakami is a clean “dog” in a dirty town.

    An excellent point about the reversal of the concept, Jeremy! I never thought of that.

    Ugetsu: ‘A stray dog becomes a mad dog’ says Sato in the baseball game, referring of course to the thief.

    Note also, however, that Sato’s definition of a ‘mad dog’ later on is (I’m quoting from memory here) “someone who can only see what they are after”. Yusa can only see Harumi, and Murakami is totally obsessed with the stolen pistol. They both seem mad in their own way.

    Ugetsu: In some respects therefore, I think that while Ozu was saying to audiences ‘these are tough times, lets all remember we are in the same boat’, Kurosawa was delivering a much tougher message to filmgoers. ‘We have created a country of strays – we can either embrace them and make society a little better, or we can reject them and find ourselves at war with the mad dogs’.

    I think you have a point there, Ugetsu, although I have tended to read it a little bit differently. For me, the film’s message is not so much directed to the society, but to the individual who had to face the difficulties of the post-war Japan (or any difficulties at any point in time, for that matter). What the film is saying to them is look, you can end up like Yusa or you can end up like Murakami, and the choice ultimately is yours. The environment doesn’t make you who you are. Rather, it is the way you react to the environment that does.

    Obviously, these two ways of looking at the movie are by no means mutually exclusive, and can (and probably should) be seen as existing simultaneously.

    I have not seen Tenement Gentleman, but will see if I can find a copy before the end of the month!

    Ugetsu: Its interesting that Sato, by far the wisest and most humane character in the movie, also has the most extreme view of the mad dogs of society – he just wants to eliminate them.

    That is a good observation, Ugetsu. I wonder if we are to understand the difference in Sato’s and Murakami’s views to be the result of a generation gap between the two characters, which in turn represents the change that the society is undergoing? Sato himself explicitly remarks on that possibility a couple of times. His lack of familiarity with and understanding of the post-war generation is apparent even in that he is not able to pronounce the new French-based term for the generation: après-guerre.

    The pre-war Japan — Sato’s generation — was not very kind to its stray dogs, those who did not have a set place and function. But the younger generation like Murakami, having grown up with the horrors of the war, in a sense understands the situation better, and is familiar with the extreme difficulties associated with building your après-guerre life.

    As you note, Murakami for example has no family — the years that he should have spent running after girls was spent in the war. Yusa’s situation is similar, and he is in fact now trying to get his girl. But how do you do that, when you have nothing to lean on? How do you build your life from nothing?

    I am not sure if the difference of opinion between Sato and Murakami is actually ever truly resolved in the movie. While Sato is given the last word, warning us about the many mad dogs out there, Murakami never really indicates that he agrees with Sato’s view. And like so often with Kurosawa, the open-endedness appears to be very intentional.

    In fact, during Murakami’s evening visit to Sato’s house, Sato remarks that, instead of the detectives themselves, it should be the writers who analyse the mind of the criminal. This is exactly what Kurosawa’s movie does. It gives us the reasons why Yusa is Yusa, but also insists that Yusa could well be Murakami. But the film consciously remains more of an analysis than an argument — rather than giving us answers, the movie gives us the situations and their different interpretations, but insists that we take on from there and come to our own conclusions.

    This is not to say that the movie does not lean towards one side of the argument. As Jon writes:

    Jon: I think what Richie writes in the Films of Akira Kurosawa is pretty near the mark.

    The title indicates one side of the film’s debate about “evil” – is the criminal a product of society, or should we, as Shimura’s Sato does, realise that evil is evil and that there is always a choice? Sato insists that he too lost everything, but that he made a choice and chose to work for good. Murakami, on the other hand, recognizes the common humanity in everyone. The film’s position and Kurosawa’s would seem to be closer to the latter – in the great final scene, when the criminal’s response to beauty reduces him to tears, Kurosawa seems to be arguing for our shared humanity; he seems to be rejecting the view that criminals become “mad dogs” and should therefore be eliminated. What is a stay dog but an animal that is forced to survive because it has been outcast from human society?

    I, too, agree with Richie in that, if the film takes sides, it is Murakami’s view that is stressed. It must however also be noted that while Richie gets the argument right he, in a very typical Richie-like moment, gets the facts totally wrong. It is Murakami, not Sato, whose bag was stolen, and who talks about his choice to become a detective instead of becoming a thief. Sato does comment on it, of course, noting the similarity between Yusa and Murakami and stressing the film’s point that you make your own decisions.

    Jon: By the way, whenever I watch that opening credits scene of the dog I can’t help thinking of that story Kurosawa told of the dog being bisected by the train.

    I seem to have forgotten about that. Do you remember where the anecdote can be found?

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    Jon Hooper

    As for Richie getting the facts wrong, my paraphrase may be at fault, because on p.61 of The Films of Akira Kurosawa he quotes Shimura’s character saying that his knapsack and money were stolen (perhaps not everything, then, but it is implied that he was in the same position as the criminal). I’ll have to watch Stray Dog again to check.

    The dog anecdote may not be in any way connected to this film, but it is narrated in the PBS Kurosawa documentary that appeared a few years back, and may be in Something Like An Autobiography. I’ll check back on this.

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    Jon Hooper

    It is as I suspected in Something Like An Autobiography, in the first chapter (on page 5 of my Vintage edition). There is no reason to suppose that it had any influence on Stray Dog, it’s just a vivid anecdote that stuck in my memory and which that opening scene reminds me of. Purely personal stuff.

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    Vili Maunula

    Jon: As for Richie getting the facts wrong, my paraphrase may be at fault, because on p.61 of The Films of Akira Kurosawa he quotes Shimura’s character saying that his knapsack and money were stolen (perhaps not everything, then, but it is implied that he was in the same position as the criminal). I’ll have to watch Stray Dog again to check.

    No, I really think that it is Richie who is at fault here. I was actually wondering about it already before you brought it up. The paraphrased quote that he offers on page 61 is clearly intended to refer to what Murakami says to Sato over the beer. Moreover, nowhere do I remember Sato mentioning that his belongings were stolen (does he?). Was he even in the war as a soldier? I would have thought he stayed a policeman. At least he doesn’t seem to have that experience of war that Murakami does.

    And thanks for the Something Like An Autobiography pointer! I had completely forgotten about that brief anecdote.

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    cocoskyavitch

    Hey whoah, Richie really says it is Shimura’s backstory to have the theft of his stuff returning from the war? For real?

    It was Murakami’s stuff was stolen-and it was Mifune’s character who came back with nothing. He is the one who, covered in mud at the end-is almost indistinguishable from the thief/murderer-significant in that they look alike, (and have similarities in their pasts) yet have made completely different life choices.

    Right? Or no?

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    Vili Maunula

    Right, I think. 🙂 Here is what Richie writes on page 61:

    [Kurosawa] has us discover that this particular man went bad after all his belongings were stolen (the same provocation that De Sica used in Bicycle Thieves — theft) when he was returning from the war. Shimura says: “Look, my knapsack and money were stolen too. I felt outraged. I too could have stolen. I knew that this was a dangerous point in my life. But what did I do? I chose this work.” Shimura, then, is like pyromaniac who becomes fire-chief. He retains the original impulse but directs it. Indeed, he cannot afford (as he admits) to “understand” the criminal impulse because he knows it very well indeed. What saved him and made him a detective was just that moment of choice.

    The quote Richie gives is actually a paraphrase of what Murakami tells Sato. Sato however does say that he (or rather they) cannot afford to, in Richie’s words, “‘understand’ the criminal impulse” — that’s about a minute before the Murakami quote.

    We must, of course, remember that the first edition of The Films of Akira Kurosawa was published in 1965, and at the time of writing his essay Richie didn’t have modern conveniences such as the possibility to pop in a DVD and watch selected scenes again whenever he wanted to. Yet, this is the 3rd revised 1998 edition that I am quoting from — certainly, someone should have noticed the mistake?

    (By the way, I also don’t really get it why Richie insists both here and in his commentary tracks on referring to characters not by their names but by the names of the actors who play them. Maybe it’s meant to make it easier for us to follow what he has to say, but it does confuse me quite a bit.)

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    Ugetsu

    I wonder if we are to understand the difference in Sato’s and Murakami’s views to be the result of a generation gap between the two characters, which in turn represents the change that the society is undergoing? Sato himself explicitly remarks on that possibility a couple of times. His lack of familiarity with and understanding of the post-war generation is apparent even in that he is not able to pronounce the new French-based term for the generation: après-guerre.

    I was wondering during the movie whether Kurosawa was making a distinction not between the pre and apres guerre generation, but between those who fought and those who didn’t. The vets and non-vets if you like. It did seem to be implied throughout that Sato had a fairly easy time through the war – the ages of his children and his job would imply that he hadn’t been drafted, and his semi-rural home would have meant he would have avoided the worst of the bombing. I would imagine that in the immediate post war years there would have been friction and resentment between those who suffered so much on the ‘front’ against the bureaucrats and businessmen who kept stayed at home, especially as the latter group effectively seized control of the country. So soon after the surrender, the war must have been a deep wound for both film makers and audiences – I do think that sometimes this is not emphasized enough on commentary on Japanese film of this time. Just think how long it took for American cinema to really get to grips with Vietnam, and that was a minor scrap in comparison to the horrors of the Pacific War.

    As for my point about Sato, the sympathetic character having the hardest line on the criminal, I think this may have more to do with Kurosawa deliberately complicating the characters to avoid the easy cliche of the ‘wise old man educating the wild young warrior’ narrative.

    A question though (this may be worthy of a separate post): Something thats been bugging me since my second viewing of the film – was the murdered woman raped? The conversation between the detective and the family doctor, whereby in chastising the doctor for interfering with the evidence it is implied that he covered up her naked body, certainly seems to point to her having been sexually assaulted. But this doesn’t really fit in with the overall thrust of the movie (or our interpretation here) of the thief as a fairly regular guy who has been pushed over the edge due to extreme circumstances. Its one thing to shoot a woman in a panic during a botched robbery (as seems to have happened with his first victim) – quite another to rape her and shoot a woman in her own home. My feeling is that the conversation was written the way it was simply to give a bit of humanity to a woman we never meet or even see. But maybe the point is that the thief actually was a sociopath after all? In which case, all Murakami’s empathy is pointless. 😡

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    cocoskyavitch

    Vili thanks for going back to the actual Richie quote. I read Richie a year or so ago-and must have just mentally “corrected”. It was unsettling to have that error broken out and highlighted, and whipped my mind around for a sec. Thanks for clarifying.

    Good old Richie-you’re right-he wouldn’t have had the film on DVD-we can’t be too harsh. You might want to drop the editor or publisher or Richie a line, though. It would be the nice thing to do, for correction of further reprints of the book. And, wouldn’t it be fun if Richie responded?

    Ugetsu your “Was the murdered woman raped?” question may be unanswerable, and I may actually prefer it that way.

    Surely there is the suggestion that she was a modest woman in life, as related by the doctor who found her in disarray and knew that, living, she would have been uncomfortable even in her doctor’s presence in that condition. The suggestion of rape is surely there…and creepy. But, I’m allright with the issue not being pin-downable. It’s what I love about Kurosawa.

    On another note Ugetsu said:

    So soon after the surrender, the war must have been a deep wound for both film makers and audiences – I do think that sometimes this is not emphasized enough on commentary on Japanese film of this time

    I think the post-war “feel” of Stray Dog is so powerful, it could almost be called a “character” in the film. The post-war environment has an effect of all levels of society, and on everything; on men, women, children, the infrastructure, the black market (Honda’s feet stomping around), idiomatic expressions, “bye-bye” hairstyles, dress “she used to be known for her kimonos”-in every detail, down to the rain, it is post-war! Even the rain is post-war rain! Ya know what I mean? The confused, conflicted, complicated attitudes from embrace of “democracy” to self serving bandying aobu tof one’s “rights” to resentment to shame to opportunistim…to nihilism-all of it relative to this enormous, history-changing event that has changed everything forever from “pre” to “post”.

    Vili, it may be annoying to call a character by the actor’s name, but it may also reflect the layered pleasure of appreciating the artistry of the performance. Maybe? I think I do it for that reason.

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    Vili Maunula

    Indeed, the difference of opinion is probably not so much based on age as it is based on experience. Experience as a shaping force, and an individual’s place and responsibility in reacting to that force, seem to be a central theme to the movie after all.

    Another point to consider about Sato’s hard-line take on criminals is something that Yoshimoto (171-178) suggests when he asks the question what it actually means for Sato to have been a “good cop” for those past 25 years. For, considering the time frame, this means that he was a “good cop” also during Japan’s fascist period, and Yoshimoto argues that a “good cop” of the pre-war Japan and a “good cop” of the post-war Japan would actually have very different views of morals and values. Perhaps this is also one reason for the difference of opinion between Sato and Murakami — Sato, despite of his friendly and easy-going nature, may in the end be more of a product of Japan’s fascist past than you would at first look imagine.

    Finally, your insight about the possibility of the murdered woman having been raped kick-started a chain of thought that touched on something that I had been thinking about before. The result, which is something of a reply to your suggestion, can be found here.

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    Vili Maunula

    Coco: Vili thanks for going back to the actual Richie quote. I read Richie a year or so ago-and must have just mentally “corrected”.

    I actually didn’t notice the error either until now, either, and I must have read the chapter on Stray Dog at least a dozen times already! (It’s actually well over 10 years since my first encounter with The Films of Akira Kurosawa.) So, I wouldn’t be too hard on Richie, it’s just kind of funny that it should happen again (we have discussed Richie’s sloppiness/enthusiasm before).

    You are absolutely right in that the editors might want to know, I’ll see if I can find someone at the University of California Press.

    Coco: I think the post-war “feel” of Stray Dog is so powerful, it could almost be called a “character” in the film.

    It indeed is, and perhaps from all of Kurosawa’s post-war films Stray Dog gives us the most vivid picture of that period. Not least thanks to that long sequence in which Mifune travels the underworld. You can almost taste the air of confusion and the overall chaos that the society is in.

    Actually, I don’t think that it is a stretch of imagination to call the post-war society — this other “character” as you mention — another “stray dog”. Now under the US occupation and a somewhat weakened Emperor, the society was in many ways “masterless” and without direction. And I think that the film is quite good at showing that, together with the results that a broken “stray dog” society like that of the post-war Japan produces.

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    Ugetsu

    Another point to consider about Sato’s hard-line take on criminals is something that Yoshimoto (171-178) suggests when he asks the question what it actually means for Sato to have been a “good cop” for those past 25 years. For, considering the time frame, this means that he was a “good cop” also during Japan’s fascist period, and Yoshimoto argues that a “good cop” of the pre-war Japan and a “good cop” of the post-war Japan would actually have very different views of morals and values. Perhaps this is also one reason for the difference of opinion between Sato and Murakami — Sato, despite of his friendly and easy-going nature, may in the end be more of a product of Japan’s fascist past than you would at first look imagine.

    Yes, this is very much along the lines of what I’ve been thinking. Of course in nearly all the movies I’ve seen of this period the aftermath of the war is everpresent. But I’ve rarely seen any mention in criticism I’ve read of the movies of the period that both film makers and audience shared subtle undercurrents that may have been understood consciously or unconsciously. There must have been numerous unspoken resentments and jealousies bubbling under the surface of society, mainly from those who suffered the most, against those who came out of the war relatively well. Several historians of the period I’ve read emphasized how certain layers of society (broadly the old samurai class, metamorphosed into businessmen and senior bureaucrats) managed to come through the war quite well, and even benefited from the clumsy attempts by the occupation authorities to destroy the old aristocracy.

    I’ve often thought that much of what is considered mysterious in Ozu’s movies of the period (in particular my favorite, Late Spring) would be a little more easy to interpret if we thought more carefully (if it is really possible to read the mind of a japanese audience of 60 years ago) about the little shared subtexts shared by film maker and audience. I think you are exactly right that to the intended audience Sato would not have been quite the wise and good guy we assume him to be.

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    cocoskyavitch

    Ugetsu I am a big Ozu fan-and wonder what in Late Spring you find mysterious, and possibly linked to intangible post-war undercurrents?

    I am just curious. As Vili pointed out the bit about Sato’s role in the war years as a cop-and how it may have compromised his integrity (and the audience might have understood that subtext without needing any tangible reference)..these ideas make for a richer, more complex flavour…

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    Ugetsu

    Ugetsu I am a big Ozu fan-and wonder what in Late Spring you find mysterious, and possibly linked to intangible post-war undercurrents?

    I am just curious. As Vili pointed out the bit about Sato’s role in the war years as a cop-and how it may have compromised his integrity (and the audience might have understood that subtext without needing any tangible reference)..these ideas make for a richer, more complex flavour…

    Its been a while since i watched it, but I remember when i did watch it, and then read a lot of criticism and commentary online (I hadn’t read much Richie at that time), it struck me that most writers seemed to be analyzing it in something of a socio-historic vacuum. I was (and am) utterly fascinated with the film, and particular Norika (Setsuko Hara). I’ve never been able to put the images out of my mind, but I find it very hard to understand why it had this effect on me.

    Putting myself in the position of the typical theatre goer in a Japanese cinema at the time (and of course Ozu like most of the other film makers then had a clear idea of who they were making the films for), I thought to myself that the daughter and father were a most unusual couple. She was clearly relatively prosperous and well off – well dressed, she had her bike for exploring, and she was much more free to just hang out with a single guy than perhaps other upper middle class unmarried women would have been – presumably this is linked to her educated, more western oriented family (judging by her choice of clothes and favorite movies). But there are of course hints through the movie that she had suffered horribly, in some undefined way, during the war. I always mean to watch it again more slowly, to pick up things that I think I missed on my first two viewings (which were at the beginning of my little Japanese film obsession, so my eyes and ears were not as tuned to what was going on as they are now). But I always felt that Ozu was hinting that the particular strength of the bond between these two wasn’t the general father/daughter bond – it was inextricably tied to the trauma she had suffered in the war and the specific background of her family. I think he didn’t feel the need to spell this out, as he was making it for an audience that knew all to well what he was driving at. I would love to know if I’m right or wrong about this – I simply don’t know enough about the subject of post war Japanese society to be able to come to conclusions.

    Sorry if I’m not expressing myself in this too well, its just that I do have this frustration with so much writing on the films of this period that seems to treat them as if they are pure artistic artifacts, as if they were landscape paintings. My feeling is that most of the films were aimed at a specific audience – Ozu and Kurosawa were not Gods on a mountain, they lived and worked and socialised in a particular society, and they made their movies for the people they knew, not for western critics 50 years later. I feel therefore that to really understand them you need to fix yourself firmly in the mind of a post war Japanese audience, because that is who Ozu and Kurosawa was making them for.

    To give one specific example of the sort of criticism that I think goes badly wrong, i did read one feminist critic (I can’t recall who at the moment), who interpreted the ‘holiday’ scenes whereby the daughter and father shared a room as hinting at an incestuous subtext. I think for anyone who has stayed in a Ryokan, this is just silly!

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    cocoskyavitch

    Ugetsu said:

    To give one specific example of the sort of criticism that I think goes badly wrong, i did read one feminist critic (I can’t recall who at the moment), who interpreted the ‘holiday’ scenes whereby the daughter and father shared a room as hinting at an incestuous subtext.

    Feminist criticism is one strain of “speciality criticism”. Nothing wrong with it-sometimes even a blind squirrel gets a nut. It remains a speciality line, though, as would Marxist, Auteur Theory, Post-=Structuralism, etc.

    The question is: what is it we are looking for? I’m trying to aritculate this for myself.

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    Ugetsu

    I must remember to spell my characters names right. When i wrote Norika, of course, I meant ‘Noriko’ 😳

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    cocoskyavitch

    Thingness of the Thing

    Ugetsu said:

    I do have this frustration with so much writing on the films of this period that seems to treat them as if they are pure artistic artifacts, as if they were landscape paintings. My feeling is that most of the films were aimed at a specific audience – Ozu and Kurosawa were not Gods on a mountain, they lived and worked and socialised in a particular society, and they made their movies for the people they knew, not for western critics 50 years later. I feel therefore that to really understand them you need to fix yourself firmly in the mind of a post war Japanese audience, because that is who Ozu and Kurosawa was making them for.

    Hey, Ugetsu– don’t diss the landscape paintings! Even understanding those well takes some real thought about the thing and its context (I teach art…and I always find it useful to compare modes of analysis cross-discipine). “Pure” artistic artifacts…hmmm what would that be? Something not made in this world perhaps.

    For example, when I am teaching students about Chinese landscape painting I need to talk about Daoism and Buddhism, Feng-Sui, the Chinese Scholar’s garden traditions, the Literati painter/writer/scholar tradition, the Academic tradition, the relationship of calligraphy to painting, and materials and techniques that form the traditions that the individual piece may be reacting to or against or using…In need to know as much as I can about the individual artist, and I need to know how to communicate the mindset of the intended audience, and the actual audience and relate that to our own moment.

    Up above, in an earlier post, I kind of indicated that there are many different strains of criticism, but I always wonder where we are going with analysis unless we look quite specifically at the thingness of the thing– its physical presence, and then ask questions of the context.

    I’m sorry to take you to task, Ugetsu, because you are such an intelligent and articulate and thoughtful presence in this forum, but I felt that I had to say something in defense of landscape painting. It’s almost never “just” landscape painting…unless it’s pure crap.

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    cocoskyavitch

    Ugetsu, re-reading my own post, I hasten to add that I do understand your frustration in finding it difficult to enter the mindset of the audience of hte time-and your frustration in finding few academic resources to tell you what it “felt” like-

    Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” asserts the difficulties of understanding, for example, the primacy of image in a time when mechanical reproduction didn’t exist. It is difficult, indeed, to “get” a Renaissance painting-say, the Mona Lisa-the way someone from the Renaissance would have “got” it-you’ve got to strip away layers of fame and hype, the multitudes of mechanical reproductions and alterations of the thing, and our assumptions about portraiture and images.

    I get that. I’m with you, there. The noted reading is essential .

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    Ugetsu

    Hey coco, on reflection, my comparison to landscape painting wasn’t a very good one!

    Thanks for the link, that will have to join my long list of ‘must reads’.

    Just to clarify what I was saying – what I am interested in is not so much what the perception of the contemporary audience was to the film(s), so much a what the filmaker (I use that term broadly, to include more than the director) was trying to say to that audience. To be specific, I believe Kurosawa was on record as saying that he made his movies for a very specific audience – namely young, educated, fairly western oriented Japanese people. My own personal view is that any analysis of his films that do not address this is likely to end up very wide of the mark.

    I could be entirely wrong about this, but my feeling when watching many Japanese movies (in particular Kurosawa and Ozu) is that the film makers had a very specific idea in their minds of who their audience would be (at least in relation to most US or European directors I can think of). In this sense, they were more like the directors of plays, who could see their audience, hear their reaction. Their audience was, of course, overwhelmingly a domestic one, and to an extent people of similar backgrounds.

    I could develop this further, but its late now and I think its time for bed… maybe I’ll be able to articulate this more clearly when I’ve had some sleep!

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    cocoskyavitch

    Hey Ugetsu, I wish I could crawl inside Kurosawa’s and Ozu’s head, too! And, while we’re at it, Mizoguchi.

    What I wouldn’t give to know peeps from the inside out! I wish I knew if they had their intended audience in mind when writing or filming, if so to what degree, and their own internal vision of an audience. I would love to understand more specifics of the individual creative processes!

    Really, the allure of van Gogh is due partly to our falling in love with not only the work, but the story behind the work-we think we can crawl inside his mind, a bit. We have this amazing correspondence to Theo that not only illustrates the letters with drawings, but discusses his goals in specific paintings, his daily life and artistic difficulties, and his artistic influences. We have the feeling that we can begin to understand van Gogh’s creative processes and the relationship of his life to his art through this remarkable correspondence.

    How great would it be if Kurosawa and Ozu had left such documents behind for us to embrace?

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    cocoskyavitch

    The Critic as Stray Dog

    One of the most thrilling little write-ups on Richie’s work I’ve yet

    read deals with the essential issue of what it is to be a perpetual

    foreigner. Here’s the link: http://www.newpartisan.com/home/citizens-of-

    limbo.html

    And, here’s the good Richie quote: “This is the great lesson of

    expatriation. In Japan, I sit on the lonely heights of my own

    peculiarities and gaze back at the flat plains of Ohio, whose quaint

    folkways no longer have any power over me. And then turn and gaze at

    the islands of Japan, whose folkways are equally powerless in that the

    folk insist I am no part of them. This I regard as the best seat in the

    house, because from here I can compare, and comparison is the first

    step toward understanding.”

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    Jon Hooper

    This is an excellent and very insightful quote. I imagine it’s difficult to fully understand Richie’s point unless one is an ex-pat oneself. I took the step ten years ago and I can really relate to what Richie is saying here. To be honest, the quaint folkways of my own land do now exert their pull, where once I was hungry to leave them, but indeed exile gives one a unique perspective, because as Richie says it allows one to make comparisons that otherwise would be impossible. To be an exile is to be an eternal outsider (it’s true that no matter how kind the people of one’s adopted homeland can be, one never really feels one belongs – the Greeks insist that I am a foreigner and I always will be). What eventually sinks in though is the knowledge that all notions of belonging (to family and to country) are illusions. We are all potential foreigners.

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    cocoskyavitch

    Jon, your note “We are all potential foreigners” plays into the idea that we are all potential stray dogs. Good call. What’s a stray? Homeless, but also one “strays” when one loses one’s moral compass, however temporarily. That comment “A stray dog becomes a mad dog” is about the temporary nature of straying in the moral sense, and the permanent madness of choosing evil as a path. How interesting that Sanjuro falls into this category of stray, (in the homeless sense) too…and appears to be morally stray, but isn’t. There’s fear of the homeless. In fact, in my Bo Ying version of “Yojimbo” Sanjuro is always referred to as “the homeless”. It used to make me laugh, but makes good sense to me, now. The stray/homeless thing is a recurring theme in Kurosawa’s work.

    If we pull some plot points, or thematic threads from Kurosawa’s ouvre, we would have, (in no particular order, and sorry about this laundry list, clearly not comprehensive, but only a beginning, and only looking at a few binary switches):

    1. Homeless man / stray dog / Yojimbo, Sanjuro, Kagemusha, Ran, etc.

    2. Doppelganger / good and evil twins / Kagemusha, Stray Dog, High and Low, Yojimbo, etc.

    3. Illusion / reality / Rashomon, Kagemusha, Dodeskaden, etc.

    4. hope / despair / The Lower Depths, The Idiot, etc.

    Someone should continue this list…

    (The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless yet be determined to make them otherwise.

    — F. Scott Fitzgerald)

    Kurosawa’s work was considered “western”-who knows where that started, (?) but we can compare him to Ozu, whose work was considered “most Japanese”. Maybe it’s Kurosawa’s insistence on personal responsibility in making moral decisions/choices that makes him seem western. It is all about individual choice.

    Why Kurosawa would have had this strain in his own character, I don’t know. I think about the stories he tells of his remarkable brother-his individuality-the bearing and mind that made him unique “like a samurai of the ghetto”, and something that was his destruction. Was Kurosawa always trying to be his brother’s double-trying to make good his brother’s wasted promise? I always wonder about that. Surely these things haunted him, and find a presence in Kurosawa’s work.

    For Kurosawa it all comes down to choice. But, rather than emphasize the community, the whole, the group-he focusses on individual responsibility. Kurosawa has compassion for those who fail, he understands the compexities of influence, and the pressure of circumstance, but he is hard-core insistent on one’s responsibility to make moral choices. That’s rather different from his peers. I think his concern about indivdual moral choice is quite unique in Japanese cinema.

    A “stray dog” is in the path of danger, and is potentially dangerous, too. Stray dogs could bite, kill, cause damage to people and property, and might be rabid. Heck, they’ll pee anywhere and eat anything. A man without allegiance to a group must be suspect in Japanese culture…or, in any culture! We do judge a man by the company he keeps.

    For Kurosawa, each of us has the potential to be a stray dog until we choose our moral path. And, here’s the most western thing of all: in the environment of a culture gone off-distorted by a lost war, occupation, foreign influence and domination-Kurosawa paints a picture of corruption, and dissolution-and says, in effect; “It is the individual who must change-then, society will change”.

    This is, (in cultural relativist terms) very low-context, (western) rather than high-context (Japanese). In western cultures, the individual takes care of him/her self, and society benefits by the accumulation of many healthy (mentally, morally, financially) individuals contributing to a healthy society.

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    Ugetsu

    For Kurosawa, each of us has the potential to be a stray dog until we choose our moral path. And, here’s the most western thing of all: in the environment of a culture gone off-distorted by a lost war, occupation, foreign influence and domination-Kurosawa paints a picture of corruption, and dissolution-and says, in effect; “It is the individual who must change-then, society will change”.

    This is, (in cultural relativist terms) very low-context, (western) rather than high-context (Japanese). In western cultures, the individual takes care of him/her self, and society benefits by the accumulation of many healthy (mentally, morally, financially) individuals contributing to a healthy society.

    Excellent points, and very well put (and thanks for that link to the interview with Richie, I found it very illuminating given how difficult it is to look at Kurosawa without being influenced by him).

    I would just make this point – its a general one, but also specific to some of your comments – I think one of the most common errors in analyzing Japanese culture is through the lens of ‘Japanese exceptionalism’. I’ve always been very unconvinced about the notions of Kurosawas ‘western’ orientation relative to Ozu and Mizoguchi and others. Of course there are unique aspects of Japanese culture and world view, but I think western critics and commentators have been far too quick to accept the Japanese view of themselves as being in culturally unique (which sometimes veers into a rather disturbing nationalism and racism).

    In many ways the Japanese genius has always been about stealing other peoples ideas and then re-presenting them to the world as uniquely Japanese. The Japanese are of course highly group oriented and less individualistic than most ‘westerners’, but (to take one example), this is often more of a theory than a reality – just witness the extreme weakness of Japanese civil society.

    I’m personally of the opinion that it is much more fruitful to look at Kurosawas work as a very Japanese director, but one who was very well informed and open minded about non-Japanese art and culture and unafraid to show these influences. I prefer to see his emphasis on individualism as being one that has its roots in Japanese culture (which has always recognised the lone hero as an archetype) rather than a borrowing. To take one exactly contemporary cinematic example, witness the philosophy of the downfallen governer in Ugetsu Monogatari. I’ve no doubt if Kurosawa had made that movie, various critics would have seen that character and his ‘without mercy, man is just a beast’ motto as being a western borrowing.

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    cocoskyavitch

    Good call, Ugetsu, on the following:

    witness the philosophy of the downfallen governer in Ugetsu Monogatari. I’ve no doubt if Kurosawa had made that movie, various critics would have seen that character and his ‘without mercy, man is just a beast’ motto as being a western borrowing.

    But, it was in Sansho the Bailiff no? But, it’s true-the fallen governor does say it and there you have it! Mizoguchi had the same sort of moral imperative in at least one film…and, in Ugestu too, there is the cautionary moral lesson.

    GRRRR~ GRRrr. Every time I think I have figured out why Japanese call Kurosawa “Western”-it fails.

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    Ugetsu

    Aaargh, yes, of course you are right, coco, its Sansho, not UM that the governor spouted that stuff. 🙄

    Has anyone else read Dogs and Demons by Alex Kerr? Its a bit of a rant of a book, and so inevitably it gets things horribly wrong at times, but it does have a very funny and incisive section on what he calls the ‘Chrysanthemum Crew’, those westerners who become holier than thou about what is ‘genuine’ japanese art and culture. It would be amusing when these people talk as if they really understand Japan, but its not so amusing when you realise they are echoing one of the less desirable aspects of Japanese life – the manner in which national pride rapidly becomes xenophobia and racism.

    Whenever I read someone talk about Ozu and Mizoguchi being the real deal, while Kurosawa is ‘merely’ western, or even in the case of one critic ‘just second rate’, I… 😈 :mrgreen: 👿 well, you get the idea. So I’m afraid in this forum you’ll have to get used to me ranting every now and again when someone takes that line.

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    Fabien

    Vili Maunula wrote 2 weeks ago:

    I wouldn’t take this argument too seriously, but there you have it, the title dissected.

    Thanks for the dissection, and thanks for the japan dictionary link.

    This sort of explanation is of great interest to me, and maybe it could be worth a topic like “what’s in a title?” with attempts to explain each film title.

    Your final comment reminds me of some french courses, when the teacher developed several ideas from a novel, poem or whatever and the reaction which arose, sometimes: hey, don’t try to make us believe that the author actually thought to all that when he or she wrote it!

    But I realized, later, that interpretations could be as important, as interesting (or even more) than the original ideas or intents of the author.

    And I think that the diversity of possible interpretations (some of which cleverly exposed here) goes well with the diversity of title translations (more or less fitting translators’ point of view on the film?).

    According to IMDB alternative titles (AKAs), five languages stress the stray/lost dog side (English, German, Finnish, Italian, Polish), two of them stress the rabbid/aggressive dog side (French, Spanish) and one of them stress the gun side (Swedish).

    So might we say that the first thing seen in the film is the wandering of the individual and après-guerre japan society , the second thing the aggressiveness induced by the wandering and the different ways in which it is canalised, and finally, a more prosaic, practical thing, the gun, which can be used in both ways too – criminality and order?

    After watching Stray Dog for the second time, I’m pretty convinced that the title is intended to refer to Yusa, but I doubt it a little, because it seems to me that when Sato uses animal metaphors about the criminal (at home, and in the tram, with Murakami, and later with the landlady of the hotel from which come Yusa’s matches) he doesn’t say nora inu, and I only have french subtitles to get an idea (at one point, Sato even talks about wolves instead of dogs).

    Does someone have more details on this? (English subtitles, Japanese script…)

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    cocoskyavitch

    Ugetsu far from being “taken to task” as if I were making cultural ssumptions, or taking sides, I understand that, in this forum, we explore various possibilities of meaning. In the case of my earlier post, I examined possibilities for Kurosawa being called “western”-something which always mystifies me.

    You said,

    … would just make this point – its a general one, but also specific to some of your comments – I think one of the most common errors in analyzing Japanese culture is through the lens of ‘Japanese exceptionalism’.

    I know that you know the difference between assuming there is such a thing as “Japanese exceptionalism” and looking at culture analytically. Far from falling prey to some idea of “Japan”-please don’t put me in that category-

    Make no mistake-I have no basic interest in “Japan” at all-no romantic notion of it-no history of romanticizing it, no particular desire to become a “Japanese expert” or anything like that.

    But, Japan has a history of some freaking amazing films-and, as I have discovered-some amazing fiction. I am interested in culture, generally, and art specifically.

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    Ugetsu

    Oh, indeed coco, I don’t include you (or any of the other regulars here) in that list at all – forgive me if that is how it came out. But it seems a very common feature of some stuff I’ve read on Japanese cinema. Thompsons ‘Bibliography of Cinema) comes to mind (although he has a rather good article on Ikiru on the New York Times website).

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