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Stray Dog: A Brief Analysis of the Silent Undercover Scene


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    The silent nine minute undercover scene in which Toshiro Mifune is searching for those selling guns is very possibly my favourite scene from a Kurosawa film. Limited to a mere 500 words, I wrote this essay. Again, due to the restriction of the word limit, I missed out a few other topics which I felt were very interesting. Anyway here it is:

    An analysis of the relationship between style and meaning in the silent undercover scene in Akira Kurosawa’s Stray Dog (1949)

    Primarily by means of aesthetics, Akira Kurosawa’s ‘Stray Dog’ depicts a noirish portrait of post-war Japan. The scene I will be analysing involves Murakami (Toshiro Mifune) going undercover in the streets of Tokyo in search of his stolen gun. This scene lasts slightly over nine minutes – much longer than necessary to advance the narrative. The absence of dialogue is used to build tension whilst simultaneously offering an informative insight into post-war Japan that no dialogue could justify.

    Kurosawa’s reliance on visuals alone during this nine minute scene is a fitting nod to the visionary silent directors of the past such as D. W. Griffith and Sergei Eisenstein. Moreover, his constant use of dissolves shows characteristics of silent Soviet filmmaking; a school of cinema Kurosawa had an admiration for. At the beginning of this nine minute sequence, the camera fades in and out to close-ups of Murakami’s feet walking the pavement. The camera’s montage of shots does not stop to rest for one moment; clearly reflecting the constant movements of Murakami. In an extreme close-up of Murakami’s eyes, images of city dwellers are superimposed. Kurosawa uses a myriad of rhythmic and tonal montage sequences in accordance with Soviet montage theory here to make the audience feel Murakami’s exhaustion and deteriorating emotional state. This is further emphasised through diverse and persistent subjective, eye-level and dolly shots, as well as neorealist documentary style handheld shots. On the surface, Kurosawa’s constant use of dissolves and superimpositions implies the long passage of both space and time that Murakami has invested in searching the streets. Intricately, however, Kurosawa is creating a world in perpetual motion to show that Japanese citizens are moving on in post-war Japan, despite the worse economic, environmental and social conditions. It is an optimistic view amidst a pessimist atmosphere; a reflection of Kurosawa’s own kindred spirit.

    Kurosawa again plays the role of an auteur; using weather to set the tone. In this scene, heat is used to portray a sense of both claustrophobia and exhaustion. Kurosawa intentionally uses the idiosyncrasies of background characters to reinforce this hot and overcrowded atmosphere, helping to shape our view of the hectic social climate of post-war Japan. By portraying different human actions and interactions into the camera’s view, Kurosawa suggests the diversity of possible individual solutions to the problems raised by the film. This scene of ‘Stray Dog’ therefore serves as the most important for Kurosawa to put across his ethical message to the audience which he felt was essential for national recovery. That is, the importance of choice in a time of social chaos. His approach to this concept of multiplicity creates an optimistic existentialist mood; a stark contrast to pessimistic existentialist American film noirs. Therefore, Kurosawa’s sole purpose of this scene has been metaphorical; to push atmosphere and insight forward, not narrative.

    Most crucially, Kurosawa uses these techniques in this scene for a purpose; to act as a commentary on the desperate social conditions of post-war Japan. In its Italian neorealist execution, this scene is the most true to life and, in the process, happens to be the grittiest; more so than any Classic Hollywood conventional film noirs.



    There’s nothing to say really, you did an excellent job in describing the purpose of the sequence.

    This 9minute sequence is great example that dialog need not be used to push story forward. Perhaps it’s biggest advantage, it amount of information that it covers quickly, whilst slowly building up fantastic tension, and avoiding an hiccup in movie pacing. Such coverage of story progression and tension done at a relativity fast pace, simply couldn’t be had with pausing dialog requires.

    Proof perhaps of Kurosawa’s awareness to this factor, is the clear absence of heard dialog, in a scene were Mifune talks to a man in the alley. To have this bit heard would be quite acceptable, but at the same time having this heard, would only go to abrupt the uncertainty of the entire situation that Mifune is feeling, and thus reducing audience felt tension.



    Hey thanks for the response Jeremy. Some critics suggest the scene is a little too long to display its purpose. What are your thoughts on it; too long or perfectly suitable? I happen to think the latter category. I also think a lot of the footage in the sequence is historically significant in that it shows post-war Japan in the streets of Tokyo – the lower depths, if you will, to use another Kurosawa title. Also, what you said about Mifune’s silent dialogue; that was in the original essay but I had to cut it out in favour of what I felt was more important.

    It really is a fascinating scene to watch and I love the jazzy score played during most of the scene.



    The sequence is done right, I actually find it enjoyable, and indeed to see the slums of Tokyo is rather fascinating.

    While the audience gets to see the fade in/outs of Murakami’s feet to show an endless and trying walk, if the entire sequence regarding his search is too short, then the audience fails to feel the desperation, and fatigue.

    Of course too long, bores the audience, and you’ll get the audience separating from the story, then losing any attempts at building audience perceived tension, claustrophobia and exhaustion.

    It’s a fine line to play on.

    While much different, a movie to see this idea of wearing down the audience done to the extreme is Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. 3/4 of the movie is entirely to force upon the audience the burden of misery Travis Bickle feels. A rather risky, and bold move on Scorsese’s part, that came out brilliant.

    Best of luck at film school, interest in Kurosawa, and the ability to enjoy and dissect the above mention, it certainly a nice start. If you have the opportunity to upload your shorts, be sure to post them here.

    If I could throw one bit of advice: learn all about blocking and staging!

    The difference between directors that fly by night, and those that still have their works talked about 50+ years later.

    The one and only book/video/whatever I would recommend on directing:




    I have to disagree; I feel that the sequence is overlong. Although I understand its purpose, it veers into docudrama territory for me. I like “Stray Dog” a lot, certainly more than “Rashomon” (for me, the most overrated of Kurosawa’s films), but this sequence is overdone.



    Hey thanks for the advice Jeremy, I’ll be sure to check that out (I’d never even heard of blocking to be honest). Of course I knew actors were required to be told where to be positioned on set and all that, but never knew it was called blocking.

    Ironically I re-watched Taxi Driver about two weeks ago; it’s a brilliant neo-noir. Especially the birds eye dolly shots at the crime scene.

    Lawless: When I first saw Rashomon, I too believed it to be very overrated. This wasn’t because I didn’t understand its message but rather because I found it very slow paced, especially given its runtime. Also, when you have such high expectations before seeing a film, they’re bound to be crushed. Now though, I think Rashomon is an excellent film and don’t find it to be overrated in the slightest. It’s a very clever picture and the fact that it was made in 1950, and was a Japanese film (I believe most Japanese films at the time didn’t look at such deep philosophical questions such as the concept of truth and the subjectivity of perceived reality) makes it all the more extraordinary.



    Nice post, Ryan, and welcome. Trust Jeremy on the how of filmmaking-he has the most experience of anyone who has yet posted. I’m from Detroit, so I completely understand how tough the economy is! But, hang in there. I hope that film school is a great success for you!

    Lawless, Jeremy, Ryan- the whole “overlong” issue-I have to agree with Lawless that the visual montage discussed here is overlong, and at the same time with Ryan and Jeremy that it is perfect. And, I agree further, with Ryan that it may seem overlong at first, then it gets shorter on repeated viewing. I can only imagine that it, in turn gets longer again.

    You know how you have a favorite book you go back to time and again and how it changes? Yep, like that. It’s the meat puppet casing that our synapses are dependent on that makes it all relative and subjective-actually, it is the act of retrieval (retrieval of memory destroys memory) and it is the synapses themselves. We are unlikely to achieve unanimity in our attitudes, although we may achieve a temporary consensus.

    So, today, I am loving the “searching for my gun montage” scene. I also get some petty pleasure knowing that the site cameraman’s boots are stand-ins for Mifune’s, and that the “Muraki” sign refers to the set desiger, and his desire to see his name in the film…not to some conflation of male/female characters as thought by Yoshimoto. Petty pleasures. Also, a delicious thrill in seeing Mifune (What can I say? He looks so good in that uniform!) and his beautiful eyes up close. And, then of course, there is the beauty of the cutting and the brilliance of reflection/mirror/reality that belies our expectations in the opening scene. Really, it’s a tour-de-force! Finally, the world we glimpse may not exist in quite the same way in Japan, but it does in other regions of the world…so, this becomes an historical document of a moment in time-as Ryan has expressed so well!



    Well, see there will be always be people that are going to find fault in what you may consider brilliant. And they aren’t wrong or right, as can nobody be, especially if we’re talking about what is an obvious stylized shot.

    Blocking is telling were the actors to go, but it extends more to do with having them and the camera move together. It can get rather complicated, but to put simply. You’ll see most modern directors will simply use cuts. Say if the camera is on one side of the set, and needs to be on the other. They cut, reposition, then restart filming.

    The master directors, did much the opposite. They made the actors and camera move together, naturally and purposely, often in way that actor and camera separate then met up again-but all while still ultimately getting the camera on the other side of the set without a single cut.

    They basically let the camera roll, and it’s this that separates the average directors from the masters-the amount, or lack of cuts.

    I’ll spare my problems with over usage of cuts, or how they negatively effect the audience, or even how you can rate a director on why and when they cut. But I’m willing to bet, part of your attraction to the directors you mention, is because they all master blocking/staging-even if you don’t yet know this.

    Since coco brought it, and she has a bad habit of over-crediting me, and of course talking about her attraction to Mifune. 😛

    Advice: you going to get a lot of it, and everyone thinks they are master director. 95% of this advice is truly worthless, but really all should be briefly considered. Directors have a bad habit of getting stuck on one way, but if you open yourself up to advice, even if you don’t follow it, you still start to think more widely, come up with different approaches, still your own, but ones you would not of gotten had not the bad piece of advice come your way.

    Not to say however, you shouldn’t stand firm or you’ll make a film that has no direction, and is just plan horrible. But, being too firm, can make a film so focused, that it lacks life, and too equally as horrible.

    Whatever you do, dont over plan your movies, the few scene I did that I was credit as being “brilliant”. Were largely the result of not having enough dolly track, or extension cords that were too short, or not having the ideal equipment.

    Once a DP that didnt know his left from his right, turned out a very interesting pan by mistake, and even one were the camera just had to go up the hill, but was ultimately too heavy to dolly push up, so I just made it roll down the hill(disassembled to carry up hill first), as the actor walked up instead. Saved time, headaches, back injuries, and created a fantastic bit of composition I never planned. Learn when to compromise, and when not to, but keep in mind the compromising is really the whole life-blood to movies.

    That pretty much sums the problems films students have coming in and out of film school. Maybe, I can spare you a year of wondering around clueless. 😆

    And the point being, well I dont know, just the whole film school stuff set me off. But! That’s the last of my preaching, and that 95% worthless advice talk doesn’t exclude me.



    Coco (and Ryan) – I have to admit I haven’t watched the scene in Stray Dog that many times – I rented it from Netflix last year and probably watched it no more than twice, possibly only once. But by comparison the more pivotal scene (plotwise) in the beginning of the movie in which Murakami’s gun is stolen on the bus is not only much quicker, it’s harder to tell what’s going on.

    And like Coco I find Mifune delicious-looking in this movie. I haven’t seen any other of his contemporary films yet (just got Drunken Angel from Netflix) but I think he’s better looking in modern garb than in any other film, although the revealing outfits he wore in much of Seven Samurai run a close second.

    And Ryan – I don’t think I’m going to change my opinion of Rashomon. This is a little OT, and for more of my opinion see my posts about Seven Samurai, which is my favorite movie ever.

    Short version, I’ve seen Rashomon twice: once as a teenager, not long after seeing Seven Samurai, and once again last year. Over that (cough) three-decade plus period, my opinion of the movie didn’t change much. It’s brilliantly filmed and well-acted but I don’t care about the characters; of all of them, I like the bandit/rapist the best (what does that tell you?); and as someone who believes there is such a thing as objective truth, although it’s not possible for mere humans to know it, a visual product that doesn’t allow you to fathom what actually happened seems terribly self-subverting. I like it better than Citizen Kane but that’s not saying much. .



    I’m a bit late (as usual these days), but I agree with Jeremy — I have very little to add to Ryan’s short essay. In just 500 words, he has pretty much teased out the essence of those almost ten minutes of footage!

    I have seen the scene (and film) in question with various different audiences, and it is interesting how sharply it seems to divide people. Whenever there has been a chance for discussion with the audience after a screening of Stray Dog, this has been the scene that has been the most talked about. Some find it perfect, others over long. I personally really like it. The film as a whole has an interesting rhythm, alternating between really fast cuts and movement, to almost total staticism.



    Wow thanks for the advice Jeremy, I’ll be sure to keep a tab on this page for future reference! 😀

    Relatively back on topic; the only thing I wish Kurosawa would have done is more contemporary Japanese films. On that same contemporary note, I wish he would have done more police procedurals / thrillers in the line of Stray Dog and of course High and Low. The Bad Sleep Well, although a very good film, is a very strange film and for that reason I didn’t like it as well as Stray Dog and High and Low. I think, if I am not mistaken, he too regretted not doing more contemporary Japanese films. For example, should I remember rightly, after picking up the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, he said he wanted Rashomon to be a contemporary Japanese film to show that relative truth is still a modern issue and also to show the Western world post-war Japan.

    Not to say I don’t like his films set in the Edo period but I really do enjoy his contemporary Japanese films (albeit not so much post-1975’s Dersu Uzala). Then again, perhaps the reason I find them special is because there aren’t many of them.



    Ryan: Not to say I don’t like his films set in the Edo period but I really do enjoy his contemporary Japanese films (albeit not so much post-1975’s Dersu Uzala). Then again, perhaps the reason I find them special is because there aren’t many of them.

    I now get to return the favour that you did when you pointed out that the rumours of Murakami’s death in Stray Dog were widely exaggerated.

    If I can still count right, at least half of Kurosawa’s films were set in contemporary Japan (I count 15, out of 30). The following films are all contemporary:

    Madadayo, Rhapsody in August, Dreams, Dodesukaden, High and Low, The Bad Sleep Well, Record of a Living Being, Ikiru, Scandal, Stray Dog, The Quiet Duel, Drunken Angel, One Wonderful Sunday, No Regrets for Our Youth, The Most Beautiful.

    In addition to these, you have Dersu Uzala, The Idiot and the two Sanshiro Sugatas which I wouldn’t really call contemporary, but which aren’t really in the historical Edo period, either.

    That leaves us with 11 historical films: Ran, Kagemusha, Red Beard, Sanjuro, Yojimbo, The Hidden Fortress, The Lower Depths, Throne of Blood, Seven Samurai, Rashomon, They Who Step on the Tiger’s Tail.

    And even if Kurosawa has been called “the master of the samurai genre”, really only four of those movies are strictly speaking real samurai films: Sanjuro, Yojimbo, The Hidden Fortress, Seven Samurai. With the rest, the focus is quite firmly elsewhere. His influence on the genre was, of course, enormous, and the quality of his samurai films incredibly high.

    In any case, like you Ryan, also I tend to prefer the contemporary films. I personally feel more disconnected and lost with the period films, and this is probably also why I don’t tend to see as much interesting features in them as I do with the contemporary ones.



    To clarify, and perhaps make myself clearer, by “contemporary films” I meant in the line of Stray Dog, The Bad Sleep Well and High and Low; contemporary thrillers / police procedurals if you will. I realise half of his filmography is set in contemporary Japan, but a good half of those are difficult to obtain, unless you wish to splash out on Criterions.

    This is not to say that I don’t appreciate his other contemporary films i.e. Ikiru, Drunken Angel but I really do enjoy sitting down watching Kurosawa tackle film noir / police procedural thrillers in a contemporary environment. I think he had a talent for that genre, whether he realised it or not.

    I’ve still yet to see Sanshiro Sugata I and II, along with They Who Step on the Tiger’s Tail, Scandal and The Idiot. A few of those are in the Postwar Kurosawa Criterion Eclipse Box Set so I guess I’ll have to get that. Sanshiro Sugata’s are in the public domain I believe; the second of which is apparently awful as Kurosawa had no interest in making the film (according to Donald Richie and Kurosawa himself). Still, I hope to end up seeing it one way or the other.



    I totally agree with you Ryan, Kurosawa really was a master of the thriller/suspense genre(s). Under his direction, those stories became so much more — Stray Dog is a case in point. Under a different artist it could have remained a simple story about a lost gun, but with Kurosawa it seems to become so much more, both visually and in terms of its content!

    I would say that while the Sanshiro Sugata films are not comparable to, say, Red Beard, they are nevertheless quite interesting and entertaining, and worth hunting down. The second one is admittedly a weaker effort, but that almost makes it all the more interesting, as you can compare how Kurosawa’s style changes when he starts to lose interest.

    It’s actually been ages since I last saw those two. As far as I know, the only proper English friendly editions of these films are Australian.

    I’m not so sure about the public domain status of those films. There was a long legal debate in Japan about the copyright of Kurosawa’s films, which Toho ultimately won last year. Here’s the latest. You can dig deeper into the saga via the “similar news” section on that page.

    I am also not sure how this works outside of Japan, but I think that in many countries a film is under copyright until 70 years after the death of the last surviving principal creator (director, writer, composer), which would mean that these films are still under copyright. These laws have, however, changed over time, and whether law changes apply retroactively is a good question (and something the above-mentioned Japanese legal battle was all about). It would be great to have an answer to this from someone specialising in international copyright law!



    Great post Ryan, I must look at that sequence again. I must admit that on my first viewing of the film, my first thought was ‘is this ever going to end?’ Like a lot of Kurosawa, it was on my second viewing that I appreciated how good it was. But that is one of AK’s simultaneous strengths and weaknesses – he crams so much into every sequence, there is a danger that it just flies over your head on first viewing (of course, with a thriller, it is the first viewing that is the key one).

    I have to say that I agree with Ryan that the emphasis sometimes put on AK’s historic films does somewhat deflect from the fact that I think he is one of the greatest of all thriller directors, I really do wish he made more. Personally, I think the train sequence in High and Low is greater than any individual sequence done by Hitchcock.

    Jeremy’s post on ‘blocking’ is very interesting. I was reminded of it on two movies I’ve caught this easter (very rare that I get to the cinema these days!). Both illustrated it beautifully.

    The first is the Swedish Vampire film Let the Right One In, which makes superb use of carefully composed still shots of both outdoors and indoors scenes in winter. It was almost Ozu like (not that Ozu would have made a Vampire movie, but if he had, it would have been like this one!).

    The second one, and a complete contrast, is Il Divo, a terrific thriller based on the life of the Italian politician Andreotti. I found the film hard to follow, as there were really too many characters, but it was brilliantly filmed. Instead of going for the slow, plodding biopic route, the director used very fast editing and camera movement to very witty effect. I don’t think it quite amounts to as much as it thinks it does, but it was very entertaining.

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