Murukami, a young homicide detective, has his pocket picked on a bus and loses his pistol. Frantic and ashamed, he dashes about trying to recover the weapon without success until taken under the wing of an older and wiser detective, Sato. Together they track the culprit.
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Nora Inu (Stray Dog) is a film about excruciation. A film that portrays with stunning accuracy the physical and moral torture endured when one is forced to reexamine their surroundings. The film was Kurosawa’s ninth feature and it is heavily stylized in the manner of the western film noir movement. Nevertheless, the film has a distinctly Japanese feel, concerning both the themes presented and the way that Kurosawa crafts the actions taken by the main character. Nora Inu is the story of a young detective named Murakami (Toshiro Mifune) trying desperately to recover his police issued pistol. The handgun goes missing after a bus ride and he goes on an extensive journey through Tokyo’s seedy underbelly to get it back. We can only describe the protagonist’s sojourn as excruciating, not only for the immediate physical conditions, but for the intense moral choices that the film uses as its main plot points.
From the moment the film starts, we are aware of an agonizing heat wave that is taking over Tokyo. Under the opening credits, a dog pants wildly, resting its head on the hot, dirt streets of the slums. This is the first physically excruciating element within the film. Kurosawa often stages scenes in claustrophobic spaces, the actors continually dabbing their brows with handkerchiefs to emphasize the severity of the heat. Despite the effectiveness of this element on contributing to the main character’s overall hardship, by far the most important aspect of his pain occurs about a third of the way into the picture.
After a woman, who was one of Murakami’s chief suspects for the theft of his weapon, tells the detective that he must hit the streets looking desperate in order to attract the gun traffickers, Kurosawa gives us perhaps the most important sequence in the film. Murakami, donning newly acquired ‘street clothes’ searches the streets of Tokyo for his missing pistol. Ordinarily, this would be a straightforward and short sequence in a film; however, as critics of the film ceaselessly point out, the sequence goes on for much too long (nine minutes to be exact). Clearly, this excess was not an oversight. I think Kurosawa brilliantly executes the sequence to let the audience sit with Murakami’s guilt as he searches endlessly for someone who may know something about his pistol. The main point is to let the audience feel the excruciating embarrassment and responsibility that the protagonist feels for his actions. After all, every second that Murakami spends looking for his handgun is another second that someone somewhere could be using the gun to commit a crime.
I think that it is audience instinct (as it is the main character’s instinct) to let the mind wander – to concoct a ‘worst case scenario’ of what could be happening with the weapon at any given time. Kurosawa seems all too aware of this facet of human nature. Another wonderfully executed sequence that exploits this to achieve a feeling of excruciation occurs when Murakami and his mentor Sato (Takashi Shimura) go to a baseball game in search of the man who has the pistol. Kurosawa devotes large segments of screen time to seeing the game unfold in real-time. The fans are going wild for their favorite teams, but Murakami can no more enjoy the game without retrieving the handgun than he can grow a foot taller.
It would be one thing if these sequences in the film stopped there insofar as their depth and the metaphors they contain are concerned. However, they definitely do not. There is still a heavy moral excruciation to each of these drawn out sequences that we haven’t yet considered. Nora Inu was made in 1949, at a time when Japan was recovering from the blow of nuclear warfare and many of its inhabitants were desperately trying to figure out how to move forward with the political and socioeconomic climate as it was. Kurosawa has beautifully integrated these themes into the aforementioned sequences by making his protagonist a veteran of World War II. When Murakami is roaming the streets, he is not only searching for his pistol, he is observing the new quality of life that exists in certain sections of Tokyo. We get the sense that he is learning to understand what many Japanese people are going through in the wake of World War II. And again, at the baseball game there is an overriding feeling of trying to forget Japan’s past and move on, but Murakami is unsure if it is morally sound to forget such a haunting past.
The point is well made here with Murakami, but of course, Kurosawa takes the theme one step further. We later find out that the criminal Murakami and Sato are trying to track down is also a veteran of World War II. Murakami’s journey to recover his weapon is as much for himself as it is to discover the kind of life that his brethren have been living since the war ended.
This juxtaposition of lives leads to the film’s powerful climax, in which Murakami finally tracks down the thief in the middle of a Japanese forest surrounded by beautiful flowers, schoolchildren, and a woman playing piano. After an intense wrestling match, the two men lie in the grass, I believe, finally at an understanding. The scene surrounding them is Japan – it is the world, as it exists before war. Murakami’s question of where Japan is headed is answered and we, interestingly, switch perspectives to the thief. The thief screams at the top of his lungs, releasing the pent up excruciation of trying to assimilate into a broken Japan that he’s been carrying with him through the entire film.
In a word, Nora Inu is a film about excruciation. When the world seems to be hopelessly broken and beyond repair, we must each ask ourselves what our place is. How we fit into the world and what we are going to do to move forward. These are the questions that Kurosawa is asking at the heart of Nora Inu. They are timeless questions and they are, without a doubt, the reason that we can still watch and enjoy the film as a relevant piece of art nearly six decades after its initial release.