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Although Akira Kurosawa has always been most well-known due to his jidai-geki (period drama) films, many people tend to overlook his films set in the modern era. Some of these films are easily his best, such as 1952's Ikiru, 1963's High and Low, and 1949's Stray Dog.

Kurosawa, who has always been known to incorporate "Western" ideas into his films, tackled noir with Stray Dog. The film was heavily inspired by French mystery novelist Georges Simenon, who was most famous for creating Inspector Jules Maigret. In Kurosawa's mind, Stray Dog was a failure at a Simenon-like film, although he did warm up to it a bit more later in life.

The film itself serves as both a detective story and as social commentary on the general condition of life in postwar Japan (one can also make a case for a coming-of-age film of sorts). Toshirô Mifune plays young police detective Murakami, who has his gun stolen on a crowded bus during a heatwave (the heatwave adds some extra tension to the film, as it almost seems to be a force acting against the police). Murakami is incredibly shamed by this, and the capture of the thief/thieves involved quickly becomes an obsession, particularly when the possibility that the gun has been used in a few recent crimes is introduced.

Murakami is eventually assigned to work under senior police detective Sato (Takashi Shimura) to catch the criminal(s) involved. Sato primarily serves as a mentor to Murakami, teaching him how to act in certain situations, etc. However, as the film progresses, we find that in many ways, Murakami begins to identify with the person he's pursuing.

The social commentary aspect is really a big part of what makes this film so interesting. We see plenty of veterans from World War II, just sleeping wherever they can find shelter. The general populace just seems to move about, completely aimless and anonymous. The people are struggling for both an identity and a more meaningful purpose in life. One might also say that Murakami's theft of his gun symbolizes Japan's virtual "emasculation" as a nation because of its defeat in World War II.

Overall, many consider this to be Kurosawa's first masterpiece. It comes highly recommended, although one will have to put up with a bit of somewhat deteriorated picture and sound (not "bad" by any means, and Criterion has done a wonderful job of cleaning it up, but just as a slight warning). Still, it works wonderfully as both a detective movie and a social commentary on postwar Japan (and perhaps as a coming-of-age story).

Also, I don't know why, but this film was pretty hard to review, as it's one of those films that one must see rather than go into lengthy reviews about.