Thursday, July 22, 2004

Review of Stray Dog and Godzilla

Gozilla rampages!
Stray Dog (Japan, 1949), d. Akira Kurosawa
Godzilla (Japan, 1956, 2004 50th anniversary restored version), d. Inoshiro Honda

I wouldn't have grouped these two films normally, but by coincidence the restored Godzilla was in theaters around the same time my film noir discussion group watched Stray Dog, and I was surprised to see they had a lot in common thematically.

Kurosawa's Stray Dog fits squarely in a world tradition of art cinema. The main story concerns rookie cop Murakami (played excellently by Toshiro Mifune) whose gun is stolen from him while riding a crowded train. He becomes obsessed with finding the gun and is racked with guilt when it turns up in subsequent, escalating violent crimes, for which he blames himself. Sato, a more experienced cop, takes him under his wing, urging him (without success) not to be so sensitive about his mistake and not to be so sympathetic and philosophical about the culprit (the term "bad guys" is used a lot). As in Godzilla, this emphasis on personal responsibility for weapons one introduces into society is understandable, a reflection of Japan's dual concerns with the suffering inflicted upon it (most destructively the famous bombs) as well as the violence it had inflicted on others. As in Godzilla, characters' histories with WW II are an explicit part of the backst ory. Murakami and Sato have a discussion about differences between the older generation and the "apres-guerre" generation. More pointedly, we learn that both Murakami and the man who has stolen his gun were vets whose backpacks were stolen on the way home--desperate straits in impoverished, postwar Japan. Murakami chose to become a cop, but his unnamed doppelganger fell in with bad influences and resorted to crime. Sato remarks early on that the important thing is to catch a stray dog before he becomes rabid, in other words before he passes the point of no return and you are forced to shoot him. There are at least three stray dogs in the film in danger of becoming rabid, the young cop, the young criminal, and, of course, a young woman, Harumi, a troubled dance girl. Bullets and tears ensue. The connections between the cop and the criminal border on the mystical. In a sense, they are the same man, a point driven home in a scene where Murakami tries to pick out the culprit in a crowd of so many similar young me n. With the French origin of the very idea of film noir at the back of my mind, it struck me that Jean-Paul Sartre might have appreciated the existentialism in the story of Stray Dog. If we are the sum of our choices, then Stray Dog explores the profound difference just one decision can make on a life. And yet it makes little difference at all: both men, the chaser and the chased, end up lying side by side in a field.

I've never seen the original Americanized version of the original Godzilla, which added Raymond Burr, but apparently that version cut out a lot of material discussing the bomb. Restored, the film is clearly an exploration of atomic age themes--the terror of a weapon getting out of control, for example, or the great responsibility that comes with devising a weapon of mass destructive power. Godzilla appears, wreaking havoc, and Japanese scientists attribute his awakening (and his mutant powers) to atomic testing near his long isolated lair in the ocean. They throw everything they have at him--guns, electrified fences, missiles, all to no avail. But there's a ray of hope: a scientist (a man who was, significantly, scarred in the war) has stumbled on an invention of great destructive power. Can he be convinced to use the weapon, despite the risks of thereby announcing its existence to the world? It's an interesting dilemma. (Perhaps more entertaining, though, is an unintentionally funny romantic subplot that concerns a young man who stupidly alienates the father of the woman he's courting.) To say the least, Godzilla is far from Stray Dog on the subtlety scale, but that's not to say that it isn't well done. I'll think of it as pop art, not unlike my beloved Buffy the Vampire Slayer tv series: both use silly comic bookish genres to explore profound issues through deep metaphor.



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