PRODUCTION JOURNAL: Kurosawa and the making of Stray Dog

Stray Dog | Akira Kurosawa | 1949 | Japan | Format: 35mm | 122 min  

Stray Dog (野良犬 Nora inu) is a 1949 Japanese police procedural film noir directed by Akira Kurosawa and starring Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura. The film is considered a precursor to the contemporary police procedural and buddy cop film genres.   Inspired by Jules Dassin’s The Naked City and the works of Georges Simenon, Kurosawa wrote the script with Ryuzo Kikushima, a writer who had never written a script before. ~~Wikipedia

Excerpts from Akira Kurosawa's Something Like An Autobiography give you a glimpse into what it was like for Kurosawa and his crew to shoot Stray Dog during the summer of 1949.  

"I don't really like talking about my films. Everything I want to say is in the film iself; for me to say anything more is, as the proverb goes, like "drawing legs on a picture of a snake."   But from time to time an idea I thought I had conveyed in the film does not seem to have been generally understood.  On those occasions I do feel an urge to talk about my work.  Nevertheless, I try not to.  If what I have said in my film is true, someone will understand."

"Maupassant instructed aspiring writers to extend their vision into realms where no one else could see, and to keep it up until the hitherto invisible became visible to everyone.  Acting on this principle, I decided to take up the problem of The Quiet Duel one more time in Stray Dog, pressing my vision to the point where everyone could see what I saw."

"I first wrote the screenplay in the form of a novel. I am fond of the work of Georges Simenon, so I adopted his style of writing novels about social crime.  This process took me a little less than six weeks, so I figured that I'd be able to rewrite it as a screenplay in ten days or so.  Far from it.  It proved to be a far more difficult task than writing a scenario from scratch, and it took me close to two months.

But, as I reflect on it, it's perfectly understandable that this should have happened.  A novel and a screenplay are, after all, entirely different things.  The freedom for psychological description one has in writing a novel is particularly difficult to adapt to a screenplay without using narration.  But, thanks to the unexpected travail of adapting the descriptions of the novel form to a screenplay, I attained a new awareness of what screenplays and films consist of.  At the same time, I was able to incorporate many peculiarly novelistic modes of expression into the script.

For example, I understood that in novel-writing certain structural techniques can be employed to strengthen the impression of an event and narrow the focus upon it.  What I learned was that in the editing process a film can gain similar strength through the use of comparable structural techniques.  The story of Stray Dog begins with a young police detective on his way home from marksmanship practice at the headquarters range.  He gets on a crowded bus, and in the unusually intense summer heat and crush of bodies his pistol is stolen.  When I filmed this sequence and edited it according to the passage of chronological time, the effect was terrible.  As an introduction to a drama it was slow, the focus was vague and it failed to grip the viewer.

Troubled, I went back to look at the way I had begun the novel, I had written as follows: It was the hottest day of that entire summer.  Immediately, I thought, "That's it."  I used a shot of a dog with its tongue hanging out, panting.  Then the narration begins, It was unbearably hot that day.  After a sign on a door indicating "Police Headquarters, First Division," I proceeded to the interior.  The chief of the First Detective Division glares up from his desk.  "What? Your pistol was stolen?"  Before him stands the contrite young detective who is the hero of the story.  This new way of editing the opening sequence gave me a  very short piece of film, but it was extremely effective in drawing the viewer suddenly into the heart of the drama."

"However, that first shot of the panting dog with its tongue hanging out caused me immense woes.  The dog's face appears under the title of the film to create the impression of heat.  But I received an unprovoked complaint - or, rather, accusation - from an American woman who had watched the filming.  She represented the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and claimed that I had had a healthy dog injected with rabies.  This was a patently false charge.  The dog was a stray dog that we had obtained from the pound, where it was about to be put away.  The people in charge of props had given it affectionate care.  It was a mutt, but it had a very gentle face, so we used makeup to give it a more ferocious appearance, and a man on a bicycle exercised to make it pant.  When it's tongue started to hang out, we filmed it.  But no matter how carefully we explained all this, the American S.P.C.A. lady refused to believe it.  Because the Japanese were barbarians, injecting a dog with rabies was just the sort of thing we would do, and she had no time for the truth.  Even Yama-san came by to confirm that I was a dog lover and would never do such a thing but the American lady insisted that she was going to take me to court.  

At this point I lost all patience. I was ready to tell her that the cruelty to animals came from her side.  People are animals, too, and if we are subjected to things like this, we need a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Humans.  My colleagues did their best to calm me down.  In the end, I was forced to write a deposition, and I never at any other moment experienced a stronger sense of regret over Japan's losing the war."

"With the exception of this one unfortunate incident, the making of Stray Dog was most enjoyable.  It was underwritten by the Film Art Association and Shin Tōhō, so I was able to work once again with crew members who had been separated from me by the Tōhō strike... On top of this, we used the Oizumi studio. The furor of the strike had not yet totally died down, and it might have been difficult for me to use the Shin Tōhō studios, so we ended up at the old place.  At that time it was virtually deserted.  On the grounds there was a small apartment-house kind of building, so we all moved in there and used it as a dormitory.   We worked without respite or distractions.

It was midsummer when we filmed Stray Dog.  When the day's work ended around 5 o'clock, the sun was still beating down.  Even after we finished supper it was still light outside.  Right after the war, if you went into the center of town (from Oizumi that meant going to the Ikebukuro district), there was not much to do.  We ended up killing time waiting for dark and the hour to return to the dormitory.  More often than not someone would say, "Why don't we do a little more work?" We ended up spending a great many evenings on the set."

"Stray Dog is made up of many short scenes in many different settings, so the little sound stage we used was cleared and redecorated with lightning speed.  On fast days we shot five or six different scenes on it. As soon as the set was ready, we'd shoot and be done again, so the art department had no choice but to build and decorate sets while we slept.  The art director, Matsuyama Shu, had three other films to supervise besides mine, so he just drew plans of what he wanted and hardly ever came to the set. The ones who really slaved to put it all together were his assistant Muraki and a female assistant.

One evening I went to see how construction was going on the open set at one of our locations. Against the sunset sky I saw two silhouettes on top of the wooded hill.  Muraki and the girl assistant were sitting exhausted, totally silent. I was about to yell my thanks to them for their effort, but suddenly I noticed something profoundly serious about their demeanor, and I withdrew.  The camera and lighting technicians who had come with me to the open set gave me a strange look and started to speak.  I stopped them with a wave of my hand, looked up at the two silhouettes on the wooded hill and said softly, "Looks like they're going to get married, doesn't it?

My prediction came true, and when the picture was finished Muraki and the girl got married.  Mrs. Muraki, whose first name is Shinobu, also became a first-rate art director.  I had never been an official go-between for a wedding before, but apparently these two were brought together by the terribly hard work I gave them on Stray Dog, so I suppose that without knowing it I had been their matchmaker...

I had Honda [Inoshiro, the chief assistant director] do mainly second-unit shooting.  Every day I told him what I wanted and he would go out into the ruins of post-war Tokyo to film it.  There are few men as honest and reliable as Honda. He faithfully brought back exactly the footage I requested, so almost everything he shot was used in the final cut of the film. I'm often told that I captured the atmosphere of post-war Japan very well in Stray Dog, and, if so, I owe a great deal of that success to Honda..."

"No shooting ever went as smoothly for me as Stray Dog. Even the weather seemed to cooperate.  There was a scene when we needed an evening shower. We got out hte fire truck and prepared for the rolling of the camera. I had them start the hoses and called for action and camera, and just at that instant a terrific real rainstorm began. We got a great scene.

Another time we were working on an interior set, but we needed a rainstorm outside the windows.  Again the heavens obliged, and we were even able to record just the thunder we needed simultaneously.

However, when we had a great deal left to shoot on an open set, a typhoon approached. I was forced to revise many of my plans.  We rushed the shooting through with one ear glued to the radio for the storm reports.  Second  by second the typhoon bore down on us, and the set took on a battleground atmosphere. We wound up the shooting the very evening the storm was scheduled to hit full force.  Sure enough, when we went out to look at our open set that night we found the whole street smashed to bits by the high winds.  Gazing out over the rubble of what we had  been filming a few hours before gave me a peculiarly clean, rewarding feeling."

"At any rate, the filming of Stray Dog went remarkably well, and we finished ahead of schedule.  The excellent pace of the shooting and the good feeling of the crew working together can be sensed in the complete film.

I remember how it was on Saturday nights when we boarded a bus to go home for a day off after a full week's hard work.  Everyone was happy. At the time I was living in Komae, far out of the city near the Tamagawa River, so toward the end of the ride I was always left alone. The solitary last rider on the cavernous empty bus, I always felt more loneliness at being separated from my crew than I did joy at being reunited with my family.

Now the pleasure in the work we experienced on Stray Dog seems like a distant dream. The films an audience really enjoys are the ones that were enjoyable in the making.  Yet pleasure in the work can't be achieved unless you know you have put all of your strength into it and have done your best to make it come alive. A film made in this spirit reveals the hearts of the crew."

Now that you got a glimpse of Kurosawa's work process and how it was made, check out the beginning of Stray Dog.

野良犬 Stray Dog Opening 1949 黒澤明 Kurosawa... by MorinoMashio


Popular posts from this blog

PRODUCTION TIPS: What is a Loan-Out Company? And Should I Form One?

PRODUCTION JOURNAL: How Tarantino Got Reservoir Dogs Funded and Why It's Worth Knowing People Who Know Celebrities

CASE STUDY: A Look at Some of TV's Most Successful PODs