Restating some elements of Prince's discussion of Drunken Angel and Stray Dog (pp. 89-100)

[Note: Rather than cite this page, please go directly to Prince's book. ]

Prince argues that Kurosawa’s main project is to address the theme of modernity in Japan’s experience, and by extension, Japan’s long, complex relationship with the west. He tells stories of strong protagonists grappling with the social ills of a modernizing society and such issues as poverty, alienation, political corruption and the bomb. Kurosawa heroes are seeking freedom and autonomy.

If development has a dark side, then Kurosawa explores it. Kurosawa’s cinema is extraordinarily responsive to these ambiguities of development and the contradictions between social recovery from the war and official policies of rapid economic growth on the one hand, and the inequities of wealth, low-living standards for some, and a system of big business that has not been responsive to citizens’ grievances, on the other. Kurosawa draws on the Japanese tradition of defiance of authority and rebellion. Therefore, he places special value on the role of the individual and the self.. Without establishment of the self as a positive value there could be no freedom and no democracy, he maintains. Kurosawa’s heroes are often separated from the group and must struggle alone.

Drunken Angel is about a double loss of identity Prince argues: one loss is progressive, to cure Matsunaga of disease and release him from the old codes. For this, a new sense of self must be forged, separating the individual from the social customs and institution that subordinate him, make him an appendage to the family, the clan, the state. But the price of this separation is isolation and loneliness. Existing codes won’t do but the new ones haven’t been generated yet. But the second loss is a kind of schizophrenia resulting from the Americanization of Japan. The world is out of kilter and control: cultural and economic confusion persists. Kurosawa captures this with fragmentary and destabilized compositions—camera’s perspective reels in drunken confusion. The film cries out angrily, urging Japanese to have the courage to change.

Stray Dog addresses the need of society's guardians to renounce their human feelings but also explores the dangers--and the impossibility--of them doing so. So, Prince finds that the characters and narrative style are charged with ambivalent cultural values that the themes and issues are sustained without resolution. They search for but are denied closure: they are not able to resolve the postwar political and moral dilemmas that they open up and explore. But the films embrace various textual strategies to refuse closure, something Kurosawa went on to develop fully in Ikiru.

Prince, then, finds the subject of Stray Dog to be postwar Japan itself and its relationship to Japanese history. It becomes a kind of epic of national reconstruction he contends. The action is set among bars, tenements, nightclubs, flophouses, amusement parks, train stations, restaurants and hotels. Since crime is its subject, social breakdown, chaos, competition are depicted.

It's a visually restless film with lots of rapidly cut montage sequences alternating with single long-take shots. Prince calls this a rhythm of explosion and recoil. The remarkable 8 minute and 35 secondsequence--most of it silent--when Murakami is searching throughout the areas of Asakusa and Ueno, his highly visual using wipes, dissolves, abd superimpositions to tell the story. The energy, the movement, the dynamism--and alongside these the bewildered and lost souls that make up the scenes through which Murakami travels--are all captured in this sequence. The scene is all about the urgency of Murakami finding his stolen pistol and it may also speak to the urgency of the task facing Japan. As Prince notes: "The energy and impatience of the film's structure are grounded in the urgency of the tasks of social reconstruction." (91)

Yusa--and Murakami-- are both ex-soldiers who lost their possessions (their knapsacks) when they returned from the war. They were without resources. One went into policework, the other into street crime. But are they so different? the film seems ambiguous about this point. Just because the times are bad, it is no excuse for doing bad things. And yet, Murakami understands, perhaps, when looking at Yusa that "there but for fortune goes I." The term "apres-guerre" comes up in some of the discussions between Sat and Murakami, and Sato has trouble pronouncing it because of its French origins. Yusa is in the "postwar condition," which, according to Prince represents "a national self crushed by the war and its aftermath." (94) Yusa is Murakmai's dark side, his evil twin, his doppelganger, his double. He has violated boundaries and threatened the sanctity of peaceful family life. Robberies and shootings are now his game. But everything he does, everything that happens to him, is rooted in the conditions of social and economic collapse. According to Prince, Murakami feels responsible for what Yusa is doing because "he helped create Yusa's need to steal." (93) That is, he got Yusa's ration card confiscated by arresting the girl so now Yusa is forced to steal in order to eat.


Sato, Murakami's mentor, thinks of the world in black and white. Evil is evil. But Murakami has seen that the war can do bad things to people and Yusa's sister tells us that the war changed him. After his knapsack was stolen, sometimes he would just sit in his small, pathetic dark room and hold his head and cry. The find his diary which recounts hi story of misery. It could be that the war and the political collapse and social disorder that followed made a decent, perhaps even gentle young man into a criminal and even a killer. This leads Prince to argue that "Stray Dog is a film about the danger of feeling and about the need to renounce compassion." (95)


According to Prince, then, we can read the dialogue between Sato and Murakami as part of a discourse on an emergent and coherent social program that takes as a central question the place and role of a compassionate response in an oppressive world. Are the cops--the guardians our our safety--supposed to suppress all their feelings of sympathy and understanding for the criminal element? What will happen if this is what people do? Sato tells Murakami he has to forget Yusa; he's not worth dwelling upon. But can Murakami live that way? Is the film clear about where Murakami stands at the end? Or is it ambiguous and ambivalent?


Prince sees that both Drunken Angel and Stray Dog are "defined by the contracfictions between characters like Sanada and Murakami and the demands of the social context in which they are located. Their struggles against this context are ambivalent, for they are as much a part of it as Matsunaga and Yusa, their darker selves. Herein lies the power of the films: the characters and narratives are charged with ambivalnet cultural values that are sustained without resolution." (99)