Nora Inu is Japanese for “stray dog.” Made in 1949, this is Japan’s first foray into the detective film genre, and its first application of film noir. This is another film by Akira Kurosawa, starring Toshiro Mifune — as far as I’m concerned, the two best things that ever happened to Japanese cinema.
The plot of the film is not altogether difficult to follow. Mifune plays Murakami, a young homocide detective whose pistol is stolen from his pocket on a crowded bus. He begins his search in shame but quickly grows panicked as the thief commits murders with the gun.
Takashi Shimura, another frequent Kurosawa collaborator, plays Mifune’s experienced partner. Shimura’s role is that of the level-headed veteran, a stark contrast to the rookie detective assigned to work with him. However, his know-how and age gap over Mifune provides the younger man with the clarity needed to continue the case. Indeed, Shimura’s character is the only keeping the line between criminal and police work a distinct one. In a rather profound exchange, the Shimura’s character states that he has a difference outlook on criminals than Murakami, who is a member of the après guerre generation. I enjoy the fact that while Kurosawa borrowed the genre from Hollywood, he did not borrow the characters. Murakami is himself nothing at all like Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade.
The film takes place in Tokyo in the late 40s. The roughness of the immediate postwar period is used as a backdrop for the plot’s progress, and many scenes feature a variety of shots and angles depicting city life and the people of Tokyo. What I enjoyed most is how Kurosawa used other setting elements as motifs within the story. Much like 1950′s Rashomon, Nora Inu makes repeated mention to the blistering heat and intense humidity of summer in Japan. Shots of people fanning themselves, sweat beaded faces, soaked clothing and mention of the heat in the dialogue is common enough that it’s nowhere near unconscious. This film’s use of environment to enrich the plot and the characters themselves was progressive in Japanese film, and keep it on top some six decades later. For any fan of detective fiction, this is guaranteed to please. Nora Inu is available on the Criterion Collection, but it’s pricey, so I suggest Netflix!