What does a Kurosawa film sound like? Is it the metallic whoosh of swords, or the peal of temple bells. Or is it all about the music, a martial theme, or a spare and cold Toru Takemitsu soundtrack?
Perhaps it’s about both. Both sound design and musical soundtrack in Stray Dog are remarkable throughout. There’s that famous montage of a humiliated Toshiro Mifune swimming through the chaos of the city, looking for some lowlife to sell him a gun – preferably his own gun, stolen by a pickpocket on a crowded bus. (He’s supposed to be in disguise, but yeah, right – like you’d mistake those cheekbones for anyone else’s.) But that almost nightmarish segment of urban swirl – his boots on the dry gravel, the wooden slats above him offering little relief from the sun, the dispossessed sleeping on the streets – is most memorable to me because of the music. Jazz, enka, pop, folk, slipping in and out amidst the cacophony of the streets, like a radio dial turned to pluck whatever evanescent melodies it can from the ether.
I’d like to be able to write that Stray Dog is an example of outstanding sound design, period, if only because it’s so surprisingly assertive. Here, entire scenes are practically constructed around sound alone, or utilize it as a motif. The piano scales we hear in a sequence portraying a suburban idyll turn out to be, in a later sequence, exactly that: piano scales, actually played from a nearby house, and serving as soundtrack to the wordless struggle at the end. But is it uniquely prominent for a Kurosawa film? Or is it only because Kurosawa explicitly uses it here as a motif? (And has Kurosawa ever been so brazenly steamy, with all those pregnant beads of perspiration on bare limbs and necks?)
But I can show you what Stray Dog sounds like:
If closed captioning was on, what you’d read under each screen grab would be “[Panting].”
It’s a hot summer, yes; we see them pulling out crumpled white handkerchiefs, useless in soaking up the sweat; we see jackets drenched (worn by policemen struggling to maintain a sense of sartorial dignity). But what anchors the audience to the particularity of the season (or the historical moment) is all the labored breathing and the desperation of its sound. A military empire, still reeling from being brought to its knees, or the collective exhaustion of a people under military occupation. Perhaps this is the real record of a living being: to inhale, to exhale. To breathe, on film. To gasp for air.