Part of the Picture: Princess for a Day

Posted on December 19, 2008


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DEC 20, 2008 – IF YOU OWNED A GUN AND IF IT WAS STOLEN from under your nose – at a moment you were distracted by the heat of the day and the discomfiture of sweaty bodies grinding against you in a tinderbox bus – wouldn’t you be at least partially responsible for the crimes subsequently committed with it? That is the existential scourge that Akira Kurosawa, in Stray Dog, delivers into the hands of detective Murakami (Toshiro Mifune), who grabs at it as a means of merciless self-flagellation. Each time a crime is traced back to the Colt he was careless enough to let slip away – and now in the possession of Yusa (Isao Kimura) – livid welts of shame and guilt lacerate the poor man’s soul. At first, Murakami decides to resign from the force, but later he realises that his expiation lies in apprehending Yusa.

Murakami and detective Sato (Takashi Shimura) pick up the trail of a showgirl named Harumi Namaki (Keiko Awaji), who they believe is connected to Yusa. They visit the club she works at, but a man there informs them that she’s sick right now, “with her monthlies.” They obtain her address and drop in at her extremely modest home in Koenji. Harumi’s mother (Eiko Miyoshi) lets the detectives in. Harumi is seated on the window sill, silent and still, apparently unconcerned with the arrival of these strange men. Her mother, however, cannot stop moving, the agitation in her mind finding expression through the agitations of her body. After bustling about a bit, she takes out a tea service.

“Please don’t trouble yourself,” pleads Sato, as his keen eye lands on a box of matches on a nearby table. Wanting to investigate, he fishes out a cigarette. “I’ll take a match,” he announces, and Harumi’s mother almost beats him to the table, anxious that she is to keep busy till Harumi decides to speak. And finally, Harumi does. “I don’t know a damn thing about Yusa,” she spits out. “I hate cops. They’re so pushy.” Her mother is mortified. “Don’t,” she admonishes. Then she smiles at the pushy cops. “She’s impossible.” But the daughter won’t have any of it. “Can it, Mom. We don’t have to say a thing if we don’t want to.” But her stubborn confidence cracks just a bit when Murakami asks, “Even if you’re covering up for an armed-robbery suspect?” Harumi insists, “I still don’t know.”

The mother is appalled. “Don’t lie,” she screams. “He was just here.” Sato enquires if it was Yusa who left behind the box of matches. The mother nods and turns to her daughter, “You were just complaining that he follows you around. Do you happen to know where he went? Tell them. I’m ordering you, tell them. Harumi, you must tell them everything you know.” And Sato decides it’s time he left, to follow the lead at the hotel whose name he’s just learnt from the box of matches. As he puts his hat on, he hears the mother railing at her daughter. “Why won’t you tell them? Tell them. Tell them. Harumi, listen, Harumi.” Instructing Murakami to stay behind, he mutters, “That mother’s born to prosecute her daughter.”

And just like that, Kurosawa begins to shift our sympathies away from Murakami and in the direction of Harumi, who – we’ve learnt – is being prosecuted twice over, by the cops she detests, and by the mother she loves. Even for a suspected moll, this sounds like a terrible fate – but the events that follow paint her in a light that’s even more sympathetic. Frustrated by Murakami’s refusal to budge, Harumi offers, “I don’t know what Yusa did, but he’s never done anything bad to me. He’d stop by backstage sometimes and watch me mournfully. I can’t have any part in arresting someone like that.” She gets up suddenly, pulls at a curtain that hides a closet, rummages through her things till she finds a box, and flings it on the floor.

“I’ll return this,” she screams, looking at the soft, shimmery dress that’s spilled out of the box. “So beat it.” Kurosawa frames the dress as being surrounded by the three people in the room – in one of the many triangular compositions in the film – and then he cuts to each person, keeping a portion of the dress in the foreground. Harumi’s mother demands, “Where would you ever get such a dress?” Murakami contemplates the dress. Finally Harumi reveals, “He gave it to me.” And we wonder why Kurosawa is lavishing such fetishistic attention on this item of clothing, practically suggesting that each one in the room is somehow tainted by it, or at least, complicit in its presence there.

In an instant, we know. Harumi remembers, “I saw it in a shop window when we were taking a walk. I said I wished I could have a dress that pretty just once. He stared at me with the saddest expression. A week later he brought it to me backstage.” Essentially, she confirms that Yusa committed a crime for her. But this is Japan immediately after the war, not the proud nation it is today but one that had had its spine broken, its economy shattered – and Harumi continues, “But I would’ve stolen it myself if I’d had the guts. They deserve it for flaunting these things.” Her mother begs her to stop, but she won’t – she can’t. “It’s the world’s fault.” And thus we come full circle with our sympathies, which now reside entirely with Harumi. Murakami is the villain now, not Yusa, along with the world, for pushing a girl into poverty and then punishing her because she wanted, just for a day, to feel like a princess.

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Posted in: Cinema: Foreign