Akira Kurosawa: Drunken Angel (1948) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Akira Kurosawa: Drunken Angel (1948)

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Drunken Angel is a gritty, noirish small-time crime movie that deals with the post-war climate in Japan like neither of the past two films we've discussed. Those movies acknowledged the grim reality of life after WWII while meeting it head on, whether through the small victories of One Wonderful Sunday or the almost epic character evolution throughout No Regrets for Our Youth. Drunken Angel proceeds with a kind of weary resignation—a deep-seated knowledge that there is only so much one can do in the face of poverty, corruption, and stagnation, and that one should do it diligently without hoping for too much more. Like its central character, the movie has no place for grandeur.

The plot is straightforward, involving a gangster who comes to see a doctor for a wound he sustained in a fight and is told he has TB, after which the story simply follows the development of their relationship, as the doctor tries to convince him to seek treatment and the gangster orbits reluctantly around the idea while falling further into his condition. Essentially this is a metaphor seeing Japan at the time as being torn between the past and the future. The gangster clings to ideas of a yakuza code no one really follows anymore—clings to the idea that there's nothing wrong with him and becomes enraged when the doctor tries to convince him otherwise—while the doctor, an alcoholic prone to throwing his own medical equipment, sees clearly that his illness can be effectively treated if he'd just give in. The problem is not that TB—standing in along with the gangster and an oft-filmed swamp for Japan's post-war social issues—is incurable; it's that his patients are too stubborn to acknowledge their problem.

Drunken Angel is the first collaboration between Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune, a Scorcese/DeNiro pair who would work together for the next 20 years, and it's interesting to consider in that light, but what's really surprising is that Takashi Shimura (who we'll talk about at length in Ikiru) steals the movie as the alcoholic doctor. His shambling, grounded performance that occasionally erupts in frustration at those who wont take his advice is a good counterpoint to Mifune's yakuza, who seems always on the edge of implosion.We don't get the theatricality that's often engrained in Mifune's later performances, but this energy is hinted at in his mannerisms and under his eyes. Thin and gaunt, with a nervous demeaner that makes him resemble a normal-looking Peter Lorre, Mifune is almost unrecognizable here. There's a scene that hints at the power of some of what's to come in the later films, when he is told by a shopkeeper that the yakuza boss has stripped him of his power and he staggers away teetering between rage and fear.

The Scorcese/DeNiro comparison is especially apt here in that this movie—and the relationship between the doctor and the gangster especially—reminded me a bit of Mean Streets. Mifune's character is a live wire and there's only one possible direction he can be headed, despite the advice of the equally flawed but wiser doctor. That DeNiro started out with Scorsese giving a similar performance and would likewise follow that into more complex and iconic roles is interesting.

What I especially like here is the weariness with which the story is presented. Even a small triumph at the end with one of the doctor's other patients is taken as just that—it's a huge triumph for the individual, but doesn't matter so much for the larger, significantly corrupt society the film presents. Kurosawa's unique touch is that this doesn't come off so much as a cynical worldview as it is a realistic one. Many of the other movies we've watched were compelled to elevate their characters' struggles to an all-important level where nothing short of complete and utter redemption is at stake. Here, the doctor is glad that for this particular patient his treatment was helpful. It's unfortunate he was unable to save the yakuza. The crowd he disappears into at the end probably isn't too concerned about either.Thank you for finally breaking the silence on one of the Kurosawa topics that has flown mostly under the radar so far – the acting.  Even when Bergman was finding his voice in his earliest films each of the performers was putting their own stamp on the production.  To be fair Bergman’s background in theater encouraged this kind of participation, but for a medium that needs to exist primarily through the visuals and the performers it seems Kurosawa always focused on the former rather than the latter.  It’s made for a few great to look at early films featuring people I probably would not recognize if you put a gun to my head.

That’s why this film is such a radical departure in style from the others.  Kurosawa is barely able to contain the force of his actors in Drunken Angel.  Imagine how electrifying those first days must have been watching the dailies of Mifune’s contemptuous yakuza, flicking cigarettes at Shimura’s doctor, sneering through a dance like it’s the last thing he wants to do.  It’s absolutely spectacular from Mifune, but thank you also for giving weight to Shimura, who is not as praised when it comes to Kurosawa.

It’s true this is the first film Kurosawa felt was entirely his own, which is dramatically displayed in the dread-soaked visuals and plot, but Shimura has been with Kurosawa from the very beginning.  His performance is not as explosive but is a lot more surgically precise in its loathing.  I love the way Shimura uses the doctor to taunt the yakuza in scenes that would play as more fatherly in previous films, especially compared to the mentors of Sanshiro Sugata.  If Mifune is to Kurosawa as De Niro is to Scorsese, then Shimura is the Gary Oldman of Kurosawa cinema.  He always delivers an exceptional performance that is laced more in precision then theatricality, a quality that will make him perfect for a heartbreaking movie coming up in the next few weeks.  Shimura’s work is just a part of Kurosawa’s legacy as much as Mifune, Mifune just had a plum role in Kurosawa’s first really gritty film.His yakuza is a symbol of how nasty Kurosawa’s postwar Japan is now.  The bombed out buildings of last week’s One Wonderful Sunday have mutated into something even worse and the swamp mocks the optimism of those remaining structures.  Noirish, indeed, this world is nothing but death.  I love how Kurosawa’s score plays into all this, blasting dark horns during the opening shot of all that toxic sludge and then playing another bleak joke by lightening up the soundtrack with the arrival of the film’s most evil character, the yakuza boss Okada played by Reisaburo Yamamoto.

The musical dark comedy also lends a lot of weight to one of my favorite Kurosawa scenes so far, and most definitely my pick for Drunken Angel.  There’s a grotesque near parody of American jazz clubs that the yakuza all hang out at and the central crooner looks like she’s forced into a costume to belt painfully for the patrons.  It’s angled, quick close ups of the painfully warbling singer with cuts back to the almost fully westernized barflys.  Kurosawa isn’t exactly subtle about how the ways of the westerners are poisoning the youth, but I love the equal ambivalence he surrounds the elders with.

The poison is a product of foreign powers, old pain, and ignorance.  Matsunaga may have TB because of the influence of the immediate past and the sludge that built up after the war.  But Dr. Sanada just goes right along poisoning himself in the meantime, staying drunk and as willingly ignorant of the real problems of the youth as possible.  The cycle of death is repeated young and old, internalized and externalized, with no one willing to break it.  Hell, when Matsunaga finally bites it in the end everyone’s gotten so used to the fact that they’re going to die that we don’t get the equivalent of “Forget it Sanada, this is the occupation” we might have gotten out of Chinatown.

All that said, it’s a bucket of praise for something I don’t feel as strongly about as, say, last week’s One Wonderful Sunday.  Technical and metaphorical positives aside, how did you really feel about this in the end?I didn't feel as strongly about this one as I did about No Regrets for Our Youth, which despite lacking the gritty, grounded realism of Drunken Angel seemed to me a more powerfully realized vision. Part of that may well be that Kurosawa stayed away from a lot of the formal elegance and theatricality here that we've seen in previous films, which is unquestionably the best decision for this material. We do get the ironic shot of Mifune's character splayed out and covered in white paint following his deadly fight with the newly returned yakuza—a shot which works wonderfully to suggest redemption on a heavy-handed visual level while forcing the audience to question just what exactly there was to redeem by that point (and what good it did him).

But much of the film is difficult to really invest in on more than a metaphorical/thematic level almost by nature. Any attempts to soften up either of the main characters would have been disastrously misguided, efforts to make the yakuza a more complex and empathetic character would have been beside the point he was trying to make, and the doctor is the second Kurosawa character after Sanshiro Sugata's monk that I would likely hang out with except for the fact that I'd be afraid he was going to throw medical equipment at me. All of this makes for a great exercise in cold, gritty post-war criticism, but removed from that social and political climate it's tough to care about the characters once they're gone.Going back to the Mean Streets comparison—I feel for Harvey Keitel's character at the end of that movie, trying as he did to save his poor, misguided friend and failing. Likewise at the end of Chinatown—despite his hubris and cluelessness to the extent of the situation that has built up around him, there's a tragedy in seeing him come to understand his involvement and its consequences.

I didn't feel like that when Mifune's yakuza finally met his end in Drunken Angel. I mostly felt like, “Maybe if he had followed his TB treatment he wouldn't have been coughing and falling down so much when that other guy was trying to knife him.” The story is interesting from a technical standpoint more than an emotional one. I'm sure that would not be the case if you were watching it at the time it was released, in the post-war environment it speaks so strongly to, but it's value has shifted today for that reason. That's not necessarily Kurosawa's fault, and as you said it is very impressive in its own right, but it's probably not one that I'll come back to again particularly soon.Reading your response was a bit strange because you were keeping the film at arm’s length as well.  For example; “Seemed… a more powerfully realized vision”, “…difficult to invest…”, “…great exercise…”  All of this is evidence of what I have been trouble articulating and that is Drunken Angel is lacking some kind of final spark to set the entire thing ablaze, and I believe it has everything to do with the epilogue.

We really dig in and feel for the lives of Matsunaga and Sanada.   They’re seen in a variety of positions, high and low, and their importance fluctuates wildly throughout the film in each of their respective circles.  Kurosawa comes to the edge of that cynicism, no matter how heavy handed, in those gorgeously symbolic shots of Matsunaga literally purging the poison from his body and dying in a state of purity.

I needed that Chinatown moment.  The final exchange between Sanada and Matsunaga’s lone honest admirer shows how easily everyone is able to brush off death, but it’s at odds with the darkness they’ve been fighting off the whole time.  The credits could have rolled after Matsunaga’s death and the point would have been made clearly, but instead we get the epilogue of Sanada accepting and smiling the whole thing off in sunshine.  He makes mention of it, but doesn’t give any indication that his death meant much of anything.After all the symbolic weight Kurosawa heaped into scene after scene this just deflated the whole film for me.  We get this dark showdown filled with blood and then, one wipe later, happy sunshine and the doctor talking about how one of his patients is getting better.  It’s like my emotional heart heaves, stops to go what the hell, then takes a charming walk in the park while question marks flutter nearby like wounded doves.

In a way it felt like A Clockwork Orange, a work from an artist who is responding to a lack of public and critical reception to his work by lashing out with the freedom he suddenly realized he had.  Drunken Angel significantly less sophomoric than that film, but both share a hotheaded emptiness.  So it is with a feeling of deflation funneled through dutiful respect we trudge on.

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And trudge on we will, to next week when we answer the question of whose duel is the loudest.

Posted by Andrew

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  1. Great review!

    We’re linking to your article for Kurosawa Friday at SeminalCinemaOutfit.com

    Keep up the good work!

    • Thank you for the consideration and the addition! Kyle and I had a lot of fruitful exchanges through our look at Kurosawa’s films and I’m glad that you shared in our insight.

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