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"In this picture I was finally myself," Akira Kurosawa was to write of his eighth film, Drunken Angel (Yoidore tenshi) (1948). It was a complicated self, and Kurosawa's remark can be taken to mean that it was in this film that he was finally able to bring together its various strands with a commanding technique. More than any other Japanese filmmaker, Kurosawa embraced Western culture, while remaining thoroughly Japanese. Thus, Drunken Angel, with its souls of a slum doctor and a conflicted gangster struggling to find moral traction in a vividly specific postwar Japan, seems to migrate easily between Italian neorealism and gritty noir-bound Warner Brothers gangster movies.
Yet Drunken Angel is above all a vivid evocation of postwar Tokyo, still pocked with bomb craters as Japan was struggling to its feet in the wake of a disastrous and crippling war. The film's core image is a toxic cesspool at the center of its world of marginalized slum dwellers, shopkeepers and the gangsters preying on them in a community that seems more encampment than neighborhood. Muddy, bubbling away, it seems ever ready to consume them all. Oozing poisonousness, it stops short of having a Godzilla rise up from its fetid depths, but only just. The doctor can't help chasing kids away from it, knowing they'll just come back. Late in the film, when a damaged woman stares into it, and Kurosawa cuts to a child's broken doll floating on its surface, the visual shorthand becomes instant biography.
In Japan, which had an ongoing love-hate relationship with Kurosawa stemming from his affinity for the West, Drunken Angel was Kurosawa's critical breakthrough, although he had enjoyed popular successes. It also was the breakthrough film of Toshiro Mifune, who impressed Kurosawa at a Toho Studios cattle-call audition and urged Toho to sign him. Kurosawa said that what grabbed him was the young Mifune's quickness, intensity and dynamism. Mifune starred in 16 of the next 17 films Kurosawa made. They became one of film's history-making teams, no less than John Wayne and John Ford (one of Kurosawa's major influences), peaking in their string of samurai protagonists, starting in 1950 with Rashomon, the film that made Kurosawa and Japanese film international.
In Drunken Angel, Mifune's yakuza thug stumbles into the doctor's dispensary with a bloody hand, saying it was torn by a nail protruding from a door. But when the physician extracts a bullet from the wound, he pours scorn on the man, refusing to give him an anesthetic when he stitches him up. The hot-tempered thug does not take it passively. When the doctor, hearing the thug's cough and recognizing it as tubercular, orders him to get an x-ray, the thug grows ballistic. It gets physical. As their paths continue to cross, there's a lot of punching, shoving and pushing. It's a visual analogue to the internal struggles that are the film's ultimate subject.
Takashi Shimura, playing the gruff doctor, made even more films with Kurosawa than Mifune - 21. He starred in what many claim is Kurosawa's finest film, Ikiru (1952), and also went toe to toe with Mifune in Kurosawa's Seven Samurai (1954). His doctor, irascible, prisoner of a sense of responsibility that won't allow him to do less than his best to help his dispossessed patients, heightens the film's sense of danger. He's impulsive. He isn't afraid to stand up to the yakuza. When another gangster asks the doc if he wants to die, the pugnacious doctor replies: "I'm not afraid of you. I've killed more people than you have." And he drinks. This was necessary, Kurosawa's co-screenwriter, Keinosuke Uekusa, said, because as originally conceived, the doctor was too perfect. He needed a conspicuous flaw. So they made him an unapologetic alcoholic, the kind who goes into a bar for a drink and, spotting one of his patients drinking, slaps the glass out of the man's hand.
Seeing his younger self in Mifune's yakuza, the physician keeps bulldogging him. He realizes that the younger man's outbursts are the product of fear and confusion, that he's cocky on the outside, shaky on the inside. Still, although the titular and sometimes eruptive doc is delivered from the pall of uplift that might have enshrouded a benevolent father figure, he has all he can do to not be blown off the screen by Mifune's charismatic young thug, who benefits from being dressed in sharp Western duds that stop just this side of flashy zoot suits. He also dances madly in the film's perhaps unintentional parody of a Hollywood gangland nightclub scene, with a strident chanteuse in a vaguely birdlike costume and lots of frantic jitterbugging. (He also is at the center of a dream scene that seems the film's only wrong stylistic move, showing him on a beach, opening a coffin that contains his own corpse that proceeds to chase him.)
The question is whether he's going to make contact with his true nature and still get out of the criminal world alive - all the while fighting TB. His rival (Reisaburo Yamamoto) in the gang hierarchy and for the affections (if they can be called that) of the moll he's sleeping with is potently brought on by Kurosawa, using the swamp as storyboard. First we see Mifune's character's shadow darken it. Then, approaching from the rear, the shadow of his former boss, released from prison. We first see the old gangster the night before, appearing in the rubble, atop of which a guitarist sits, strumming a simple tune. The old killer appears, appropriates the guitar, and plays his own song -- his way of letting everyone know they'll be dancing to his tune now. The inevitable showdown between Mifune's gangster and Yamamoto's is staged in a knife fight in a slum, with the two men slipping and sliding around in angel-white paint from a spilled bucket.
It's the death analogue to the often physical grappling between the doctor and the thug for the thug's soul, and its vision of an inner life reclaimed. Using camera moves, pans, sudden in-your-face close-ups, and assimilated stylistic devices, Kurosawa virtuosically plucks influences from a pantheon of film greats, like an inspired magpie, making all the correct esthetic decisions, seemingly on the fly, imparting to Drunken Angel an energy and urgency that yank it further toward Western rhythms and away from ritualized Japanese pacings and conventions.
It also, to anyone with eyes, blurs the neat, convenient, but false line between gendai-geki (his early dramas powered by the urgency of contemporary postwar Japanese life) and jidai-geki (the samurai costume dramas, on which Kurosawa's reputation mostly rests). Although thoroughly modern, Kurosawa's family could trace its roots to 11th century samurai ancestors. He was imbued with samurai values, and they weren't restricted to his costume dramas. What is the doctor, after all, but a modern samurai, driven by a code of honor, no matter how seemingly futile? One of the things that enabled Kurosawa to regenerate the urgency implicit in samurai drama was to enliven its rituals with the scruffiness of down-and-dirty types rendered with the kind of detailing he learned from the neo-realists. The upbeat, and some say unearned, optimistic ending of Drunken Angel, with the doctor marching off alongside a schoolgirl who shook her TB by adhering to a strict regimen, has its analogue in Rashomon, where the woodcutter ends that film by taking a foundling under his wing. Apart from its considerable virtues and entertainment value, Drunken Angel reminds us that for Kurosawa the gendai-geki and jidai-geki, far from being mutually exclusive, are entwined.
Producer: Sojiro Motoki
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Screenplay: Keinosuke Uekusa, Akira Kurosawa
Cinematography: Takeo Ito
Music: Fumio Hayasaka
Film Editing: Akikazu Kono
Cast: Takashi Shimura (Sanada), Toshiro Mifune (Matsunaga), Reisaburo Yamamoto (Okada), Michiyo Kogure (Nanae), Chieko Nakakita (Miyo), Noriko Sengoku (Gin), Shizuko Kasagi (Singer), Eitaro Shindo (Takahama), Masao Shimizu (Oyabun), Taiji Tonoyama (Shop Proprietor), Yoshiko Kuga (Schoolgirl), Choko Iida (Baya).
BW-99m. Closed Captioning.
by Jay Carr
Akira Kurosawa: Something Like an Autobiography, Knopf, 1982
Japanese Cinema: an Introduction, Donald Richie, Oxford University Press, 1990
Rebels in a Kimono, By Douglas McVay, Films and Filmmaking, August 1959
Samurai and Small Beer, By Douglas McVay, Films and Filmmaking, August 1961
The Films of Akira Kurosawa, Donald Richie and Joan Mellen, University of California Press, 1999
The Japanese Film: Art and Industry, Joseph L. Anderson and Donald Ritchie, Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1959
Picturing Japaneseness: Monumental Style, National Identity, Japanese Film, by Darrell William Davis, Columbia University Press, 1996
International Directory of Film and Filmmakers, article by Audie Bock, Pan Macmillan, 1987
Drunken Angel, article by David Desser, Magill's Survey of Cinema, Gale Group, 1985