Drunken Angel is a film about a double loss of identity. One loss the film urges as progressive. This is Sanada's effort to cure Matsunaga of his resignation and passivity before death and the yakuza culture. This loss implies the necessity of forging a new sense of self, of separating from social customs and institutions in which the individual is a subordinate appendage of family, clan, or nation. But the price of this necessary separation is isolation and loneliness...The codes of established society clearly will not do because they harm and oppress the individual, yet an alternative set of codes has not yet emerged. In the meantime, Kurosawa insists that his heroes take their stand, alone, against tradition and battle for a better world, even if the path there is not clear. Separation from a corrupt social system in order to alleviate human suffering, as Sanada does, is the only honorable course.
Yet this course is complicated by a larger, national schizophrenia constituting a second erosion of self. This schizophrenia is the result of the Americanization of Japan. Drunken Angel describes a world out of kilter and control, suffering the devastation of bombs and cultural imports.
--Stephen Prince, The Warrior's Camera, p. 86.
The young Toshiro Mifune first acted for him in Drunken Angel, a film of which Kurosawa said, "This is me at last." . . .His screen presence was in fact so strong that it changed the character balance of Drunken Angel, in which the alcoholic doctor played by Takashi Shimura was supposed to have been the hero. Mifune's agitated arrogance as the young gangster dying of tuberculosis assumed such dominance that his angry glare became a sensational new rebel movie star image.
--Audie Bock, Japan's Dilm Directors, p. 169.
A young man was reeling around the room in a violent frenzy. It was as frightening as watching a wounded or trapped savage beast trying to break loose. I stood transfixed. But it turned out that this young man was not really in a rage, but had drawn "anger" as the emotion he had to express in his screen test. He was acting. When he finished his performance, he regained his chair with an exhausted demeanor, flopped down and began to glare menacingly at the judges. . .
Mifune had a kind of talent I had never encountered before in the Japanese film world. It was, above all, the speed with which he expressed himself that was astounding. The ordinary Japanese actor might need ten feet of film to get across an impression; Mifune needed only three. The speed of his movements was such that he said in a single action what took ordinary actors three separate movements to express. He put forth everything directly and boldly, and his sense of timing was the keenest I had ever seen in aJapanese actor. And yet with all his quickness, he also had surprisingly fine sensibilities.
--Kurosawa Akira, Something Like an Autobiography, pp. 160-161.
As Ian Buruma notes in the Criterion Collection notes (see Angel.pdf) the fetid swamp operates "as a symbol for all that was rotten about life in the wake of a catastrophic wartime defeat. The cheap hookers lurking in the shadows, the young thugs fighting over territory, loot, and "face." To have "face" in a particular district meant that you had the run of the place, taking what you needed for nothing and making huge profits off the backs of the Japanese citizens who struggled to survive. Many of these petty (and not so petty) gangsters had been soldiers in a holy war to expand the glory of the Japanese Empire...But some, in a perverse way, transformed their military code of honor into a gangland code that was just as deadly. "(4-5) In this same Criterion Collection booklet, excerpts from Kurosawa's autobiography are included where he talks about being fascinated with the way yakuza gangsters "put down roots in the black market environment...I wanted to take a scalpel and dissect the yakuza."
Exactly what sort of people are they? What is the code of obligation that supports their organization? What is the individual psychological makeup of the gang members, and what is the violence of which they are so proud?" He goes on To investigate these questions, I decided to set my film in a black-market district and make the hero a gangster who has charge of that particular territory. In order to bring his personality into high relief, I decided to pit another character against him. At first I thought I would make this antagonist a young humanist doctor who was just setting up his practice in the area. But no matter how hard Uekusa [his co-screenplay writer] and I worked at it, we couldn't bring this idealized doctor to life--he was so perfect, he had no vitality. (11)
Then, Kurosawa goes on to explain how he and Uekusa bumped into an older man in the slums of Yokohama--loud, arrogant, abrasive--and they took him to a few bars for drinks. He was raucous, vulgar and raw. They "looked at each other and simultaneously felt, "This is it!" "The marionette-like young doctor who was the picture of humanitarianism was blown to pits. At last the 'Drunken Angel' came onstage....He always had a straggly three-day beard, his hair was always a mess, and he would always retort in a dangerously blunt fashion to those who spoke to him arrogantly, but behind his careless exterior he harbored an honest and superior heart." (13)
Drunken Angel was made in Occupied Japan and shows it. The collapse of the "warrior nation" after the war is painfully evident in the films central image, a filthy, disease-breeding cesspool outside the doctors office and through which the characters constantly must pass in rituals of moral pollution. Kurosawa uses this image to explicitly tie Japans situation to his characters, especially Matsunagas.
In a scene typical of the films almost diagrammatic approach to
its theme, the doctor tells Matsunaga,"Your lungs are like this swamp"and
the camera lingers on the cesspool. Indeed, Drunken Angel
Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto, Kurosawa, pp. 138-39.