Drunken Angel (1948)

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.

On Mifune's first screen test:

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)



For a variety of reasons, Western audiences have enshrined Kurosawa as the preferred director of Japan’s golden age. He’s considered less "Japanese" (and thus more "universal") than either Mizoguchi or Ozu, and more action-minded than either of those directors. While Mizoguchi’s legend rightly rests on his subtle plumbings of the plight of women, and Ozu’s on his quietly devastating analysis of the family, Kurosawa’s subject has mostly been men — the forces that assail them from within and without and their often violent responses. His films offer a kind of tempered exoticism, transporting for Western audiences but also rooted in familiar, universal genre forms — for example, recasting the American western as a samurai drama in his most
celebrated film, Seven Samurai.

While much of Mizoguchi’s and Ozu’s work has never been available outside of Japan, it’s a bit surprising that Kurosawa has suffered the same fate. Fans of classic Japanese cinema have had to content themselves
with reading about, rather than seeing, films like Drunken Angel, Scandal, and I Live in Fear. Occasional film society screenings or nth-generation dupes notwithstanding, the lack of availability of such films has made it difficult to really assess Kurosawa’s career outside the textbook classics of Rashomon, Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, Ran, et al.

Home Vision’s recent release of three of his early films in reasonably good VHS transfers catches the director, so to speak, in flagrante, working in personal and topical realms far removed from his more familiar and treasured historical dramas. The results are as expected, a stewpot of personal and social concerns explored with varying degrees of success.

Drunken Angel (1948) was Kurosawa’s seventh film (he started in 1943 with Sanshiro Sugata) and by all accounts his first major work. The title refers to tubercular gangster Matsunaga (Toshiro Mifune), and the film pivots on his relationship with a disreputable doctor, Sanada (Takashi Shimura), who tries against Matsunaga’s wishes to save him. In their first encounters, the disgusted Sanada refuses to spare him any pain byanesthetizing him. "Not for your kind!" he says.

But the doctor,recognizing his own failures in the failing young man, gradually softens, trying to force Matsunaga to save himself by stopping his drinking and leaving the yakuza life. Subplots involve Sanada’s nurse, victimized by an ex-con just out of prison, and the replacement of Matsunaga by the same ex-con, whose climactic battle with his rival provides one of the film’s bravura sequences.

As always, the driving force of the film is masculinity under duress, specifically in the on-again off-again relationship between Matsunaga and Sanada. Kurosawa watchers will note some similarity between their
interplay and that of any number of "masters and pupils" in his other films. Matsunaga must learn morality from an older man — Sanada — who has only gained it from his own failings. Only by recovering his humanity can Matsunaga gain peace, even in death. His failure to follow Sanada’s commands — "no alcohol, no women" — doesn’t discourage the doctor, and their relationship has an intensity and poetry lacking in the more conventional romances that crop up in the film.

Drunken Angel was made in Occupied Japan and shows it. The collapse of the "warrior nation" after the war is painfully evident in the film’s central image, a filthy, disease-breeding cesspool outside the doctor’s office and through which the characters constantly must pass in rituals of moral pollution. Kurosawa uses this image to explicitly tie Japan’s situation to his characters’, especially Matsunaga’s.

In a scene typical of the film’s 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
throughout has the squalid look of a neo-realist film, complete with slum streets and gangsters and party girls trying desperately to survive in a rank, unlivable world.

Much of the misery is tied, quite overtly, to the American takeover. Japan is a country in an identity crisis, with American-style nightclubs replacing traditional Japanese venues and Western jazz and blues obliterating native musical forms. Kurosawa again makes explicit the connection between cultural chaos and personal decline when Matsunaga, in a sequence of operatic intensity, dances wildly in a nightclub before collapsing with a hemorrhage. (This scene also gives Mifune a chance to strut his stuff, which he does with panache.)

Still, there are glimmers of hope, particularly in the character of the cheery schoolgirl, one of Sanada’s patients who, unlike Matsunaga, is recovering from TB. She keeps the film from becoming a total exercise in gloom, and suggests at least some possibility for renewal — escape from the cesspool and all that it implies — in the younger generation. Kurosawa considered Drunken Angel his first "real" film, and some of the sequences — for example, Mifune’s wild nightclub dance — are striking indeed. But other, more experimental scenes are less successful.

In a dream sequence that might have been lifted from a kitschy horror film, Matsunaga breaks open a coffin on a beach to reveal a doppelganger that frantically pursues him. Overall, though, Drunken Angel is a dynamic examination of a postwar Japan in physical and psychic chaos, and a typically strong look at the forces that bind men, and sometimes destroy them.



More Comments on Drunken Angel:

Stylistically speaking, Drunken Angel is a highly self-conscious film. The film's diegetic space consists of slums and the black market, which surround a polluted, disease-breeding sump. The recurrent appearance of this contaminated sump at key moments in the narrative not only helps segment the film into distinct sections but also subtly explains the inner psychological states of the principal characters. The symbolic meanings of the sump are further refined and expanded by the use of concrete objects and human figures associated with it (e.g., an abandoned doll, a guitar player, bubbling methane gas, mosquitoes).

Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto, Kurosawa, pp. 138-39.


Upon its release in 1948, Drunken Angel was hailed in Japan as Akira Kurosawa's directorial breakthrough, comparable to Kubrick's Paths of Glory in the way it catapulted Kurosawa into a higher level of artistic achievement. Kurosawa himself noted, "In this picture I was finally myself. It was my picture. I was doing it and nobody else."

It is indeed an important, vital film, confidently conceived and expertly executed, illuminating themes that would dominate the finest films in Kurosawa's exceptional career. The setting is a rancid, jerry-built section of a postwar city, where a filthy, disease-ridden pond functions as a physical threat and also as the film's central symbol of decay. It's in this hardscrabble environment that a brash young gangster (Toshiro Mifune, in the role that made him a star) visits an alcoholic doctor (Takashi Shimura) to have a bullet removed from his hand. The doctor discovers that the hot-tempered thug is also doomed by tuberculosis, seen here as the physical manifestation of the gangster's moral decay. The doctor is himself diseased by his drinking, and as these clashing men struggle to make some kind of difference in their pathetic lives (spurned by the return from prison of a ruthless yakuza boss), Kurosawa makes unlikelyheroes of them both--men who undergo a personal transformation in a vile and violent world.

Drunken Angel is a transitional film for Japanese cinema and especially for Kurosawa; it offers a vivid glimpse of postwar life (both rotten and restoring), and signals the full blossoming of Kurosawa's talent. And while the title role belongs to Shimura (so memorably poignant in Kurosawa's later masterpiece, Ikiru), the film belongs to the forceful presence of Mifune, whose vitality touches nearly every scene of this timeless and powerful drama.

--Jeff Shannon (from the Amazon.com website)