by NIR SHALEV
Every Akira Kurosawa film opens with titles overlapping a single image or a series of related images that symbolize the theme of the film. In Drunken Angel, we are staring into a bubbling, filthy bog enclosed by the town that serves as the setting for the story. It is a small town, but it is prosperous, with its bars, dance hall, marketplace and young yakuza punks.
Doctor Sanada (Takashi Shimura) was once a promising young talent in the medical field but during those glorious days, Sanada drank and partied. We now see him living in the slums of post-WWII Tokyo as a result, and he still loves to drink.
Matsunaga (Toshiro Mifune), a young, tough, and well dressed and groomed member of the yakuza (Japanese mafia), walks into Sanada’s clinic one evening with a bandaged hand. When asked, Matsunaga claims that his hand was caught in a door that had a nail in it. Sanada finds a bullet in Matsunaga’s hand and decides to treat him like a punk; he ignores Matsunaga’s pain and treats him without anesthetic. Then when Matsunaga coughs up a storm, Sanada informs him that he might have contracted tuberculosis, from all the partying, drinking and gambling that youths involve themselves with nightly. Matsunaga takes offense that a lowly old doctor had insulted him and he throttles Sanada. Then he runs off into the night.
Sanada sees a lot of his young self in Matsunaga and wishes that he would take his health more seriously, but because he is simply a doctor and Matsunaga is yakuza, the young man’s fate is already sealed and the good doctor knows that. Sanada hates the yakuza and believes that they are pointless because “they always make the wrong decisions at the end.”
Okada (Reizaburo Yamamoto), Mastunaga’s old boss, is released from prison after having served three years, and that happens around the same time that Matsunaga decides to take Doctor Sanada’s advice of cleaning up his act. But when he offends Okada by not “living out loud” he falls again into his old way. That only enrages Sanada and his hate towards that youth grows stronger. Every time Matsunaga tries to live healthily someone always shows up with something bad for him, something that he cannot refuse, for love of saving face.
Okada takes back his territory and while Matsunaga hides his ailment from his crew and boss, he grows sicker by the day. He fears that his weakness will show and his reputation as a fearless night owl will become tarnished, but his complexion grows ghost-white and he even begins to cough up blood. He loses all the respect he had from the townsfolk, but the only important thing for him, he eternally believes, is to continue to try to save face. That is part of the yakuza lore: one must remain loyal to the end, or else.
Or else, what? Probably suicide.
The film is called “Drunken Angel” because Sanada will never change his drinking habits, yet he will always be an excellent doctor and judge of character; he will always care. As much as he hates Matsunaga, Sanada is reminded of himself and he tries to save Matsunaga from also becoming a drunken wreck.
The film was shot in 1948 and set in the same period. An early scene shows kids playing in the filthy water. A drunken Sanada yells at them to stop their playing and exit the filth. They laugh at him because he is drunk, but if those kids remain disrespectful they will contract typhoid or some other sickness.
Kurosawa wanted to accentuate the impact of the nuclear bombs over Nagasaki and Hiroshima by incorporating the giant cesspool of a bog in the middle of the slum. Unlike the characters, we in the audience are able to recognize the symbolism of the bog. This is a complex film that invites understanding on more than one level.
Another symbol of Japan’s defeat in the war is the Americanization of the locals. The men wear pin-striped Zoot suits and fedoras, part their hair in the center or to the side, and wear flowers in their breast pockets. The women wear nice dresses made in American and European fashions and wear flowers in their hair.
The score to the film is orchestral, but source music is contemporary guitar solos. And in the clubs we hear jazz and we see the men and women swingin’.
Kurosawa contextualizes the battle between youths and the disrespect for their elders with a heat wave. Mosquitoes are mentioned a lot and every male character wipes his brow and neck often with a handkerchief. Production and set designer Takashi “So” Matsuyama has placed a lot of shadows in the film to accentuate the heat of the season for the practical reason that they were shooting out of season and had ended up filming in the winter. But the deep, strong shadows work perfectly in emphasizing the summer heat and the darkness of the theme.
The visual style of the film is similar to that of film noir, mainly due to its dark shadows that encompass every nook and cranny (and the Zoot suits), although this is not that genre of film because it doesn’t contain the appropriate story type or character arc. The visual style works like a charm in this film in terms of showcasing the time period and milieu.
Drunken Angel is an opportunity to study an important early film by a great director. Akira Kurosawa is universally acclaimed as one the greatest filmmakers of all time for classics such as Seven Samurai and Ran. He continued to use horizontal wipes all throughout his films, which signify a short punctuation mark/passage of time; he refrained from using zooms and almost always used a dolly and tracks; before he eventually made the transition into color films, he made some of the most gorgeous and strikingly beautiful black and white films ever.
Toshiro Mifune worked with Akira Kurosawa from 1948 to 1965, ending their incredible 17-year partnership with yet another classic, Red Beard. Mifune was a very versatile actor whose strengths were recognized almost immediately by Kurosawa and in those masterpieces Mifune played a samurai (several times), a rich businessman, a bandit, a doctor, a bodyguard, a bum, a cop, and a contemporary Japanese version of Hamlet. Kurosawa also worked with Takashi Shimura on several films, but Mifune is the real star here.
This film is a great testimony to a director’s vision of a lack of morality in post-WWII Tokyo and a key film in the rise of an amazing actor who will never be forgotten due to his ferocity and his commitment to always giving the audience the best possible performance.