Monday, 1 August 2011

Drunken Angel (1948)

Country: JAPAN

Yoidore tenshi

This beautifully constructed and expertly composed noir gangster film was Akira Kurosawa’s eighth production as director. Prior to Drunken Angel is it fair to say that Kurosawa’s career had been one of interesting, but ultimately forgettable films. Kurosawa himself believed that Drunken Angel represented a major creative breakthrough, and although there is evidence of brilliance in his debut picture Sanshiro Sugata (1943), and moments of sublime quality in No Regrets for Our Youth (1946) and Those Who Make Tomorrow (1946) I am inclined to agree that Drunken Angel is light years ahead of those earlier efforts. Here Kurosawa utilises the generic tropes of imported genres such as noir and the American gangster film and fuses it with a political symbolism that makes clear statements about post-war Japan. The inbuilt pessimism and gloom of noir is a suitable form within which too address questions of national identity and social fragmentation, and the archetypes of the gangster film are used as stand ins for the country at large and become walking metaphors. The film sits uneasily in a discussion of genre. The screenplay which Kurosawa wrote in collaboration with Keinosuke Uekusa is patient in its replication of westernised conventions, but its symbolic and allegorical ambitions and mode of address takes it far closer to art cinema.

Drunken Angel is equally important for marking the first occasion Kurosawa would work with actor Toshirô Mifune. Although Mifune’s role was expanded considerably when Kurosawa realised what he had, the drunken angel of the title is played by another longstanding Kurosawa actor Takashi Shimura. Shimura’s Dr. Sanada is a complex character, one who has rejected a life of luxury in favour of treating the poor in the slum districts of Tokyo. He is spiky and aggressive, heavily reliant on alcohol, but has a heart of gold beneath the bluff exterior. His treatment of young hoodlum Matsunaga (Mifune) for tuberculosis offers him an opportunity for redemption for his own youthful impetuosity, but both men are ill at ease with the relationship. Matsunaga is fiercely proud of his status in the pecking order of the local yakuza, he strolls around the broken bomb shattered district like he owns it. He thrives on the fawning of local businessmen, who contribute to the egocentric criminal machismo that has seen him avoid dealing with his illness. His main problem with Sanada is the vulnerability he feels at placing his faith and trust in another human being. Sanada reacts to this in a typically pithy manner and the two frequently come to blows. There is a father/son aspect to their relationship which the film hints at but never fully develops, but the closeness of the two is shattered with the return of former yakuza boss district Okada (Reisaburô Yamamoto).

The most recurrent symbol in the film is the stagnant cesspool that borders Sanada’s humble dwellings. It is a haven of disease, decay and poverty, children play in it despite the risk of cholera and typhoid, and a lonely guitar player bridges scenes with the plaintive lamentation of his music. A storytelling device which is used to introduce the returning Okada and helps to humanise him through music. The editing patterns often equate the yakuza to the dank pond, highlighting that the fine clothes worn by Matsunaga and Okada might distinguish their class, but cannot hide their rotten morality. The film dramatises a moral struggle between two opposite ways of life, but what is common to both of them is the cesspool. It is a moral symbol, one which Sanado is superior too as illustrated in a scene in which we see him aggressively ordering children out of the stagnant waters. The fetid water is also an effective metaphor for the post-war decomposition we see all around. The landscape is shattered and ruined, the nightlife sleazy and vulgar. Not only does the landscape need purifying, but so to does the decaying yakuza presence.

Sanada’s liberal humanism is a clear embodiment of what Kurosawa believes is the way forward. The life of Matsunaga is worthless, but more specifically it is the personification of a system of beliefs, values and attitudes which took Japan to the brink of destruction. Like most American gangster films Drunken Angel explores both the rise and the fall of Matsunaga, and we bear witness to his humiliating fall from grace. His ill health spells not only destruction for his body, but destruction of his social standing and his position in the pecking order. In a fitting finale he is stabbed to death by Okada in a paint covered hallway. But this is not before Kurosawa includes a strange and surreal dream sequence in which Matsunaga is chasing himself along a deserted beach. An oddly poetic moment which confirms that he will never be able to outrun his destiny and escape the entrapment of the yakuza way of life. As a genre piece Drunken Angel offers nothing new or innovative, the narrative is not unlike numerous American gangster films of the 1930’s. But the neo-realist attention to space and landscape and Kurosawa’s newly found poetic and symbolic voice marks it out as a very important transitional film in his career.

© Shaun Anderson 2011


  1. A friend of mine worked in the film industry many moons ago when I lived in NYC (a cog, really, but it did afford him the chance to take home both a projector and actual films in cans - wow does this show my age). One night he brought home this film and we watched it with our then girlfriends. As the projector whirred, my jaw dropped.

    There are many films I love, but I will never love a film more that this one. It was like when I read Hemingway for the first time - an awakening to the presence of a deeper level.

    Forgive my personal gushing. Thanks for writing about this film. "Beautifully constructed and expertly composed" indeed.

  2. Thanks for the comment and for the anecdote Mykal, I truly appreciate it. It's heartening to know that some of my readership appreciate and watch films beyond the horror and science-fiction genres.

    I've always preferred those Kurosawa films that engage with social and political issues and are set in contemporary Japan. Though I do like this film a lot, probably my favourite Kurosawa picture is STRAY DOG. Have you ever seen it?

  3. Shaun: I purchased the Criterion Collection of Stray Dog about a month ago and have yet to watch it. I think it is the last, major Kurosawa film I haven't seen. Tonight may be the night! I love Kurosawa, too, and this early period is my favorite - although I love his later period epics as well.

  4. I bet the Criterion release looks fantastic. I have the BFI DVD from a few years back. I shall have to dust down my Kurosawa films and do some more reviews. I have reviewed SCANDAL elsewhere on these pages, another interesting, but often overlooked film. I'm sure you'll get a lot out of STRAY DOG Mykal.

  5. Thanks for that review Shaun! We should have collaborated on Japanese Themed Month! Damn, loved your review for this Kurosawa film, I see it touches upon some themes that interest me, like Humanism. I'll be watching it soon, I need to catch up on Kurosawa, I need to see more of those films of his that take place in "modern day" Japan.

  6. Thanks for dropping by Franco - I'm so far behind with both my own writing and catching up on the good material being written on sites such as your own. I will be sure to check out some of the reviews in your Japanese month. If you have a taste for Kurosawa's contemporary set films I'd point you in the direction of STRAY DOG, SCANDAL, THE BAD SLEEP WELL, IKIRU and especially HIGH AND LOW. I LIVE IN FEAR is also interesting, but a lesser effort overall.


Related Posts with Thumbnails