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).
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