Benjamin is a former volunteer DJ at his local hospital radio station. He has been reviewing films online since 2004.
What's the Big Deal?
Drunken Angel is a yakuza drama film released in Japan in 1948, and it was directed and co-written by Akira Kurosawa. Produced by the legendary Toho production company, the film depicts an uneasy friendship between an alcoholic doctor and a young gangster suffering from tuberculosis in the ruins of post-war Tokyo. The film is best remembered as being the first of 16 collaborations between Kurosawa and actor Toshiro Mifune, who also stars alongside Takashi Shimura, Reizaburo Yamamoto, Chieko Nakakita and Michiyo Kogure. The film has been cited as the first post-war yakuza film made under the US occupation after the Second World War, and its screenplay had to be vetted by the American authorities at the time. Today, the film is considered to be an early example of Kurosawa's talents as a director and is sometimes credited, alongside another Kurosawa film Rashomon, with opening up Japanese cinema to Western audiences.
What's It About?
Amid the rubble and ruin of post-war Tokyo, Sanada is a back-street doctor struggling to cope with his alcoholism and his short temper. He makes a modest living treating less reputable patients alongside his female assistant Miyo until one night, he is disturbed by a smartly-dressed gangster called Matsunaga. Matsunaga claims that he caught his bloody hand on a nail when he bumped into a door but Sanada removes a bullet from the wound, revealing Matsunaga's true nature. While he is there, Sanada notices a persistent cough troubling Matsunaga and suspects that the yakuza member may have tuberculosis.
At first, Matsunaga is reluctant to address his illness but as his health worsens, he has no choice but to follow Sanada's advice. However, complications arise when Matsunaga's ruthless brother Okada is released from prison and returns to the area. Okada - who is also a violent ex-partner of Miyo - senses that Matsunaga's grip on power in the area is weakening and starts to exert pressure on him, persuading Matsunaga to resume his hard-living lifestyle instead of following Sanada's advice.
Clip - Matsunaga & Okada hit the town...
What's to Like?
As a relative newcomer to Kurosawa's work, I must say that Drunken Angel surprised me somewhat. I associate him with more period efforts involving samurai and bloody conflict, such as my only previous exposure to his work Yojimbo. So seeing him tackle a film noir unlike any other I have seen was a shock to the system. Nevertheless, the film is wonderfully shot with a heavy and bleak atmosphere infecting every scene thanks to stark imagery of a city struggling back to its feet. The opening shot, of a toxic bubbling bog surrounded by ruined shacks and shanty town dwellings, sets the film's stall out early - this is not a film that has anything positive to say. As if to underscore this fact, the two central characters are fairly unlikeable - Mifune's sharp-dressed gangster is a violent bully determined to walk his own foolish path while Shimura's doctor struggles to hold on to his humanity and hope as the drink continues to be his sole priority. His only hope, it seems, is to cure Matsunaga's TB but with a patient as stubborn as him, this task seems impossible.
The film's narrative is comparatively straight-forward compared to some of Kurosawa's more epic features although a rudimental understanding of life in post-war Japan would be helpful. It's clear that Kurosawa is drawing comparisons between the state of the city (and thus, the wider nation) and the lives of its people, both ruined and rotten under the eyes of the US occupation. But there is also criticism of the so-called honour used by yakuza as the film mocks the use of 'face' in light of imminent death, something the samurai and noble warriors of the past would have found repulsive. Matsunaga's reluctance to get himself treated is shown to be self-defeating and it's only when the end is truly nigh that he tries to do the right thing. But the thing feels more of a character piece today than an allegory although native audiences at the time would have understood Kurosawa's message far better than I.
- The film was Mifune's fourth film overall and Kurosawa was so impressed by his performance that he increased the amount of screen time for his character considerably from the initial draft of the screenplay. According to Kurosawa himself, he claimed that many people believed the title referred to Mifune's gangster and not the alcoholic doctor played by Shimura, who is literally a drunken 'angel' attempting to save Matsunaga's soul.
- The singer performing the jazz number for the dancehall scene was Shizuko Kasagi, a popular jazz singer whose fame peaked during the American occupation due to her style of singing. The song she sings is an original composition called Jungle Boogie and its lyrics were meant to satirize American jazz music.
- Censorship at the time prevented any negative depiction of Americans or their occupation but Kurosawa slipped in some subtle references such as the gangsters dressed in a western style and the poisonous bog representing the burnt buildings and ruins seen in many places after US air raids that were prohibited from being filmed. Due to understaffing and an excessive workload, these references were ultimately missed.
What's Not to Like?
Drunken Angel is a much more intimate film from Kurosawa, eschewing much of the grandeur and scope often seen in his more famous films. There is little of the bloody violence you normally see - there are a couple of fight scenes and the climatic face-off feels an odd blend of comic farce and hasty editing with both parties covered in white paint and facial close-ups instead of any actual fighting. In fact, it's possible that I might not have watched the film at all were it not for the performances of Mifune and Shimura as the antagonistic antiheroes. I'm not saying that this film isn't directed well - far from it - but it isn't quite what I was expecting from a filmmaker of Kurosawa's considerable reputation.
It also feels more aimed at a Japanese audience which isn't a fault, of course but it does make the film harder to relate to as a Westerner such as me. Take Yojimbo which wears its western influences on its sleeve - you can see how it borrows from American westerns and also how it would go on to influence the likes of Sergio Leone for his unofficial remake A Fistful Of Dollars. By contrast, this film feels less like a film noir than I expected - there are no breathy femme fatales lurking in the shadows although moll Nanae, played by Michiyo Kogure, is probably the closest. And while plenty of scenes are filmed through a haze of cigarette smoke, the setting makes the film feel unusual and even unsettling at times. The ethereal guitar music playing through the night puts the unguarded viewer off and at times, the film is more difficult to relate to. I was expecting to be blown away and for reasons I can't quite work out, I wasn't.
Should I Watch It?
It feels unfair to categorise this film as one for Kurosawa die-hards but Drunken Angel is more of a curiosity than a classic film everyone should watch. Very much a product of its time, the film is lifted by the star-making turn from Mifune and a equally solid turn from Shimura who can't quite escape being overshadowed by his co-star. This is a bleak and unflinching look at life in the grim surroundings of a war-time slum in Tokyo so if that sounds like your thing, chances are that you'll get more out of this than I did.
Great For: Mifune and Kurosawa's career together, anyone with memories of Japan at that time, Japanophiles
Not So Great For: higher than average expectations, subtitle strugglers, lovers of classic film noirs
What Else Should I Watch?
Akira Kurosawa remains one of the most beloved directors in cinema history, not just in Japan but around the world. With fans such as Ingmar Bergman, Roman Polanski, Werner Herzog, Andrei Tarkovsky and Stanley Kubrick, Kurosawa remains as popular as ever more than twenty years after his passing. His most famous works include films like Yojimbo, Ikiru, Seven Samurai, Rashomon and Ran, his final epic picture loosely based on Shakespeare's King Lear. With countless accolades and awards accumulated throughout his career, Kurosawa's reputation as one of the all-time greats is assured and I am looking forward to enjoying more of his films in future.
Yakuza films have enjoyed something of a renaissance in recent years thanks to a new breed of Japanese directors keen to push the boundaries for sex and violence in cinema. Chief among these is Takeshi Kitano, a former comedian and TV presenter now widely known for his brutal films covering life on both sides of the law. Making his debut as a director in 1989's Violent Cop, Kitano (who is sometimes referred to by his nickname 'Beat') would go on to star and direct a number of highly regarded films like Sonatine, the Outrage trilogy and his revival of Zatoichi. If you like your films a little more extreme then the man for you is Takashi Miike whose trademark blend of ultra-violence often produces some bloody yakuza films such as Shinjuku Outlaw and Full Metal Yakuza.
Keinosuke Uekusa & Akira Kurosawa
Release Date (US)
30th December, 1959
Crime, Drama, Romance
© 2021 Benjamin Cox