Sunday, 21 August 2011

Drunken Angel (1948)


Directed by Akira Kurosawa

This beautifully constructed and expertly composed noir gangster film was Akira Kurosawa’s eighth production as director. Prior to Drunken Angel it is 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 district yakuza boss 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 Sanada 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.


dave said...

i have a quote from this film tattooed on me. cool write up.

Shaun [The Celluloid Highway] said...

Cheers Dave :-)

What's the quote?

dave said...

it's "even strays have their reasons". Takashi Shimura says it in reference to mifune's character. the translation is different depending on what version of the film you are watching, i.e. the criterion version or the version on dvd prior to the criterion or the vhs release. the tattoo goes across my upper chest just below my collar bone.

by the way, i also loved the reviews you did on enzo castellari's films particularly the one on street law.

Shaun [The Celluloid Highway] said...

You couldn't have picked a better quote. I think a Blu-Ray of this film would be most welcome. In the UK I think the BFI have the rights. I find importing Criterion discs is a very expensive business, so I tend to avoid them...Thanks for the kind words regarding the Castellari mini retrospective.


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