DRUNKEN ANGEL (1948) – The Dungeon Review!
While I consider myself a fan of director Akira Kurosawa I had not seen many of his early entries. In preparing for this feature I borrowed several Kurosawa films from the library. Three 1940’s titles I had not seen; Stray Dog, No Regrets for Our Youth and Drunken Angel and a few favorites; Yojimbo, Seven Samurai and Throne of Blood. I had no intention of reviewing these favorites; I just wanted to get a sense of how his older films compared to those I was more familiar with. Okay, who am I kidding? All three of these Kurosawa films are worth revisiting on a regular basis! I quite enjoyed both Stray Dog and No Regrets for Our Youth but of the trio Drunken Angel appealed to me the most. It should be noted that Drunken Angel is Toshirô Mifune’s first appearance in a Kurosawa film. The handsome and talented actor would make several more films with the director. However it is another Kurosawa regular that really steals my heart. Takashi Shimura is one of the finest and most likable actors on the planet. He has this wonderful kind face that makes me want to give him a big hug; but he is also immensely talented! To be honest, I have never seen a Kurosawa film I didn’t like. The man is simply a brilliant director. Enthralling stories, wonderful characters, and epic visuals; Kurosawa is truly a master of his craft!
The titular “drunken angel” is Sanada; a doctor in a crime-ridden slum district. He is a caring but blunt and painfully honest man who also happens to have a drinking problem. Low-level Yakuza Matsunaga come to Sanada to have him remove a bullet from his hand. Sanada’s no bullshit delivery and contempt for Yakuza does not sit well with Matsunaga; nor does the news that he has contracted tuberculosis. Despite his attitude Sanada takes pity on the young criminal and the two develop a tumultuous friendship.
Based on this summary you might be expecting a heavy-handed affair. While I certainly would not call Drunken Angel a heart-warming story it does have its share of humorous and light moments. Most of these bits are supplied by Sanada our alcoholic doctor. At one point he turns his nose up at the alcohol-free ice-tea he is served. In protest he creates his own special version of long island ice-tea by mixing it with some rubbing alcohol. Admittedly, the humour included is generally of the ironic type.
Sanada’s advice to Matsunaga is to lay off the drink and the women and get lots of rest. Despite his hard exterior Matsunaga takes the doctors advice to heart and gives up his vices. Complicating matters former Yakuza member Okada is released from prison. To maintain his reputation Matsunaga once more turns to drinking and womanizing. It doesn’t take long before Okada slips right back into his former position and he even steals Matsunaga’s girl Nanae. A further complication involving Sanada’s female assistant; formerly the abused girlfriend of Okada presents itself. Matsunaga feels an obligation to help out the doctor and confronts Okada. In the end, Matsunaga comes to the sad and lonely realization that he is expendable in this world of crime.
Drunken Angel is basically a cautionary tale about the choices we make in life. Not a particularly original idea even in 1948. While the premise may ring familiar the presentation is what makes Drunken Angel shine. The slow but steady pace suits the material and the constant change of scenery keeps things interesting. As mentioned previously Takashi Shimura and Toshirô Mifune are both wonderful talented actors. Mifune and Shimura have great chemistry. Both actors get to play characters that are as fragile as they are intense and the result is electric and extremely watchable. The use of a lone guitar player strumming each evening in the center of the district is magnificent. I was particularly impressed with the scene where Okada fresh out of prison asks to borrow the guitar and plays a favourite tune. A melody that is recognized by his abused ex-girlfriend. Quite a beautiful piece of music to introduce an ugly character. The scenery is effectively bleak and dreary and the ugly sewage pond smack-dab in the center of the district is a constant focal point. It is insinuated that the polluted pond is the cause of the tuberculosis spreading across the district. Children are seen playing in and around the filthy water and it is not difficult to imagine a young Matsunaga growing up here surrounded by black market profiteers and yakuza. There is some action thrown in the mix but it is decidedly secondary to the drama.
The Criterion version I borrowed from the library had an excellent supplement called Kurosawa and the Censors. The film was produced and released during the American occupation of Japan. Filmmakers were not allowed to show anything that could be construed as negative about the occupation. Kurosawa managed to sneak in all sorts of commentary that was subtle enough to be missed by the censors. Makes me appreciate the director that much more! Drunken Angel comes highly recommended.
Dungeon Rating: 4/5
Directed By: Akira Kurosawa
Starring: Takashi Shimura, Toshirô Mifune, Reisaburô Yamamoto, Michiyo Kogure, Chieko Nakakita, Noriko Sengoku, Shizuko Kasagi, Eitarô Shindô, Masao Shimizu, Taiji Tonoyama, Yoshiko Kuga, Chôko Iida, Ko Ubukata