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'Drunken Angel': Akira Kurosawa in 'Unformed' Pre-Masterpiece Stage

Drunken Angel, Akira Kurosawa

Watching Akira Kurosawa's 1948 black-and-white effort Yoidore Tenshi / Drunken Angel is an interesting experience, for he clearly had not mastered the art form, yet.

Even so, there is so much that is good in Drunken Angel – touches that would become great in just a few years. It's like looking at a fetus and seeing distinguishable characteristics of its parents, though none is fully formed.

Additionally, the same could be said of the director's budding partnership with leading man Toshiro Mifune, partly because Mifune is not the film's main character. After all, the 'drunken angel' is played by Takashi Shimura, one of the best actors in film history - just watch Ikiru - and Kurosawa's leading male actor until Mifune asserted himself after Seven Samurai.

In the title role, Shimura owns every scene he is in, even while being overpowered and bullied by Mifune. That's because Shimura's scenes offer genuine emotion and comedy, just like in real life - a rare feat especially in the 1940s - the pre-modern era of filmmaking.

In Drunken Angel, Shimura plays Sanada, a doctor who has a taste for booze in the postwar ruins of Tokyo, where tuberculosis and other diseases are rampant, and are almost as big a threat as the dirty hands of the yakuza. Mifune is Matsunaga, a mid-level, TB-suffering yakuza who is scared that the disease will both lessen his grip of power over the local merchants and eventually kill him.

Sanada knows this; he wants not only to save Matsunaga's life, but also cleanse his soul. There is something inside the doctor that impels him to take on more than the material bodies of his patients.

This is best shown in scenes with a seventeen-year-old TB patient (Yoshiko Kuga), who has all the faith and optimism in both life and himself that Sanada wishes Matsunaga had. Instead, Matsunaga has an apparent death wish, ignoring the doctor's pleas, even as Sanada tracks him down and dotes upon him.

A couple of subplots involve Sanada's rescue of a prostitute, Miyo (Chieko Nakakita), from her yakuza, Okada (Reisaburo Yamamoto), who is about to be released from prison. When Okada returns to the slums, he aims to take back his territory from Matsunaga.

A scene set in a jazz club is remarkably effective, for it not only details the power shift between the two gangsters, but also documents America's occupation of Japanand the influence of American pop culture, from the Big Band songs to the zoot suits and bobby socks many of the young Japanese wear.

Although some of Kurosawa and Keinosuke Uekusa's screenplay telegraphs emotions and scenes to come, for the most part these flaws are overcome by the acting of Shimura and Mifune. Takeo Ito's cinematography, for its part, is solid right from the early, 'neo-Realist' shots of a sewery puddle festering under the feet of Tokyo residents. (It bubbles in an eerie sort of foreshadowing of the opening of Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster, made by the Toho studios two decades later.) Ito's work verges on the spectacular in the final twenty or so minutes, when the expressionistic angles match Matsunaga's emotional turmoil.

Even though most of Fumio Hayasaka's music is diegetic, it is - wisely - used only sparingly, especially the guitar piece 'The Killer's Anthem' played by Okada – a musical cue taken up by Sergio Leone two decades later for Charles Bronson's character and his harmonica in Once Upon a Time in the West.

Toshiro Mifune, Reisaburo Yamamoto, Drunken Angel, Akira Kurosawa
Toshiro Mifune, Reisaburo Yamamoto in Akira Kurosawa's Drunken Angel

As for the DVD package? Unfortunately this is one of the very lesser releases by The Criterion Collection.

First, the video transfer, in a 1.37:1 aspect ratio, is from a really poor source - Drunken Angel looks like a mediocre ten-year-old VHS tape, laden with lines, scratches, ghosts, blobs, and myriad other imperfections. Particularly bad is the 'dream sequence.'

What is puzzling is how Criterion has boasted of not only restoring but enhancing the quality of its releases, e.g., the rereleases of Seven Samurai and Federico Fellini's Amarcord. By contrast, this Drunken Angel release is quite substandard.

Granted, the costs for such a task would be far more daunting than the tweaks given to the other films, but … isn't that the supposed reason Criterion exists? If all we were to get was a half-assed job, then perhaps Drunken Angel could have been an Image Entertainment release?

Compounding matters, Drunken Angel's audio portion is not much better. Naturally, no English language dubbed track exists, either, while Criterion continues its misguided policy of using white subtitles for a black-and-white film which often makes reading them an exercise in eyestrain.

The supplements are a bit better, with a 31-minute 'Making of' documentary, part of the Toho Masterworks series' Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create. The documentary has some interesting information, but the better feature is Kurosawa and the Censors, a 25-minute video piece that looks at what Kurosawa faced from American propagandists while shooting Drunken Angel and how that was similar - yet different - from the censorship he faced under the militarist years of Japan.

The Criterion DVD also includes an insert booklet with an essay by cultural historian Ian Buruma, and excerpts from Kurosawa's memoir, Something Like an Autobiography. Then there is an audio commentary by the hit-and-miss Japanese-film historian Donald Richie, who relates how he was on the set for the filming of Drunken Angel, where he first met Kurosawa.

Richie's work is just okay, as he manages to be hit-and-miss within a single commentary - usually he's either right on the mark or rambles off into his own hermetic world of memories.

Although his comments are almost never scene-specific, Richie does make some good points while also making some key errors. As an example, he feels Drunken Angel is a bit preachy, when this truly isn't the case. Dr. Sanada may be didactic, but the film is not. Instead, Drunken Angel is rather impassive toward its characters.

On the other hand, Kurosawa's film does have some flaws, such as reveling in American gangster clichés - something that Richie does not expound upon. He does pick up on something that I noticed right away, that Drunken Angel is set in the summer, but was filmed in January - that's why characters are seen in light wear, whereas their breath is visible.

But then again, Richie errs when he claims that Sanada and Matsunaga are opposite sides of the same coin, for they're clearly not. Sharing some similarities does not make a pair of individuals part of the same coin. The two men have differing temperaments, philosophies, habits, and goals. Overall, though, the commentary offers a perfectly acceptable performance by Richie.

The same can be said about Drunken Angel. It has obvious flaws - the worst of them being a dream sequence where the consumptive Matsunaga emerges from a casket to chase himself on a shoreline. (This was done better a decade later in Ingmar Bergman's Wild Strawberries, and over three decades later in Kurosawa's own Kagemusha.) On the other hand, Drunken Angel also also features deft uses of symbolism, both visual and musical, and those overcome the film's occasional fall into gangster clichés.

Kurosawa himself felt that Drunken Angel was his first 'real' film, the first unencumbered by interference from outside sources. Thus, Drunken Angel is like its creator: something aborning.

While that fact does not mitigate the film's shortcomings, it does add a duplicity to some scenes and actions: one sees the flaw and imagines how the older, better Kurosawa would have handled the scene in question.

And finally, let's face facts: given that it's Kurosawa, even his biggest flaws are better than the greatest merits of numerous lesser filmmakers. Thus, the word 'interesting' has more aptness than good, bad, or variants thereof when discussing Drunken Angel. Take that not as a copout, but as an observation, flaws notwithstanding.

Yoidore tenshi / Drunken Angel (1948). Dir.: Akira Kurosawa. Scr.: Akira Kurosawa, Keinosuke Uekusa. Cast: Takashi Shimura, Toshiro Mifune, Reisaburo Yamamoto, Michiyo Kogure, Chieko Nakakita.

© Dan Schneider

Note: The views expressed in this article are those of Mr. Schneider, and they may not reflect the views of Alt Film Guide.

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1 Comment to 'Drunken Angel': Akira Kurosawa in 'Unformed' Pre-Masterpiece Stage

  1. tony d

    “It's like looking at a fetus and seeing distinguishable characteristics of its parents, though none is fully formed.”

    What a bizarre and disturbing metaphor. What parental features would one expect to see on a fetus, except perhaps generic body parts?