Drunken Angel: Criterion Collection
December 18, 2007
Drunken Angel (1948) was Akira Kurosawa’s seventh film and was, according to his autobiography, a desire “to take a scalpel and dissect the Yakuza.” These Japanese gangsters were rampant in post-World War II Japan and with this film Kurosawa attempts to show how they work and what motivates them.
The opening credits play over a shot of a murky, muddy swamp located in post-World War II Tokyo and immediately sets an ominous, noir-ish tone as the film focuses on the unlikely relationship between Matsunaga (Mifune), a slick criminal, and Dr. Sanada (Shimura), who treats him for a gunshot wound one night, no questions asked. After treating the criminal, he tells him that he has tuberculosis.
It is a study in sharp contrasts as Matsunaga is finely groomed and wears expensive suits while Dr. Sanada is unshaven and practically dressed. Sanada is a gruff person who runs a public practice because he doesn’t have the patience or desire to mix it up with high society types which may explain why he gravitates towards the tough criminal. Even though they have a tumultuous relationship, Sanada is concerned about Matsunaga’s medical condition.
Kurosawa immerses us in the noir-ish world of shadowy night clubs and back alleys. The grungy setting acts as a backdrop to the story that provides a telling snapshot of the conditions of post-war Tokyo at that time. Life was harsh and Kurosawa doesn’t shy away from showing the unsavory aspects of Japanese society: the cheap prostitutes and petty criminals fighting over turf and the spoils that go with it.
Sanada is a raging alcoholic who drinks from his own medical supplies but is stubbornly determined to treat even the most ill patients and lost causes. Matsunaga is hardly your stereotypical criminal. On the surface, he is all macho swagger – a requirement of his profession – but underneath he is afraid of dying and finds the courage to face his life-threatening TB. Sanada is a fascinating figure undone by his own weakness. While his fellow physicians from medical school have gone onto greater success, his practice is in the slums thanks to his drinking problem.
Drunken Angel is an absorbing character study of two flawed men who look to each other for redemption but ultimately cannot change who they are. They are a product of their surroundings but Kurosawa does offer a glimmer of hope amid the bleak environment that immerses his characters.
There is an audio commentary by Japanese film scholar Donald Richie. He says that Akira Kurosawa regarded this film as his first one even though he made several before it. However, this is the first one in which he had complete creative control. Richie talks about how integral a role music plays and how this was the first film to feature Kurosawa’s fascination with the relationship between an older mentor character and a young apprentice-type. He would explore this dynamic in several films afterwards. Naturally, Richie talks about the working relationship between Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. The scholar was also on the set when this film was made and offers several filming anecdotes on this informative track.
“Akira Kurosawa: It is wonderful to create” is a 31-minute documentary about the making of Drunken Angel. It covers all kinds of aspects including set design and how the murky bog was created. Crew members tell filming anecdotes and Kurosawa talks about casting Mifune. The actor’s son talks about how his father got into the moviemaking business.
Finally, there is “Kurosawa and the Censors,” a video essay that examines the issues of censorship that the filmmaker faced while making Drunken Angel. The director had to comply with some of the American censors. Documents from that time illustrate the problems he faced at the script stage. There were all kinds of things that Japanese films could not show. This essay also covers what things Kurosawa did show that were in direct defiance of the censors.