Drunken Angel (1948)

Class: Staff
Author: Anthony Romero
Score: (4/5)
September 17, 2009 [Review May Contain Spoilers]

1948, an era when Japanese cinema was getting ready to enter its "golden age". The road to such a boom, though, was marred with hardships. Strikes, censorship from the US occupation, and a populace suffering from poverty from their recent loss was all at the forefront. Despite this, acclaimed director Akira Kurosawa marshaled forward with a new movie. Picking the relatively unknown Toshiro Mifune in a leading role, the director was about to make history and start the beginning of Japan's most famous director-actor duo. The vehicle for this was none other than Drunken Angel, an excellent production which today is far more than simply an important mark in uniting two soon to be giants in the industry. While not the director's finest hour, which given the prestige of his work is hardly a bad mark against it, the movie features a well crafted story backed by rich characters and extraordinary acting talent that make it a must see for those interested in the early stages of Japanese cinema.

The movie's plot involves a doctor, Sanada (Takashi Shimura), working in postwar Japan at a fairly impoverished location of the country. He receives a patient, a gangster in charge of the area called Matsunaga (Toshiro Mifune), who has recently suffered a gun shot wound. While treating the man, Sanada checks him for tuberculoses after hearing his cough. His hunch proves correct, but Matsunaga is unwilling to hear the news, briefly assaulting the doctor before leaving. Sanada, stubborn and dedicated, searches out the gangster to try and convince him to seek treatment before he succumbs to his illness. The second confrontation ends like the first, with Sanada being briefly assaulted; however, it draws Matsunaga back to the doctor's office eventually as his health begins to decline. Matters are complicated, though, by the return of another gangster from prison, Okada (Reisaburo Yamamoto), who slowly takes advantage of Matsunaga's situation while still eyeing his old flame, Miyo (Chieko Nakakita) who is Sanda's nurse.

Admittedly, there are aspects of the plot that are a bit more "hollywood" than what one would normally come to expect from Kurosawa. Sanada's early fascination with treating the gangster probably being at the forefront, at least on paper. In practice, Kurosawa weaves the elements together in a way that, while not at his best, show a level of craft and care that successfully make the unfolding events and motivations credible. His sense of drama is also on display here, used perfectly in relation to the Okada character, the antagonist of the production. His background history with Miyo, and the rather shocking revelation that he gave her an STD before leaving her, sets the stage for his eventual return. His previously unknown connection with Matsunaga successfully connect this subplot into focus of the production as Okada's importance continues to escalate up until the climax.

It's worth noting that, due to the time that this movie was produced, it was edited and censored for content due to the American occupation of Japan post World War II. Well documented at this stage, several points of the story, such as the STD, were at one point considered for removal, yet stayed for the final product. Other plot points, such as the original ending, were lost to the submission process. The original ending, which to spoil involved both Okada and Matsunaga being killed, is completely different and gives the production a less hopeful outlook. Its message was that, although the gangsters respect Okada more, Matsunaga's friends end up giving him the better reception and to better show the impact his character's transformation left on those involved in his life. This, though, was all axed in favor of Sanada talking near his house about the two gangsters' fate, in which Okada simply goes to jail in the final draft. This is interrupted by the return of a schoolgirl, that he was helping early in the movie, and Sanada treats her to some candy as he promised if she followed his instructions and got better. It's uplifting, but feels forced and not at all like Kurosawa's normal preference for hope mixed with tragedy, such as in Seven Samurai (1954), while this is more hope ignoring the tragedy that unfolded. Still, it hardly deters what came before it, and if anything makes Drunken Angel stand out a bit more amongst the numerous productions that Kurosawa directed.

Now, in regards to the characters, they are well fleshed out and often complex. At the center stage is Sanada, an alcoholic doctor and an interesting figure: a self described saint due to his desire to help even those he deems don't deserve it. A heavily conflicted character who, outside of his success in curing a schoolgirl, is rarely allowed a moment of joy or happiness. Instead, he spends the picture obsessively seeking out any and all liquor he can find, even from his own medical supplies, to try and drown out his own emotions and failings. His frustration with the patients, in this case Matsunaga, that he burdens himself with makes the character an interesting one as he often gets frustrated as to why he should be even be giving them aid in the first place when things don't go right. The gangster Matsunaga is another complex character, fitting nicely into the role of an emotionally detached "tough guy", at least on the outside. His utter fear and unwillingness to accept his disease quickly remove this facade, and begin to develop a character who is hopelessly trapped between the fearless man he wants to be and the one who is so utterly terrified of his illness. As the doctor himself notes, the characters are similar, each unflinchingly stubborn men. It takes Matsunaga awhile to even accept the doctor's help, yet his resolve to follow his advice is often short lived due to his lifestyle and the influence those in his gang have over him. In the end, Matsunaga is a ultimately tragic figure, but because of his own actions and naiveness. His absolute faith in those in his gang, who ultimately turn their back as his disease gets worse, leaves the man broken before finally giving him the courage to act and face them to set things right.

In terms of the acting, it's expectedly spectacular. Mifune lights up the screen with his Matsunaga character, which becomes the perfect vehicle to show off the actor's enormous talents. His always amazing physical presence and power, displayed in scenes such as when he assaults Sanda or during the climax, are on display here. However, its his more reserved and depressed acting which gets the nods for impressing, as Mifune effortlessly conveys all aspects of his character. Although somewhat looked over in favor of Mifune, due to this being the actor's first real feature with Kurosawa, Shimura takes an equal focal point in the movie. While Mifune's character dramatically changes through the course of the production, Shimura's stays stoically focused, painting a nice contrast to the distraught Matsunaga. His tantrums, where he throws all of the glass bottles he can find, are a little over the top, but otherwise he delivers a stellar performance. The rest of the cast isn't given a whole of time to shine. Reisaburo Yamamoto, who plays Okada, does well with the role he is given, but it's more the writing than his onscreen presence which makes the character loathsome. Chieko Nakakita, as the nurse Miyo, is probably the weak point of the actors. She's not bad, but does not give off the same level of devotion to her craft that the other players do. Given the more timid and subdued character she plays, though, this thankfully isn't something that draws a lot of attention to itself.

Now, the music for this production marks the first time that Fumio Hayasaka would be joined with Kurosawa. His compositions here are solid, supporting the on screen images although they don't draw a lot of attention to themselves. The exceptions are the opening credits and the end of the climax, the latter of which is a silent scene and Hayasaka appropriately steps up to make it a fantastic one.

Overall, there are a lot of movies from Kurosawa that most people will probably want to check out first before Drunken Angel. Ikiru (1952), Seven Samurai (1954), and Yojimbo (1961) immediately jump to mind. This early entry from the director, though, is another great mark in his long career. Its importance as the first Kurosawa-Mifune collaboration also can't be overlooked, although even ignoring this the movie excels on its story and characters, a foundation of most of the director's excellent movies. Those interested in the early stages of Japanese cinema cannot afford to overlook this production.