“Drunken Angel” - Akira Kurosawa (1948)

In the aftermath of a devastating world war that ripped apart the defeated and foreign-occupied country [1], Japanese culture reflected new social soul searching.  This was the gloomy atmosphere in which a number of postwar Japanese films, such as Akira Kurosawa’s Drunken Angel (1948) and Kenji Mizoguchi’s Women of the Night (1948) were set.  Drunken Angel, considered to be Kurosawa’s breakthrough film that demonstrated his full cinematic mastery, concerns a somewhat down-and-out doctor struggling to make a difference in a crime-ridden Tokyo neighborhood.  Although we may consider it be a film noir, the film carries a more positive metaphorical message than is typical of the noirish filmography.

The film stars two actors who were to become Kurosawa favorites, Takashi Shimura and Toshirô Mifune, the latter a relative newcomer to the Japanese cinema.  Both Shimura and Mifune had  striking screen personae that had put personal stamps on the films in which they appeared.  But Drunken Angel is not just a showcase for these principals; it features an overall mise-en-scene mood that integrates all the performances into an expressionistic cinematic environment.  In fact there are fascinatingly nightmarish elements to the presentation that I will further below.

The main characters in this story are
  • Dr. Sanada (Takashi Shimura), the alcoholic doctor trying to eradicate tuberculosis (TB) in the lower-class area of his clinic.
  • Matsunaga (Toshirô Mifune), a local gangster who dominates the neighborhood and its shopkeepers
  • Okada (Reisaburô Yamamoto), a gangster recently released from prison  
  • Nanae (Michiyo Kogure), a glamorous “woman of easy virtue”, who frequents the “No. 1" nightclub in the area.
  • Miyo (Chieko Nakakita), the nurse who assists Dr. Sanada at his clinic.
  • Gin (Noriko Sengoku), a shop girl who likes Matsunaga
Unlike Mizoguchi’s Women of the Night, where the focus is entirely on the fate and struggling spirits of the women, the female characters in Drunken Angel are essentially weak witnesses and victims of the existing cultural milieu.  The focus here instead is on the three principal men and what they represent.

The story of Drunken Angel passes through three narrative phases.

1.  Sanada and Matsunaga
The opening shot shows a cesspool pond next to a local market, an image that will become a recurring visual motif for the general corruption, decay, and irresponsibility, that is undermining society. Then we are shown the gruff and outspoken doctor, Sanada, who is treating the young gangster. Matsunaga for a gunshot wound in his clinic. Sanada warns the young ruffian that he is probably suffering from something worse – tuberculosis and that his condition is dire unless he changes his ways. From the outset Sanada’s scornful contempt for Matsunaga’s lifestyle makes the gangster lose his temper, and Matsunaga throttles Sanada with his fists.  This bashing of Sanada will be repeated on two more occasions in this section of the film and will serve as another motif for Sanada’s uncomfortable standing in his world.

This first narrative portion of the film, which lasts more than 40 minutes of the 95-minute film, concerns the combative but symbiotic relationship between Sanada and Matsunaga and the latter’s degenerating health condition.  Since the camera focalization is exclusively on one of those two characters, we assume that the entire story will unfold as a back-and-forth coverage of just those two principals.

The characters of both Sanada and Matsunaga, though exaggerated in some ways, display some internal complexity.  Dr. Sanada is addicted to alcohol and compulsively drinks his own grain alcohol that is supposed to be used for his practice.  This, of course, causes him to lose “face” in the eyes of the local population, which is a cardinal horror to the Japanese temper and thus the quintessential weakness. But Sanada’s awareness of his weaknesses makes him sympathetic when he sees his own flaws reflected in others, like Matsunaga.  So he tries to help them.  Sanada recognizes the inherent conflicts in his own career when he comments to nurse Miyo:

“It’s silly to be a doctor, anyway.  Doctors need people who are ill, and yet they try to cure them.”
But he persists nonetheless.

Matsunaga, for his part, shows himself to be sufficiently reflective to be able to recognize rational recommendations from Sanada.  But his devotion to his maintaining face in the local environment is ruinous, and this is a key theme of the film.

Towards the end of this section, we learn that Sanada’s assistant, Miyo, used to be the mistress of another gangster, Okada, who is about to be released from prison after serving about four years.

2.  Okada Takes Over
In the second section of the film, Okada, now out of prison, shows up to reclaim the neighborhood that he once dominated.  Okada went to prison when the society was dominated by the quasi-fascist military elite, and he represents the old corrupt way of doing things – exactly that which Sanada combats.  So now there are three poles to the story:
  1. Sanada on one end, representing the adherence to new principles and discipline,
  2. Okada on the other end, representing the old norms that solely respect force and demand obedience and self-sacrifice, and
  3. Matsunaga in the middle, who is pulled in opposing directions.
Gradually Okada resumes his dominance and forces Matsunaga to submit, even snaring Matsunaga’s woman in the process.  Meanwhile Matsunaga’s health is getting worse, and he is now coughing blood. While overlooking the village cesspool, Sanada warns him that Matsunaga’s recovery will depend on him getting clean – not only from the physical filth but also from the filthy people (Okada and his ilk) surrounding him.

3.  The Settling of Accounts
Okada eventually learns that his old mistress, Miyo, is now with Sanada, and goes to Sanada’s clinic to reclaim her.  But Sanada tells him that times have changed since he went to prison.  There are now principles and rights – you can’t just grab women like the old days.  At that moment Matsunaga, still encumbered by his belief in loyalty to the old hierarchy, comes out of his sickbed in the clinic to beg Okada for mercy.
Okada and his thugs eventually leave the clinic empty-handed, but they say they will be back for Miyo. Sanada then leaves to inform the officials of Okada’s gangsterism, but before leaving warns Miyo not to go to Okada and pay obeisance - 
“The Japanese like to punish themselves with petty sacrifices.”
Matsunaga, though now very ill, then also leaves in order to go ask the big gangster Yakuza boss for mercy for Miyo.  He still wants to save his own face in front of the organized crime syndicate.  But when he arrives at the boss’s site, he overhears a conversation indicating that he will sacrificed in an upcoming power move: they know Matsunaga is dying of TB and they regard him now as a piece of meat. The disillusioned Matsunaga leaves and walks through the market, where he is stung to discover that he is no longer respected by the shopkeepers because of his loss of status. There is a brief scene at a local café, where the shopgirl, Gin, who secretly likes Matsunaga, begs him to run away to the countryside with her. But Matsunaga, determined to do something to stop Okada from grabbing Miyo, goes to Okada’s apartment and confronts him. There is an extended, almost surreal, knife fight between the two that ends up with the two of them covered in sloppy paint and presumably dead.

At the close of the film, Sanada dismisses the likes of Matsunaga who cannot change their ways, and celebrates the recovery from TB of the young schoolgirl patient who had diligently followed the doctor’s prescriptions.  
Drunken Angels has a number of memorable cinematic touches that add to its gloss.  There is an eerie dream sequence in which Matsunaga sees himself encountering his own coffin.  There is also the dramatic fight scene between Okada and Matsunaga that features startlingly nightmarish camera compositions and ends in the two antagonists getting covered in fresh paint that had been on the floor of Okada’s apartment corridor.  Throughout the film there are evocative multiple-character camera compositions featuring principals in the foreground and background.  This atmosphere is enhanced by the uneven dramatic lighting of the interiors, which are presented as lit by sunlight coming in through shutters and blinds.

Many of these compositions have such a drastic expressionistic feeling that they evoke the sense of Manga comics, which were becoming very popular in Japan at that time.  This makes Toshiro Mifune’s wildly exaggerated gestures and characteristic overacting more palatable than usual.  Even Takashi Shimura, my favorite Kurosawa actor, is over the top on many occasions, but it all fits into the comic-book imagery of the film.

Nevertheless, Drunken Angel is not a comic book story.  When comparing it again to Women of the Night, we can say that the differences between the two films encompass more than just the contrasting focuses on women in one and men in the other.  In Women of the Night the narrative perspective is that of the individual, the respective women followed in the film.  This is characteristic of film noir, where the focus is on the lost individual in an occluded environment with a dark horizon and unknown menaces.  Although we could say that Drunken Angel has a broadly film-noir setting, there is also a larger perspective to the film that goes beyond the lost individual.  As mentioned above, Doctor Sanada metaphorically represents a flawed individual adhering to larger humanistic principles that transcend his specific circumstances. Note that this is not shown as merely slavish imitation and adoption of Western modernism.  Sanada and Miyo are shown wearing traditional Japanese clothing, while the corrupt and unprincipled gangsters, are attired in modern American-influenced garb.

Matsunaga is the weak, wavering character unable to overcome his blind loyalty to his superiors and his concern with saving face. In the end, though, his climactic attack on Okada is a turning away from that doomed direction and does appear to have the effect of saving Miyo from falling back into Okada’s dark cauldron of oppression.  A typical film noir would have ended there; but in this case Sanada’s humble prescriptions are presented as the way forward in the fight against corruption and disease.

1.    Including some three million war deaths, see “World War II Casualties”, Wikipedia.

1 comment:

Murtaza Ali Khan said...

It's a movie that I had watched half-a-decade back but still the images are so afresh in my memory. Your brilliant film analysis hasn't left anything uncovered.

Thanks for bringing this Kurosawa gem back into my active memory. Toshirô Mifune is great, Takashi Shimura arguably better... Shimura's range is just incredible. Kurosawa always chose him to play the more subtle parts: Ikiru and Drunken Angel are probably the best examples.