This review is x-posted to Ancient Worlds
In an early post-war, devastated Japan, a young yakuza Matsunaga (Mifune Toshiro), who rules over the South Market district, seeks one night the help of doctor - and drunkard - Sanada (Shimura Takashi) when he is injured and needs to get a bullet removed from his hand. Sanada quickly spots signs that the hot-tempered thug is infected with tuberculosis, but their encounter is soon brought to an end when their personalities clash and they come to blows until Sanada's assistant, Miyo (Nakakita Chieko), comes in. This marks the beginning of an uneasy friendship between the two men, with the doctor trying to convince Matsunaga to get treatment before it is too late. However, the fragile truce is threatened when Okada, Matsunaga's "big brother" (aniki) in the yakuza's clan, comes back after a stint in prison....
Much has been said about this movie being a cornerstone in Kurosawa's body of work, not least by the great man himself, and it is impossible to write a review of this movie without stating the reasons behind it again. It is pretty evident that "Drunken Angel" was the first movie in which he was able to bring together many of the reccurent elements that would become trademarks: in contrast with earlier movies such as his judo saga ("Sugata Sanjiro") where he seemed to still be trying to figure out his own identity as a director. That doesn't mean that his early output should be in any way dismissed, as they are certainly not without merit and count their fair share of moments of brilliance, nor that "Drunken Angel" is another, earlier "Ran". He does struggle by moments in striking the right balance between Italian realism and expressionist influences for instance, and that is never more obvious than in Matsunaga's dream sequence that seems at odds, clashing even, with everything else; it is however short enough not to detract much from the movie
It was also the first movie where Kurosawa felt he was being himself, and having watched a few of his earlier movies, one is hard-pressed do disagree with him. For one, those he directed before where subject to and influenced by the Japanese military propaganda. On the other hand, while movie output in Japan in 1948 was victim of the american's censorship, Kurosawa nonetheless managed to slip countless references to Japan's foreign occupation that went unnoticed (although how much of that was due to a lack of personel in the censorship's offices is hard to tell). Americans themselves are never portrayed in the movie, but american culture is, extensively: more precisely, it is always associated with the yakuza environment and those who gravitate around them, culminating in the "Jungle Boogie" scene and the mad, frenetic dancing of Matsunaga, a last act of careless defience in the face of illness and his own mortality. Since the yakuzas themselves, or at least the majority of them as represented by Okada, are also closely associated with illness (in particular tuberculosis) and the putrid, stagnant waters around which most of the action of the movie seems to gravitate, the analogy is unmistakable. It doesn't mean, however, that Kurosawa pins all of Japan's woes on the foreign presence, far from it. The real illness that threatens the country's recovery are those yakuzas who profit while the rest of the population struggles (and who no doubt stand in for figures of authority in a larger sense, as they are otherwise totally absent from the movie, save in word. No doubt is it because they live above the squalor of the slumps, as the two are physically seperated and never mix in this movie save for one scene when Sanada meets with a wealthy colleague of his). It is also the antiquated values vehemently denounced by Sanada throughout the movie which keep menacing any progress the characters try to make with their life: Miyo, who considers going back to Okada even though she is clearly terrified of him as he had abused her in the past, and Matsunaga, who clinches almost desperately to the code of honor of the yakuzas, which Sanada derides on many occasions, not without reasons....
It is also famously "Drunken Angel" that marked the beginning of one of the longest and most fruitful director-actor collaborations, that of Kurosawa and Mifune, which would come to include all of Kurosawa's black and white period features, but also quite a few contemporary pieces. Mifune actually made such an impression on Kurosawa when he first saw him at an audition that the role of Matsunaga, that was initially supposed to be secondary to that of doctor Sanada, was rewritten and expended once Mifune was cast to the point that it becomes hard to distinguish the most important of the pair
Because this improbable couple of an alcoholic doctor and a hot-headed, gravely ill yakuza form a pair and it now seems odd that they had not always been meant to be anything but equals, since the counterpoint (here it is, one of the great principles of many of Kurosawa's movies!) their characters offer to each other is really the driving force of the narration. Forget about the social commentary or the stylistic brilliance. At the end of the day, it's first of all the story of two men, both strong-minded and quick to anger, both trying to survive in a hostile environment they were not meant for: Sanada laments how some of his fellow medicine students had gone on to succeed in the world and become wealthy; Gin (played by Sengoku Noriko) states later in the movie that she's always sensed Matsunaga was not really made for the life of a Yakuza - something one can't help but wholeheartedly agree with as the story progresses and it becomes evident he is out of touch with the morales, or lack thereof, of the milieu then
Of course, the "Angel" of the title appears to be the doctor, Sanada. It is never truer than in this scene when Matsunaga, having been tempted back into his old ways by Okada, arrives in the middle of the night at Sanada's, so drunk that he collapses right after arriving. Sanada steps out to stand at his head, all clad in white. The composition of this frame is stunning for capturing perfectly the essence of the title, but also because of its hidden depth. Indeed it usually takes a couple viewings before one really notices that in the background, Miyo is also standing, quietly watching the scene. Because if Matsunaga needs an angel, then so does Sanada: while he has chosen the better path in life, he is nonetheless a flawed character with a tendency to drink his rations of medicine to feed his addiction to alcohol. He is nonetheless the "hero" (or as close as anyone can come in the world depicted) because he is the one who understands the best the way things have become; he also gets a chance to demonstrate his courage when he flats out refuses to hand over Miyo to Okada. If Matsunaga is much more naive, he and Sanada have a lot in common, to the point that Sanada recognizes as much himself. This similatiry explains both why the latter invests so much energy in trying to save Matsunaga, and why things almost invariably escaladate quickly between them, at least until Matsunaga becomes crippled by the illness: if Matsunaga can find redemption and rise to a better life, then there is hope for him and for the people stuck in the town market district
In an earlier review of "Rashomon", I had written that, despite it being an undisputable masterpiece and an important film in terms of cinema history, I found it hard to give it full marks because while it was an amazing intellectual experience, I found it difficult to engage my heart as well, to sympathize with any of the characters or the story as a whole. "Drunken Angel" is a bit of an antithesis to that - and it's one more proof of Kurosawa's genius that he could make such vastly different movies that are both brilliant and still ring like his. It has its stylistic issues, as examplified above, and is neither as tightly constructed nor as innovative as "Rashomon". But what it might be lacking, by comparaison, in style, it more than makes up in heart and emotion. It is difficult not to be drawn to Mifune's screen presence under any circumstances, but I defy anyone, man or woman, not to feel their heart clench during the shadow puppets scene, both because of the rare tenderness of Sadana's care and Matsunaga's revealed fragility, or by Matsunaga's stubborn adherence to a code that he clearly is among the last ones to uphold
However, "Drunken Angel" and "Rashomon" are both stories offering a grim view of humanity. Yet for all their bleakness, they unvariably end up, as if Kurosawa didn't really want to but couldn't help himself either, by offering glimmers of hope. Here, it is the young schoolgirl who did what Matsunaga could not, being forever dragged down by his honor as a yakuza: defeat the illness. And it is therefore fitting that she should be the one to bring a smile back on the face of a saddened and angry Sanada and who drags him away from the putrid waters of the slump
Maybe Japan had a future after all