Review: Drunken Angel (1948)

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This is one of my favourite Akira Kurosawa’s movies set in contemporaneous times – not a saumrai in sight, although Toshiro Mifune appears almost as animalistic and out of control here in his first collaboration with Kurosawa as he does in some of his most famous samurai roles (Rashomon, Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, Yojimbo). He is not the drunkard of the movie’s translated title, however. The alcoholic is Takashi Shimura’s doctor, Sanada, whose contempt for gangsters like Mifune’s Matsunaga slowly ebbs away as the pair become close. Each sees the obvious flaws in the other – Matsunaga’s brash reckless abandon, Sanada’s downhearted and droopy absence of joy – as some sort of more general condition to do with the imperfections of people, or the plight of the downtrodden.

The film is set only a couple of years after the end of World War II, and located amid the refuse and muck of a sort of concave shellholed landscape near the Tokyo docks. Within this swampy, disease-ridden terrain, a shanty town has arisen to house the poor, the hopeless and the agents of the low-life underworld. The ravages of the war pervade and loom over the film like a thick blanket of poisonous fog. The dim mood is only brightened by another of the doctor’s patients, a young girl recovering from illness, who remains cheerful despite the dire circumstances of the present and of what has gone, as well as the likely hardships to follow as Japan rebuilds itself under American occupation.

As they do in Ikiru, hip swing nightclubs and jazz bars provide the means for characters to escape from the past and immerse themselves in the new modern (Japanese-American) world. It’s a frenzied and exhausting environment dominated by the young and carefree. The new life of escapism is inhospitable to the old and weary, in addition to anyone who is not physically and mentally prepared to transform their cultural sensibilities overnight. Matsunaga tries very hard to make a mark in the new era, but his health lets him down, his lungs already infected with tuberculosis – a consequence of the past that is impossible to overcome.

Fans of TV series Deadwood ought to notice some of its narrative resemblances to Drunken Angel, particularly between the characters of Sanada and Bard Dourif’s Doc Cochran. Both are ostensibly ‘good’ and socially responsible men, applying their talents within utterly filthy small towns desperate for medical aid. Yet, each also clings to the bottle and remains extremely private, shunning unnecessary bonding with others over personal thoughts and feelings. Both doctors find themselves providing treatment to the major criminal figures in their territory, and becoming closer to these rather insane overlords than any other far more moral parties. Each also ultimately refuses to empathise with these bad men who hatefully and viciously preside over their little turfs. For all the negative self-opinions of both characters, the doctors demonstrably save lives, while the ringleaders of crime seem determined only to take as many people as possible with them to an early grave. Perhaps this suggests that Kurosawa’s work remains a standard point of reference for today’s filmmakers, especially those few who are making Westerns.

One of the major highlights of the film is its marvellous collision of lurid noir and stark social realism. Mifune makes an excellent noir gangster, he oscillates from nasty to charming with ease, cuts a striking silhouette and stalks around like a caged tiger. The climax features a hideous fight between Matsunaga and his old boss, now enemy, in which buckets of paint come into play. As the opponents hurl each other along a corridor, paint ends up splattered all over them and the walls, as if it’s being hurled from just off frame by Jackson Pollock. It’s a visceral scene, not dissimilar in this respect to Brian De Palma’s Scarface, but there’s no chainsaw and no blood, just paint – yet the foes appear closer to death with each new spatter that appears on their clothes, face and hair. Awesome stuff.

8 dancehall boogies out of 10.
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