After a battle with rival criminals, a small-time gangster is treated by an alcoholic doctor in post-war Japan. The doctor diagnoses the young gangster's tuberculosis, and convinces him to begin treatment for it. The two enjoy an uneasy friendship until the gangster's former boss is released from prison and seeks to take over his gang once again. The ailing young man loses his status as gang boss and becomes ostracised, and eventually confronts his former boss in a battle to the death.Written by
Bernard Keane <BKeane2@email.dot.gov.au>
The performance of Toshirô Mifune as the violent young gangster, Matsunaga (his fourth overall and first in a Kurosawa movie), was so powerful and memorable that, according to director Akira Kurosawa, many people in Japan (and presumably elsewhere) falsely assume that the title, "Drunken Angel," was intended to refer to Matsunaga. But Kurosawa had actually intended the title character to be the alcoholic doctor, Sanada (played by Takashi Shimura), who treats Matsunaga, because, for the filmmaker, he is an "angel" for attempting to save the gangster from his illness and violent lifestyle, despite his own weakness for alcohol. See more »
Even though the story takes place during the hot summer, breath can be seen coming from characters in several scenes. See more »
Kurosawa began his career as a jobbing director, making the pictures the studio wanted him to in conventional, by-the-book style. It was with Drunken Angel, his eighth film, that he turned a corner. He regarded it as the first film that was really his, and typically here combining bold social commentary with tender sympathy towards flawed and downtrodden characters.
This also marks the beginning of one of the greatest actor-director relationships in the history of cinema, with the young Toshiro Mifune making his debut for Kurosawa. It is amazing how naturally talented an actor Mifune was. He already knew exactly how to move in front of the camera, and could convey so much with the tiniest of gestures. However, he doesn't get to show off his full range here. Also, in the leading role, is Kurosawa regular and fantastic character actor Takashi Shimura. There isn't really one bad performance in the whole thing.
Drunken Angel is essentially a lament for the state of post-war Japanese society. Not only does the story concern the victims of that era, it is also an extended allegory using illness and contamination as a metaphor for the state of the nation. The central characters a tubercular gangster (Mifune) and an alcoholic doctor (Shimura) are partly to blame for their own conditions, and while they want to get better haven't the willpower to do so. The pond of stagnant water outside the doctor's surgery, a constantly recurring image of despair, seems to be the result of a bomb crater from the war.
The plot structure is episodic and bitty, somewhat reminiscent of neo-realist cinema. Unfortunately this makes the whole thing a bit lacking in pace and even boring in places. Things really start to pick up in the second half of the film when the plot starts to come together. The introduction of Okada, a gangland boss who has just finished a stint in prison, adds an element of danger to what has so far only been a gloomy drama.
Music is a constant presence in Drunken Angel, with diagetic music (i.e. really there in the scene rather than a background score) being used to give atmosphere and introduce characters. A whole variety of tunes are heard blasting from bars and dance halls, but most memorable of all is a man who sits outside the surgery playing a dismal Japanese folk melody on an acoustic guitar. This acts like a theme tune for the doctor. However, when Okada appears he takes the guitar and announces his presence by playing a doom-laden classical piece. This seems to have been a major influence on Sergio Leone, particularly on the character of Harmonica in his Once Upon a Time in the West (1968).
It is in the final act of this picture that Kurosawa reveals his talent for deeply sentimental and emotional direction. I won't reveal exactly what happens, but as the film looks set to reach a tense finale (in what is the only proper action sequence) Kurosawa turns it on its head, using expert timing, camera-work, cross-cutting and Fumio Hayasaka's score to produce a scene of incredible poignancy. Another Kurosawa trademark which is established here was his way of injecting a little note of hope into the ending of his darker pessimistic pictures, with the final scene suggesting there may be a cure for this sick society.
Despite all these developments in Kurosawa's style, he was not quite yet ready to turn out a masterpiece. In some ways he seems to have simply crammed every idea he had at the time into the 95 minutes. There is even a dream sequence in which Mifune smashes open a coffin is chased by a zombie version of himself. This hints towards Kurosawa's later horror-tinged work and a similar but better done scene in Kagemusha (1980), but here it seems a little clichéd and very much at odds with the overall tone of the film. Drunken Angel has its moments and is packed with good elements, which is why I rate it as highly as I do, but as a whole it doesn't come together enough to really suck the viewer in.
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