Monday, May 10, 2010

Drunken Angel (1948)

“Don’t you use any pain killers?” Yakuza gangster Matsunaga (Toshirō Mifune).

“Not for hoodlums like you.” Dr. Sanada (Takashi Shimura), as he pulls a bullet out of Matsunaga hand.

In Drunken Angel (Yoidori tenshi), director Akira Kurosawa takes aim at yakuza hoods in postwar Japan, examining individual moral choice in the face of harsh circumstances. The film pits alcoholic Doc Sanada against the feudal gangsters. His task is to cure sick patients and society from disease and yakuza. He sees the Japanese mobsters as a systemic affliction plaguing society.

The film opens with a night shot of three hookers sitting next to a typhoid cesspool, with a gloomy guitar playing ‘The Killers Anthem’ in background. The film cuts into Doc Sanada’s ramshackle clinic, which sits on the edge of the cesspool. Inside, we see Doc working on Matsunaga. During their encounter, the Doc diagnoses the thug with tuberculosis.

On learning about his TB, the hoodlum insults and ruffs up the Doc. Weakness is a liability for a yakuza, and a potential loss of face and identity. But the Doc doesn’t take any crap from the hooligan. Gruff and blunt, he wrestles with the hood, warning him to lay off the booze, smoking, and carousing.

Matsunaga storms out of the clinic. Ignoring Doc’s advice, he continues to drink, smoke, and hang-out with his dance hall ladies.

Thirsty for real whiskey instead of medical-alcohol highballs, Doc tracks down Matsunaga in the bars on the other side of the cesspool. The hooligan and drunken angel drink, argue, and fight. Life is raw on the edge of the cesspool.

Matsunaga is a lower-rung, yakuza territory boss of the Happy Market, a black market, and several bars including the Number One Cabaret Club. Shopkeepers, street vendors, pedestrians, and bargirls bow to him, as he struts around his turf.

But his reign is temporary. At story midpoint, his status is disrupted when Matsunaga’s former boss, Okada (Reizaburo Yamamoto) gets out of jail and returns to the turf. Evil is back, and darker conflict poises ready to strike.

While drinking together, Okada notices Matsunaga’s sickly cough and cadaver-like face. Exploiting Matsunaga’s weakness, Okada and his big yakuza boss decide to get rid of the feverish thug. Matsunaga loses his turf, money, and girlfriends to Okada; power transfers.

Identity dented and TB eating a hole the size of a baseball in his lung, Matsunaga’s health slips. In a delirious fever, he dreams ominously. Two Matsunagas - his good and evil selves - fight each other on a beach. The scene reminds of UFA silent horror films. Meanwhile, the Doc houses the fading gangster in his clinic and dispenses medicine and tough talk.

Complications arise. While Okada was serving three years in jail, Okada’s girlfriend, a reformed floozy, moved into Doc Sanada’s place as a live-in nurse. On learning she’s Doc’s nurse, Okada confronts and threatens Doc in his clinic. Okada wants her back. Power demands obedience. But upright and stubborn Doc refuses. Matsunaga overhears the threats and tells Okada to back off.

Existential moral choice and expressionist camera-work arrive on the set. Indebted to Doc, and with territory, face and health lost, Matsunaga decides to knock off Okada to save Doc and his nurse. Breaking the honor bound code of loyalty to his yakuza clan, Matsunaga tries to disinfect the neighborhood of Okada. The final confrontation is expressionistic - Dutch angles, low shots, extreme close-ups, crowded frames, distorted faces, and shadows highlight reformed bad fighting evil. The off-frame action is as intense as the in-frame action.

Near the end, not fully aware of Matsunaga’s principled choice, Doc says, “Everything is so screwed up, it makes me want to throw up.”

Several Firsts

In 1949, Kinema Junpo, the distinguished Japanese film magazine, awarded Drunken Angel first place in the category of best film.

The film marks the first appearance of fiery actor Toshirō Mifune in a Kurosawa movie. Kurosawa spotted Mifune at a Toho Company audition and brought him into Toho, against initial objections from the audition committee. Mifune had previously played character gangster roles in a couple of films. Mifune appears in 16 Kurosawa films.

Mifune and Shimura deliver potent performances in Drunken Angel, painting complex characters. They appear together in several Kurosawa films, including acclaimed Stray Dog (1949), Rashomon (1950), and Seven Samurai (1954). A forceful duo, Mifune - Shimura characters play off each other often in mentor-student, elder-younger, or superior-subordinate roles, a favorite device of Kurosawa’s to enlarge characters and inspect theme. The elder-younger association is prominent in Stray Dog and somewhat less so in Drunken Angel.

The film also marks the first time Kurosawa worked with composer Fumio Hayasaka. Together, they perfected musical and visual counterpoint, another typical Kurosawa device, magnifying scene mood and tension. Hayasaka worked on all of Kurosawa’s films from 1948 to 1954, until the composer passed away in 1955 from tuberculosis.

The film is Kurosawa’s first scrutiny of yakuza culture in the style of film noir. Drunken Angel is a germinating seed that influenced a prolific crop of Japanese film noir, neo noir and new wave that followed. It is also an example of film noir sprouting outside of Hollywood. Due to wartime and postwar censorship in Japan, it is unlikely Kurosawa saw Hollywood film noirs of the 1940s, when he made Drunken Angel.

In the film, diseases are metaphors for the aliments of 1945 - 48 postwar Japan... the typhoid cesspool, the gangster’s TB, and the Doc’s alcoholism. Yakuza infected black markets were widespread after the war. For many displaced citizens in postwar Japan, the corrupted markets were a means of daily survival. Against this backdrop, Kurosawa snaps a captivating picture of history, with a unique story of despair and hope, memorable characters, presenting a theme of moral choice. He shows viewers the crossroads, illustrating good and evil back alleys.

Although his seventh film, it is the first in which Kurosawa had complete directorial control, even in the face of American Military censors which operated from 1945 to 1952 in Japan. Despite his first script of Drunken Angel being rejected by the foreign censors, Kurosawa felt as though he made the film the way he wanted to do it. “In this picture, I finally discovered myself. It was my picture,” said Kurosawa.

In Drunken Angel, we see the early formations of Kurosawa’s cinematic style. The film is a foretaste of Akira Kurosawa as auteur.

Written by Hard-Boiled Rick


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