1940s, 3/4, Akira Kurosawa, Drama, Review

Drunken Angel

Drunken Angel (1948) - IMDb

#21 in my ranking of Akira Kurosawa’s filmography.

And so was born one of the most famous director and actor combinations in movie history. Helped in no small part by a 51-day strike that they did not participate in, Akira Kurosawa cast Toshiro Mifune as the gangster to Takashi Shimura’s doctor, supposedly with the original plan of Mifune having a small part but greatly expanding it as they filmed to give him a far larger role to the point where the movie essentially becomes his despite Shimura playing the title character. This is the film that announced Mifune’s arrival to the Japanese filmgoing audiences (the rest of the world would really first discover him in Rashomon).

Dr. Sanada (Shimura) is a drunk of a doctor working in a Tokyo slum after the end of the Second World War. He specializes in treating patients with tuberculosis, and he’s awoken one night by a gangster, Matsunaga (Mifune), who comes in with a bullet lodged in his hand. Sanada provides him no pain medication as he gruffly pulls the bullet out and notes a cough from his patient that very likely could be tuberculosis. After a brief check using his stethoscope, Sanada feels that tuberculosis is likely but Matsunaga should get an X-ray to verify. This enrages Matsunaga who attacks Sanada, a fight broken up by Sanada’s nurse Miyo (Chieko Nakakita).

The set up of the film is Sanada finding a way to help improve Matsunaga’s life through his efforts as his doctor. I do wonder what the original conception of the film would have been with Matsunaga having a minimal part because there’s a point where he becomes the main focus of the film. The first third or so really does settle on Sanada, painting the picture of his life in the slum. He chases some children away from the fetid pool of water outside that they could drink from and develop typhoid. The pool ends up a visual metaphor (that Sanada explicates at one point) for Matsunaga’s sickness and, by implication, the sickness of Japan. In addition, Miyo is the former girl of another gangster, Okada (Reisaburo Yamamoto) who has just been released from prison.

The film then shifts its focus after Okada shows up. We start to focus more fully on Matsunaga and his degrading health. Okada was in charge of the area of the city that Matsunaga is now running, and Okada, as soon as he’s back on the scene, is running roughshod over Matsunaga, stealing his girl, getting the best tables, and generally disrespecting Matsunaga. Matsunaga, his health obviously declining as he refuses to follow Sanada’s orders of no drinking and no women, decides to go the Big Boss to sort it out, convinced that honor and loyalty mean something in the yakuza despite Sanada’s insistence that money is all that matters. When Matsunaga eavesdrops and hears that the Big Boss’s plan is to simply wait for Matsunaga to either die or grow so weak that another gang enters the territory at which point he will put Okada back in charge, Matsunaga realizes how little he has.

The movie is solidly good, but I never got really involved with it. It’s handsomely produced and often quite aesthetically pleasing, but the focus on Matsunaga, while interesting, is never terribly compelling, and I think it has to do with the idea that he became the focus as filming went on. The focus of Sanada at the beginning prevents the really solid grounding Matsunaga would need in the beginning to anchor the whole film. It doesn’t help that he’s a scumbag that then goes on a downward spiral. I think that the limited exposure in the opening prevents the kind of emotional connection the audience could have with the man as his life falls apart, eventually coming to a violent end.

That isn’t the end of the film, though. We get an interesting scene where Sanada and a girl who works at the local sake shop that Matsunaga had frequented get into a discussion about the meaning of Matsunaga’s death. I recalled Ikiru, a movie I’m already fairly familiar with, and how the main character (played by Shimura) dies and then his colleagues spend the final section of the film discussing the meaning of his death. It refocuses the film on Sanada, turning the meaning of Matsunaga’s life and attempted recovery from tuberculosis at Sanada’s hands, in the cesspool that was contemporary Japan, into a reflection on those who must continue on. Sanada isn’t going to leave the city like Matsunaga was supposedly thinking about doing, he’s going to stay on and try to heal what he can.

The emotional heart of the film is Sanada, and I think that’s effective enough. However, the bulk of the film is focused on Matsunaga, and it’s not really hard to see why. Mifune was a great screen presence, even in his impossibly young form at twenty-eight years old. He’s instantly watchable as he lords over the frame with Shimura or sulks away in degrading form as his sickness takes hold. Kurosawa found something special in this young actor, and he exploited it to the fullest. I don’t think the movie was built for it, though, so while I do enjoy the film overall, I still feel like a page one rewrite to refocus the whole story would have been a more appropriate approach to the change in focus rather than just robbing Sanada of the spotlight. Mifune is watchable every moment he’s on screen, and he’s on screen a lot, but the movie shouldn’t be his. It should be Shimura’s.

The film is good, though, despite the change in focus. It shows that Kurosawa could improvise quickly to capture something worth capturing. That it helped start one of the great director/actor combinations is just gravy.

Rating: 3/4

8 thoughts on “Drunken Angel”

  1. For me, this is one of the higher-tier Kurosawa films.
    It’s theme, the sickness of Japan, is well executed.
    I agree that Mifune overshadows the protagonist, but frankly Mifune is one of the greatest actors, ever, anywhere. It’s like putting Daniel Day Lewis in your movie, whatever role you give him, he’s going take over the screen. (Gary Oldman is actually good enough to either steal a scene or disappear into it)

    But Matsunaga’s a good character and this is a good early Yakuza film where we see the culture and norms and expectations of a literally ancient gangster society. Sanada is more magnetic, but Matsunaga suffers. He chooses.

    I think this is more than just a good movie, it might be a great one.

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    1. The thematic material is definitely there, and Mifune is amazing. I also have become a big fan of Shimura who’s a more subtle but equally engaging actor.

      From what I understand, this was a production that began during a strike, so it kind of feels like it was rushed into production while the rest of the studio was on strike. There was probably also a certain lack of attention from studio heads who were more concerned with the strike than the production, which gave Kurosawa more room to do whatever he wanted on set. It’s all a theory, but I would imagine that’s how a lot of this improvisation and looking for the story during production happened, with Kurosawa discovering how far he could go with this new, exciting talent in Mifune. He knew of him before from editing another film that Mifune had acted in, but this was his first time with him as director.

      The stuff with Mifune is kind of magic, but I also wish the production had simply been revisited to the point where they recast it as his story rather than Shimura’s. That balancing act doesn’t come off as well as I think it should, making Mifune’s actions feel a bit unmoored from the story being told, limiting the emotional impact of his ending on me.

      I’m pretty sure I’m in the minority on this one, though. Most people are like you and seem to love it as much as Kurosawa’s other great works.

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