Sunday, March 7, 2010

Drunken Angel (1948)


Blunt alcoholic doctor, Sanada (Takashi Shimura), tries to help a hot-headed up and coming yakuza, Matsunaga (Toshiro Mifune), with tuberculosis. As the two match wits, and very low patience levels, an odd bond slowly develops between them.

"Martyrdom is out of style."

There were Kurosawa films that came before it. There were Kurosawa films that came after it. But I think when you watch an entire director's work, there's always one obvious case that you can point to and say "right there. That's where he started." For Kurosawa, Drunken Angel was that film. Separated from the war by a few years now, away from the strict codes of the studio at the time, Kurosawa's Drunken Angel marked a loud turning point in the director's work. Gone are simplistic uplifting, propaganda stories. In comes hard criticism, well thought out films, designed to confront the viewer on an intellectual level.

That's what I respect most about Drunken Angel. As a stand alone movie, it's not half bad. Kurosawa's emphasis on characters, development, and stage-like scenes creates an intriguing affair for the viewer. It's got action, drama, deceit, gangsters, and a loud mouthed alcoholic father figure. And yet still, it's a movie that shows the viewer the introductory world to Kurosawa. Right from the opening shot. A sewage pool in the middle of a slumville town. Corner of black market, and poverty. Nobody is there because they dreamt it that way. They're there because that's all they know, that's all they are. Poverty, as a feature of the world, and the gangsters, criminals, and situations created from it are the heart of Kurosawa tales.

But what does it matter to us? Should we feel bad for gangsters? As Kurosawa would so boldly say, no. Matsunaga, played to the bone by Mifune in his breakthrough performance, is a sympathetic, but not likable character. He's a hothead, drunk, partier, obsessed with his own image. Sanada, played with the depth and gusto of any Shimura performance, is oddly likable, but not all that sympathetic of a character. He drinks constantly, even using his government allotted alcohol for patients. He's constantly picking fights, and insulting anyone who doesn't operate under his notion of rationality. Both are at the focal point of this tale. Both are characters who fight against their own misgivings. The question is, should one accept them, or fight against them?

In this case Kurosawa goes with the accepting point of view. You are who you are, that's all there is to it. All you can do is try to apply who you are and who you want to be and come up with a middle ground. And here Kurosawa executes his tale to perfection. Drunken Angel is dark, sadism, and yet still optimistic. It looks for the good, exposes the bad, and takes no names. It works because Kurosawa drives the tale no longer than necessary. Each scene has a direct point, and no filler is added to buff up some obscure 6th lead. Still, it does tend to linger, and an odd dream sequence that seems better on paper, may put off viewers. But Kurosawa's final showdown is directed with such raw intensity and great camerawork, it and of itself is worth the price of admission. That's why here, anyone wanting to see the true start of Kurosawa (if I dare say something so insulting), is going to be paid in full.

Drunken Angel is not Kurosawa's best work, but it's not one of his movies that should be so quickly overlook. Beyond just being the tentpole piece for his work with Mifune, Drunken Angel has a strong heart, and the know-how to back it up.

Alternate Perspectives:

Have you written a review of Drunken Angel? Email me the link at and I'll post it here!

4 better thoughts:

Michele Emrath said...

You are making me want to see more of Kurosawa's work.

Special Oscars post on my blog today--and The Hurt Locker review to come soon.


Univarn said...

@Michele nice oscar's post, can't wait for your Hurt Locker review!

As for Kurosawa I'm glad I'm making you want to see more of him, part of the point of the whole thing!

Lots of his work was influenced by writers like Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and such so you may find lots you like there ;)

Michaël Parent said...

Once again this is an excellent review! Drunken Angel should be regarded as one of the major works of Kurosawa. Have you seen his earlier work like SANSHIRO SUGATA I & II, THE MAN WHO TREAD ON THE TIGER'S TAIL, and THE MOST BEAUTIFUL? I haven't but I wanted to know if they're worth the look...

Univarn said...

@Michael Sanshiro Sugato 1 I saw, and the copies of it are very rough, need to see the Criterion version of it. I think you can pass on them unless you're very dedicated.

As for Tiger's Tail and Most Beautiful I still need to see Tiger's Tail, but Most Beautiful wasn't too bad. A bit more mainstream and propaganda of the war-time era.

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