Drunken Angel (1948)
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Writer: Keinosuke Uegusa and Akira Kurosawa
Cinematography: Takao Saito
Producer: Sōjirō Motoki
by Jon Cvack
I believe High and Low (1963) is the only other contemporary Kurosawa film I’ve seen; a film that mastered the anamorphic frame and should serve as a lesson in blocking for any filmmaker trying for the super wide. Drunken Angel doesn’t provide the same vista, but what it abandons in visuals it more than makes up for in performance, serving as a profound character study about two men struggling to survive in a postwar dystopia full of poisonous cesspools, crime, and undesirables. As Lucas was inspired by Hidden Fortress (1958) increasing C-3P0 and R2-D2, you imagine he took inspiration for Mos Eisley from Drunken Angel.
Sanada (Takashi Shimura) is an alcoholic doctor who receives a visit from hoodlum Matsunaga (Toshiro Mifune) who’s been shot in the hand. Sanada resents the man, fixing him simply to earn enough money to maintain his drinking habit. Into the examination, Sanada suspects that Matsugane has tuberculosis; a common ailment the locals have been receiving from the cesspools surrounding the area. Sanada advises Matsunaga to stop boozing and sleeping with women if he wants to have any chance to survive.
Having just watched Black Rain (1989) a month or so back which followed a family dealing with radiation poisoning - finding it strange that there have been so few Japanese films to explore the issue. Counter to Ozu's idyllic settings, Drunken Angel embodies the bleak spirit of postwar Japan.
After Sanada fixes Matsunaga the narrative splits and we follow both men. We learn that Matsunaga’s boss Okada (Reisaburo Yamamoto) is now days away from prison. Meeting Sanada in the city’s local bar, he succumbs to the x-ray where Sanada discovers a hole developing in one of Matsunaga’s lungs. Nevertheless, he retains his lifestyle of chasing women and getting stucco in bars; his body deteriorating in the process, causing him to drink even more. When Okada’s finally released, he resents Matsunaga’s ailment, disparaging and humiliating him in front of the crew before finally kicking him out.
Sanada quickly learns that one of his assistants is one of Okada’s girlfriends; once assaulting and demeaning her on a regular basis and likely to do it again. While Sanada continues to treat the innocent victims of tuberculosis, his drinking spirals out of control. Soon he gets caught in the middle of things when his female assistant runs off into hiding in order to escape Okada to which Okada then tries to use Matsunaga to find her whereabouts through Sanada.
Realizing Matsunaga is nothing more than a pawn, and that Okada, his fellow hoodlums, and girlfriend care nothing for his ailment, he runs off. Bedridden and immobile, he refuses to back down, tracking down Okada in order to kill him and providing one of the greatest and most cinematic fights from the period and one of the most satisfying conclusions ever on screen.
The roots of alcoholism are the city - whether on account of an indirect infection, the people, or the world in which they all exist. Like any gang member, Matsunaga appears as a byproduct of his environment; in which perhaps another, more Ozuian world he could have had aboveboard success. Instead he couldn’t escape, discovering a world that was entirely selfish; in which no cares for him at all. This stands against Sanada who wants nothing more than help to help people while knowing he’s fighting a losing battle; so long as the swamps exist the people will die an all he can do is ease their pain or try and save the fraction of those doomed.
It’s a rare film that examines alcoholism through a prism of the environment. These characters numb themselves with the bottle because reality is far too difficult. As positive as Matsunaga’s final epiphany seems, I got the sense that the children too would become victims - of the bottle, of crime, or the disease. It’s a cynical and yet painfully real film, leaving you to wonder who could possibly escape such an environment; the way they couldn’t escape the bomb that dropped when they had so little, if anything, to do with the world they were fighting; now cursed to forever deal with the effects and watch those they care most about decay and die. In terms of film about the bombing of Nagasaki or Hiroshima this might be the very best.
*Granted that was the exact function of them; that is, depicting normalcy in an abnormal world. An idea that Black Rain was exploring with the family attempting a peaceful return to the country
BELOW: One of Kurosawa's great fight scenes
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