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Film Club: Drunken Angel

Drunken AngelThis May, our Akira Kurosawa Online Film Club will be discussing Drunken Angel (1948).

Drunken Angel, Kurosawa’s 7th feature film, is typically considered the beginning of the director’s career as a major film maker. Donald Richie’s The Films of Akira Kurosawa quotes Kurosawa himself as having said that “In this picture I was finally myself. It was my picture. I was doing it and no one else.” (Richie, 47) It is this quote, referenced in most works discussing the film, through which Drunken Angel (and — for better or for worse — also the films preceding it) tends to be interpreted.

Yet, Kurosawa’s words here should of course not be taken entirely literally. As he had done a year earlier with One Wonderful Sunday, Kurosawa again teamed up with Keinosuke Uekusa for the script. Their starting point was an already existing set, around which Kurosawa and Uekusa began to build their story. The set, consisting of a shopping street and a black market district, had been built for Kurosawa’s mentor Kajiro Yamamoto’s film The New Age of Fools, a comedy that dealt with the influence of yakuza gangsters and black-market profiteering in post-war Japan. Kurosawa and Uekusa took these themes and concentrated on the yakuza and the black market district, introducing to the set a large, filthy drainage pond to symbolise the conditions in which and with which black market profiteering and yakuza could so easily thrive. (Kurosawa, 155-157)

The resulting story is an allegory of post-war Japan that investigates how Japan should go about reconstructing the society and rebuilding its identity following the devastation of the war. It also sets up to denounce the ways of the yakuza, with the film’s original production notes describing it as a work demonstrating the evil of “the world of the so-called yakuza, where the foundations of all action were feudalistic duty and obligation, [and where] good and evil was determined by … physical strength” (Kitamura, Mr Smith Goes to Tokyo, 49-50) The synopsis of the film submitted to the censorship body also states that the “picture, by taking up this old world and analyzing it, tries to advice how meaningless and empty ‘obligation’ and ‘humanity and justice’ in the old sense are, and how poisonous they can be.” (Sorensen, 240) In taking on these topics, the film seemingly confirmed to the occupation authorities’ request for “more pictures dealing with social and economic problems as related to the future of the Japanese people.” (Kitamura, 49)

Drunken Angel can perhaps be seen as Kurosawa’s first major “humanist” film, with Goodwin remarking that Drunken Angel is probably “the first film in which [Kurosawa’s] affiliation with Dostoevsky fully emerges”. (Goodwin, 61) Prince similarly describes the problems of the characters as “larger than life in the manner of Dostoevsky — spiritual and symbolic crises”. (Prince, 79) On a related note, the film is also the first of what could be called Kurosawa’s medical dramas. Barbara Wolf, in Perspectives on Akira Kurosawa, argues that all of Kurosawa’s contemporary films are in fact about “sickness or crime” (Perspectives, 82), and Drunken Angel is indeed a good example of this, being a film where sickness and crime are closely interlinked. This dualism was apparently also reflected in the film’s early working title, City of Bacillus. (Kitamura, 50)

In order to investigate and denounce the yakuza world, Kurosawa and Uekusa created a pair of characters: a gangster with a destructive influence on himself and those around him, and a doctor who is flawed but nevertheless a far more constructive, healing and well-meaning force. Their teacher-discipline type relationship is something that many critics have identified as a motif that repeats throughout much of Kurosawa’s career, having already been strongly present in the two Sanshiro Sugata films. Here, however, the doctor-gangster pairing turned out to be a source of much creative trouble. The gangster figure Matsunaga proved a more interesting character to explore, and consequently began to dominate the work already early on at the scripting stage. He continued to do so also during actual filming, with Toshiro Mifune making his debut for Kurosawa and offering a truly powerful tour-de-force performance as the gangster, taking focus away from Takashi Shimura’s performance as the titular doctor Sanada, an achievement no less excellent, but nevertheless overshadowed by the dynamism of young Mifune. Even more shadowed is Reisaburo Yamamoto as Okada, the gangster boss who is the cause of Matsunaga’s ultimate fall.

In addition to marking the beginning of the famous Kurosawa-Mifune partnership, Drunken Angel was also the onset of another highly influential collaborative relationship for Kurosawa. It was the first time that he worked with composer Fumio Hayasaka, with whom he would enjoy a strong creative partnership until the composer’s untimely death in 1955 during the filming of Record of a Living Being. The soundtrack for Drunken Angel is rich and varied and continues the sonic exploration and experimentation that Kurosawa had begun in One Wonderful Sunday. The primary and most discussed example of this is the use of the exceedingly light and cheery Cuckoo Waltz for a scene which depicts its beaten, deposed and depressed protagonist (Mifune) trying to come to terms with his misfortunes. As is often noted, this scene — the first example of Kurosawa and Hayasaka’s use of a “musical counterpoint” — had its origins in a real life experience. Towards the end of the Drunken Angel production, Kurosawa’s father died, and after hearing the news, the director got drunk and wandered depressed on the streets of Tokyo, only to suddenly hear the disturbingly happy Cuckoo Waltz played from the loudspeakers, “intensifying my sorrow to and intolerable degree”. (Kurosawa, 162-163)

The resulting soundtrack has received much critical praise. In her chapter on the film, Keiko McDonald discusses the music of Drunken Angel in length, arguing that it “was more than usually well arranged and forward looking, even influential. … Kurosawa shows the way to an inspired use of sound montage, especially as it concerns borrowing from popular music from the time of the film.” (McDonald, Reading a Japanese Film, 41) She furthermore suggests that many of the tunes used in the film were well known to Japanese audiences, allowing Kurosawa and Hayasaka to introduce layers of meaning to the film which may well be lost to non-contemporary and non-Japanese audiences.

Even if the quote printed in Richie suggests that Kurosawa felt that Drunken Angel was a film that he was finally able to craft in the way that he wanted, the film nevertheless had to undergo a number of rewrites. Among other things, the ending had to be changed. In the original screenplay, the final scene was to have a coffin of Mifune’s gangster to be paraded around the black market, but this was deemed unacceptable by the censors. The strong presence of the black market was similarly much criticised by the censors. Also the death of the gangster was changed, although presumably not due to censorship pressure — Matsunaga was originally to die at a hospital, but it was later changed to the highly memorable death scene. (Hirano, 77) Sorensen, who strongly questions the notion of Drunken Angel as a film where Kurosawa was able to execute his vision, nevertheless notes that the censors posted a number of additional requests for changes, which Kurosawa by and large ignored. This apparently also included changing the title, with one censor suggesting replacing it with “Fallen Angel” (Sorensen, 234-250).

Drunken Angel opened on April 27th 1948 to excellent reviews, and went on to win the Kinema Junpo award for best film, Kurosawa’s first. (Galbraith, 97) Despite their earlier concerns, the censors working for the American occupation government were similarly pleased, praising it for “both reorientation and entertainment value” (Kitamura, Mr Smith Goes to Tokyo, 53). Later critics have pointed out the film’s importance in the history of Japanese cinema, and it has sometimes been called the “Japanese Bicycle Thieves” as a reference to Vittorio De Sica’s influential 1948 film.

Yet, in spite of its importance in the Kurosawa canon and its qualities as a piece of excellent cinema, it has been suggested by some that the film is not quite as complex and multi-layered as many of Kurosawa’s other works both before and after Drunken Angel. Yoshimoto, in fact, goes as far as to call the film “surprisingly static and even one-dimensional” (Yoshimoto, 139), and dedicates only a little over a page and a half to the work. Yoshimoto’s view should probably be taken to refer to the overall story and theme of the film, for as Prince notes, the film is in fact stylistically quite rich. In his view, the film is a fairly complex work “filled with objects treated as explicit symbols, a character who functions in a purely theatrical manner to signal narrative shifts, and the familiar use of repetition to heighten the presence of a structural device.” (Prince, 79) Prince furthermore notes that although the work is often compared with Italian neorealists (including Bicycle Thieves) and shares certain themes with them, this comparison is misleading as the neorealists lacked the kind of “stylistic intervention”, cinematic manipulation and artistic editorialising that Drunken Angel thrives on. (Prince, 78-79)

The bottom line is that there is fairly much to explore in Drunken Angel, both as an individual film as well as a work that is part of Kurosawa’s wider body of work. This richness of topics was evident also when our film club last visited the film in June 2008, resulting in the following threads:

You can freely add to these discussions, although it may make more sense to start new threads, considering that these ones are about three years old now, and many of those who participated in the discussion back then are no longer around.

Drunken Angel is available on DVD with a good print and good English subtitles. For more information, see the DVD guide.

Next month, we will be looking at Anton Chekhov’s play A Marriage Proposal, which Kurosawa directed for the stage after Drunken Angel. The play, an English translation of which is freely available from Project Gutenberg, can also serve as a spring board for a wider discussion of Kurosawa’s Russian and Soviet influences. As the play is quite short, you are invited to pick something Russian that may also have influenced Kurosawa, and explore it for the benefit of the rest of us.

For more information about our Akira Kurosawa Film Club, including the full schedule, see the film club page.


Discussion

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lawless

Thanks for the intro, Vili! I haven’t rewatched Drunken Angel yet for this month’s film club, but I remember liking it better than the somewhat thematically and stylistically similar Stray Dog, though not by much, and being more impressed with Shimura’s Sanada than Mifune’s Matsunaga, though Mifune certainly cuts a dashing figure. Despite his alcoholism, Sanada stood for something worthwhile, whereas Matsunaga is someone lacking self-knowledge who lives far more dangerously than he realizes.

I guess that puts me at odds with Yoshimoto and in agreement with Prince on this one.

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Ugetsu

I haven’t watched in a while, so looking forward now to another viewing. I do remember enjoying it, while being a little disappointed – unlike Lawless I thought it wasn’t as good as Stray Dog (which holds a particular place in my heart as the film – specifically the ending – that really made me realize how special Kurosawa’s films are). But then again, so often I watch films late in the evening when I’m tired, so I don’t always take them in as well as I should.

One thing I hope we’ll explore is exactly why it is that it was considered the key film in Kurosawa’s development. It is visually rich and a definite step up in technique I think from his earlier films, but having enjoyed so much exploring the richness of his earlier films, I can’t see there as being any real major revolution in either technique or conception. And if Sorenson is right, then its not a case of Kurosawa having had a freer hand from the studio and censors. I still think there is a certain element of hindsight at work. Maybe Kurosawa simply felt more confident and in control making it, so had more positive memories of the film than his earlier work. But I also still suspect there was an element of Kurosawa deliberately shifting the focus of critics away from the politics of his earlier films, which he may have become less comfortable about as time went by.

I’m also a little curious about why Japanese critics felt that the film is so important. For all its qualities, it does seem to me to be very much within the genre of crime drama – in some ways less innovative than One Wonderful Sunday in in terms of narrative and cinematic technique. And we know that No Regrets for our Youth had a very powerful emotional and intellectual influence on a particular generation of young Japanese. So I find it hard to understand why Drunken Angel was singled out above those other films as being so important.

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lawless

Ugetsu – I almost added a parenthetical “unlike Ugetsu” after writing that I liked Drunken Angel slightly better than Stray Dog.. 🙂

To answer your question about the movie’s place in Kurosawa’s ouevre: It may be that even though it’s set in post-occupation Japan, its concerns are broader and more universal than that. Tuberculosis, slums, and crime are always with us, whereas both No Regrets and One Wonderful Sunday are specifically located in a particular time and place. Thus Drunken Angel‘s position as Kurosawa’s first fully-realized humanistic film. That might have been what Kurosawa was talking about; also that with Shimada and Mifune in the lead roles, all the pieces of the puzzle in terms of production fell into place.

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Ugetsu

Lawless

I almost added a parenthetical “unlike Ugetsu” after writing that I liked Drunken Angel slightly better than Stray Dog.

I hope I’m not getting too predictable! This wouldn’t be any fun if we agreed on everything… 😉

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lawless

Ugetsu: No, it’s more that I remembered the admiration you previously expressed for Stray Dog. I figured that hadn’t changed.

I don’t think there’s any danger of any two of us agreeing on everything, though there are probably people we find ourselves in agreement with more often than others. It may even change from film to film.

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Ugetsu

I’ve just re-watched the film and… its much better than I remembered! Oddly enough,when I first saw it, I thought of it as being a little flabby structurally, now I think exactly the opposite – its a very tight and lean film. I think because I’m watching it now on a better quality screen, the ‘sense of place’ of the film is much stronger – its a superb evocation of a time and place – and from what I understand from Richies comments, its very accurate in its depiction of the slums of post war Tokyo.

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lawless

Those slums were still around in 1952 when Ikiru came out. The swamp in that movie looks a lot like the one in Drunken Angel, and there’s the same sense of a character struggling against long odds — in one case, to cure disease and in the other case, to build a playground.

I’m glad the movie improved for you on a rewatch. Its tightness and leanness in comparison to Stray Dog, which I think gets a little indulgent and precious in a few places, is why I like Drunken Angel just that much better.

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Ugetsu

I think what irritated me first time I watched it was the doctor – I just found his rages and obnoxiousness to everyone irritating to watch and not very convincing. I found myself thinking that if I thought I had TB I’d be avoiding a doctor like that, even if I wasn’t a gangster. I also must admit that the fact the gangster died essentially to protect Miyo also flew over my head the first time, I thought he was just attacking the chief gangster in a fevered rage.

What really strikes me too is just how overwhelmingly western the setting is – hardly a character wears Japanese costume or hairstyle, the music and settings and so on. I wonder if it really was like that at the time or whether it was Kurosawa making the connection between corruption and western dress/culture explicit.

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Ugetsu

And as an aside, I’ve just noticed that the guitar player in the film had quite an amazing career as a minor character in Kurosawa films – all the way from One Wonderful Sunday up to Rhapsody in August, all with hardly a word spoken!

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lawless

Ugetsu – Kurosawa was loyal to people he worked well with, wasn’t he? That’s a good catch; I hadn’t realized how much he used the same people in small but noticeable roles.

Sanada didn’t bother me the first time around; in fact, I liked him much better than Matsunaga. Maybe it’s because I’m used to irascible types, being one myself, 🙂 or maybe it’s all the manga I’ve read with grumpy characters who have a lot going on underneath the grumpiness.

As for the yakuza, I suspect that they always dressed Western and lived, so that was him being authentic more than it was an inherent criticism of the West. Even though the structure of the gang imitated Japanese feudalism, the way they operated was a challenge to it.

There’s no reason this Westernization can’t bear both meanings, though!

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Ugetsu

Lawless

As for the yakuza, I suspect that they always dressed Western and lived, so that was him being authentic more than it was an inherent criticism of the West. Even though the structure of the gang imitated Japanese feudalism, the way they operated was a challenge to it.

It is interesting that the Yakuza liked to dress in western style despite their fondness for claiming to be descendants of Samurai.

The subject of western clothing and its cultural meaning in Japan is, I think, a more complex issue than is implied in some of the discussions in the literature on Kurosawa I think. A while back I was reading an account of pre-War Japan and it described a prominent Japanese aristocrat and diplomat, who was known as a fluent and highly cultivated English speaker, who wrote in the 1920’s about his hatred of Japanese dress and culture, and his huge relief when in the west he could dress as he wished. Because of this he was widely seen in American and Britain as a moderate,someone with whom they could deal with in a civilized way (even during the war). Yet in reality, he was associated with one of the most extreme nationalistic groupings in the military government.

So I think the notion that the association of western dress with the Occupation in Kurosawa’s post war films isn’t necessarily the same thing as a comment on American culture. There may well be other associations that he intended – such as with the senior bureaucrats and power-brokers, who also seem to have favoured western dress and mannerisms to some degree.

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Vili Maunula

Many Japanese wore western clothing already towards the end of the 19th century. This website has some absolutely wonderful photos. You can see a mixture of styles in the crowd photos.

Criterion’s Drunken Angel actually includes a short “video essay” by Sorensen, which goes into the clothing and which we discussed briefly three years ago. I personally think that too much is perhaps made of the western style clothes.

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lawless

So I rewatched the movie and loved it probably even more this time around. I think the main reason I like it so much — even more than Stray Dog – is that Sanada and Matsunaga, but Sanada in particular, reminds me of characters I’ve seen in manga.

Sanada is the hot-tempered, cynical and sarcastic guy who is gruff and rough-edged on the outside, but really cares inside. He wants to provide his patients with the most effective treatment, not just take their money, as he implies the doctors in private practice, like his former classmate, do. His motivation is pure and idealistic, but his behavior is not; he throws things at Matsunaga, though that may in part be because he sees some of himself in him and is angry at him for wasting his chance to get better, and drinks too much, but I think he drinks too much because he cares too much. Most patients aren’t going take the tough measures he prescribes; numbing himself with drink may be the only way he can cope and continue his work.

Matsunaga is a little colder but he’s even more violent than Sanada. He cares more about appearance and status than Sanada, but when he learns that he was given his status as cannon fodder, he rebels and has it all taken away from him (or throws it all away; he has to know the ultimate outcome). They are very alike in that they’re both impulsive and impetuous, prone to violent outbursts, like to drink, and live in grimy, sordid surroundings. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Sanada sold some of his possessions — clothes, I believe — to pay for prostitutes when he was in medical school. But Sanada, despite his flaws and hypocrisy, made something of himself and is a professional addressed as “sensei”; in the long run, Matsunaga, for all of his swagger and fine clothes, is just another pawn of the yakuza. A sacrifice.

One of the reasons I like this movie so much is that the script and dialogue are snappy without being overly clever. It’s a funnier movie than Stray Dog while maintaining the same noirish feeling and grittiness. Instead of calling it Kurosawa’s first humanistic movie, I’d call it his first clear expression of existentialism. I’m not sure existentialism is what underlies Sanada’s philosophy and advice to his schoolgirl patient, but it seems to be the view of the movie, which shows life going on and hopefulness amidst the squalor around the swamp that centers the movie visually. One can view Matsunaga’s death as heroic or as pointless (more about this in one of the existing threads later), but it is painted (literally) as redemptive in some way because he at least finally understands and confronts the evil that he’s been a part of. The fact that he loses his life in the process is because his awakening came too late to save him.

I also really, really like Fumio Hayakawa’s score for this. I find his music less intrusive than some of the others Kurosawa uses, both before and after. I particularly like the use of the guitar music as a leitmotif.

This is the strongest and best of his films set in contemporary times that I’ve seen. Yes, I’m even including Ikiru in that; this is lean and tight and Ikiru is a bit too disparate and complicated by comparison. Of the ones I haven’t seen, from what I’ve heard about them, the only one that may rival this one is High and Low, since I don’t believe Red Beard, which I also haven’t seen, has a contemporary setting.

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Ugetsu

Lawless

I particularly like the use of the guitar music as a leitmotif.

The guitar music works really well – something I only really noticed on my more recent viewing (this serves me right for watching a lot of old movies originally on my laptop). I was trying to think what film this use of music reminded me of, and it only just occurred to me – the zither music in The Third Man. I was about to say that Kurosawa must have been influenced by the Third Man, but I see they were both released in the same year, so its unlikely that Kurosawa got the idea from having seen it. I wonder if this is the first example of a musical theme running through a film that is actually played by one of the characters in the film (apart from in musicals of course).

This is the strongest and best of his films set in contemporary times that I’ve seen. Yes, I’m even including Ikiru in that; this is lean and tight and Ikiru is a bit too disparate and complicated by comparison. Of the ones I haven’t seen, from what I’ve heard about them, the only one that may rival this one is High and Low, since I don’t believe Red Beard, which I also haven’t seen, has a contemporary setting.

I’m not sure I can compare it to Ikiru as it is such a different type of film. Personally, I love the broken structure of Ikiru, but I know some contemporary reviewers found it overlong and incoherent.

But there are two particular reasons I prefer Stray Dog – one is that there are certain scenes that I love and have stuck in my head much more than anything in Drunken Angel – in particular the starry night scene where Mifune talks with the female pickpocket. The other is the struggle at the end – a much more sophisticated ending I think than Drunken Angel. I also think that the theme of Stray Dog is more interesting. But I agree that Drunken Angel is a tighter film, Stray Dog loses its way on occasion.

But I’d strongly recommend catching up with High and Low, I’ve a feeling you will really love it – its a stunning film.

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lawless

Ugetsu – I really like Ikiru, but it’s a little more melancholy overall, as the only societal improvement that occurs is that Watanabe makes the park happen. That’s great, but with him gone, there’s no other lasting effect, and the movie’s not as tight structurally. I am one of the people who thinks, in retrospect, that it’s overlong and a bit unwieldy. It does have one of Kurosawa’s greatest montages, if not the greatest, in the scene where the women are bounced around from bureaucrat to bureacrat and office to office. It should be used to define the term “getting the runaround.”

Stray Dog is in some ways a more sophisticated movie, especially at the end, but it does occasionally go astray (ha, pun) and to my mind the way Murakami loses his gun doesn’t show him in an especially good light. Since he’s not supposed to be careless in general, it smacks too much of plot device.

No wonder you didn’t get the full effect of the movie! I hate watching TV shows on the computer, whether it’s a laptop or a desktop; I’ve had to watch some anime that way, as well as episodes of BBC’s Sherlock I saw prior to buying the DVDs, and I wasn’t optimal.

I look forward to watching High and Low when the film club covers it again.

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