This 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:
- Changing the Season
- The Dream
- Jungle Boogie and Other Music
- Sanada’s Song
- Sanada: An Angel at the Lower Depths
- Shimura vs. Mifune
- Sanada: What’s in a Name?
- Some Similarities with Rashomon
- The Sorensen Documentary
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.