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Drunken Angel: Sanada, an angel at the lower depths

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    Jon Hooper

    A few quick thoughts about what Kurosawa means by the titular angel, and about the film’s spatial metaphors.

    The film seems very aware of space as metaphor, if that’s the right way to put it. Like The Lower Depths, like one half of the world of High and Low, we are at the bottom. The world of the sump is a sunken world, a stratum of society lower than street level — we can see the traffic passing above the neighborhood of the sump. It’s obviously not as closed off a world as that in the Lower Depths, which has fortress like walls down which garbage is tossed, but it is nevertheless one which is hard to escape from. The entertainment offered by the nightclub, the hierarchy of the gangsters — all exist to blot out the obvious, that everyone here is at rock bottom. As Sanada says of Matsunaga: “His kind hates disease…but he’s worried — it’s proof he hasn’t sunk too low.”

    I love the shot where Shimura ascends the stairs towards the street and is given a lift by a fellow doctor, much more successful than he is, a man he could have been. His ascent and ride are there to remind us of the level people of his profession should exist at. Sanada is an angel in several senses. He can be seen as a kind of fallen angel, fallen because of his alcoholism, his particular flaw, perhaps even because of his intoxicating compassion for less fortunate members of society, which has contributed to his financial decline. He is also an angel because as a doctor he is a kind of comforter, a person who eases the suffering of society’s victims. The way he does the circuit of the sump indeed makes us think of an angel ministering to mankind. And also he is an angel because he does not really belong to the sump world — he wears his whiter than white suit, he suffers and toils amongst mortals but does not really belong among them; this is attested by the sort of relationships he has. He has no wife, and the only connections he has to others are professional ones. The point is that he has descended from above, from the level of the street and from a higher social plane, and now works amongst society’s dregs, at rock bottom. Another special metaphor: his office is directly opposite the nightclub, on the other end of the sump. He is thus diametrically opposed to everything the gangsters stand for. It is interesting that when Matsunaga meets his death, he at last ascends to a higher plane, his body hanging from the gallery, made whiter than white by the paint. He too becomes an angel.

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    yippee

    What a beautiful essay. Poetry, practically!

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    Vili Maunula

    You are right, the film indeed appears to have a strong metaphorical system based on verticality and, to some extent, other spatial directions.

    The comparison to The Lower Depths is very true, and coming to think of it now this is a metaphor that seems to run through quite much of Kurosawa’s oeuvre. There is, of course, High and Low, and a very similar system again in The Bad Sleep Well where you could say that the whole movie centres on an act which unfairly (but quite literally) cast down a member of the “heavens”.

    In Ran, Lord Hidetora divides the land between his sons when the characters are all on markedly level ground. Immediately afterwards, the sons take positions high up in their castles, and do their best to prevent Hidetora from ascending back to that level. In some sense, the whole film is afterwards symbolically represented by Hidetora’s walking down from the burning castle, and then finding himself in a pit on that windy grass field. Not even on level ground any more, but underground.

    Many other films seem to have similar setups for particular scenes. Interestingly, those occupying a position that is geometrically higher up often seem to have some kind of a false sense of being in control. Think, for example, the way in which space is arranged in Sanjuro, where Mifune’s samurai and his companions occupy a place just below the “bad guys” as they plan their actions.

    This, of course, is by no means hugely original for Kurosawa. Vertical metaphors (“up = power”, “up = more”, “up = good”, “up = virtue”, etc.) seem to be one of the most basic and universal human metaphors. It would, of course, be interesting to look at Kurosawa’s films and see how he plays against these basic assumptions of the vertical hierarchy — “up”, for example, rarely seems to be “virtue” in Kurosawa.

    In Drunken Angel, like Jon pointed out, we have a fallen angel who does not seem to aspire to do the vertical climb and is, at least on some level, content on working in the conditions that he has and the surroundings that he inhabits. The world that is on a level higher than the sump is also not portrayed as anything very heaven-like or even something one would like to aspire to climb to.

    It is interesting that when Matsunaga meets his death, he at last ascends to a higher plane, his body hanging from the gallery, made whiter than white by the paint. He too becomes an angel.

    Curiously, however, he appears to be only half an angel. When he steps out to the gallery, the back of his suit is hardly touched by paint, while the front (as we see when he falls down) is almost completely covered in white.

    Note also that this appears to be very deliberately done, as the way in which the paint covers the suit that Mifune is wearing when he staggers on the gallery is different from the patterns that he had on when he got stabbed. In other words, the suit that he is wearing outside appears to be a different one from the one he wore inside, and if so, one on which the paint was probably applied by hand.

    Is this contrast between the front of his suit and the back a symbolical representation of the contrast between his past and his present? Only, I still don’t quite buy the idea that Matsunaga has somehow changed. Why does he actually even become an angel?

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    Jon Hooper

    Curiously, however, he appears to be only half an angel. When he steps out to the gallery, the back of his suit is hardly touched by paint, while the front (as we see when he falls down) is almost completely covered in white.

    I do think it is meant to represent the contrast between his past and his present. Note the scene where the doctor is discussing Omada with the nurse, and she says: “Oh, you don’t know how I hate him…he has ruined my life”. The doctor replies “Only half of it.” The point is that people are able to reform, that it is never too late to change. Even if death is the only consequence, it is still possible to wrestle with oneself and win. I think Richie makes some good points in The Films of Akira Kurosawa about how the doctor seems to miss the result of all his efforts. He assumes the final fight was just another gang fight, but Matsunaga had in fact fought to redeem himself. This is expressed too in the redemptive music, in the symbolism you have mentioned, in the final image in which Matsunaga looks, to me, beautified in death. Of course, I understand your reasons for rejecting the line that Matsunaga has changed, but for me he has, and his death cannot alter this.

    Richie makes an interesting point about how it is at the very point when a character decides to reform (here, the point at which Matsunaga holds the flower) that fate conspires against him, and his downfall begins. Richie writes: “the person who attacked first through fear that he would be attacked, finds once he has given up attacking, himself attacked. At any rate despite or perhaps because of his choice, Mifune goes rapidly downhill from here. He loses his position, his mistress, his money. What he does not lose, however, is something he has just recently gained, his sense of himself.” In other words, once the moral choice is made, the process of denuding begins (I think this is a term Richie uses in the commentary). The various masks of the sump world are stripped away, but he gains himself. In this, he is like Ran’s Hidetora, who pays the ultimate price for self-knowledge, but who is (I think) a greater soul in poverty and death than he was in the height of his power. The dream sequence is revealing in this sense, as Richie points out, because it reveals much more about the transformation of Matsunaga, something that is not obvious on the surface. And to get back to the theme of angels – Okada is often alluded to as being evil incarnate. There is a sense, I think, that he is a kind of devil who turns up once Matsunaga has chosen his path in order to exact his dues. Matsunaga’s flinging the flower onto the sump, then, represents not the rejection of the deliverance Sanada offers but a different kind of resolve. In some way this represents an end to a hope for escape, but at the same time it says that Matsunaga is going to take his stand; he is not going to seek deliverance through illusion or by fleeing from the sump, but rather he will fight his battle on the level of the sump world, represented by the carnation skimming the surface of the swamp.

    Many other films seem to have similar setups for particular scenes. Interestingly, those occupying a position that is geometrically higher up often seem to have some kind of a false sense of being in control.

    This is an excellent observation. It made me think of the opening credits of Ran, with the horsemen looking loftily down from their high perches, of Hidetora isolated in his high tower, all of it of course an illusion, just like the illusion of safety that is shattered when the child is kidnapped in High and Low. In Drunken Angel, we obviously do not feel anything like respect for the more prosperous doctor.

    Thanks, yippee, for the compliment, but I think considerable emphasis should be placed on “practically”. There are obviously people on the forum much more learned and eloquent than myself and I welcome the chance to learn from them.

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    yippee

    Jon, I’m sticking to my guns. Your first post brilliantly addresses the poetics of specific cinematic choices.

    As the discussion progresses, some ideas are added, some ideas are debated. It doesn’t affect the purity and truth of that first post.

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    Jon Hooper

    That’s very kind, yippee. The only thing I can do as a regular Kurosawa fan and non-specialist is to try my best to express what the film means to me. I am not being falsely modest when I say that there are some specialists here next to whose writing my own cannot hold a candle.

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    Jeremy

    Great post Jon. Sanada plays the demigod, suffering the flaws of being part human and being among those that are nothing but. Its quite powerful really, perhaps why nearly every religion has similar character. Sanada is practically the Jesus of the christian religion. Sanada is a angel of perfection destroyed by those he wishes to save.

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    Vili Maunula

    Jon, I (and I’m sure that the others agree) think that you are being far too modest. It is always a thrill to read what you have to say.

    Jon: I think Richie makes some good points in The Films of Akira Kurosawa about how the doctor seems to miss the result of all his efforts. He assumes the final fight was just another gang fight, but Matsunaga had in fact fought to redeem himself

    I don’t really agree with Richie here. For me, Matsunaga’s final fight is anything but heroic or for the liberated self. In fact, it is rather pathetic, and yet another completely wrong decision by him. In fact, I see the situation pretty much like Sanada does.

    Matsunaga’s ultimate downfall is actually preceded by Sanada already declaring that Matsunaga’s sacrifice will be for nothing. As Sanada is making his leave to the police and talking to Miyo, he remarks that “Human sacrifice has gone out of style. Japanese make so many pointless sacrifices,” only to immediately follow this by shouting to Matsunaga that he should not leave the bed.

    Which Matsunaga of course does right away. When the nurse protests, he strongly identifies himself with the yakuza: “A yakuza never worries about himself. You really gain face when you put your life on the line.” This echoes his earlier worry about losing face when Sanada (who of course couldn’t care less about the yakuza code of conduct) declares his intent to go to the police.

    As he leaves, Matsunaga once more stresses the reasons behind his departure to Miyo: “You don’t understand our code of honour”. At this point, therefore, it seems clear to me that Matsunaga has not changed a bit. He still strongly identifies himself with the yakuza.

    He then, of course, goes to the gang boss and finds out what is going on behind the scenes. After this, he is given one last chance to change, this time by the bar girl.

    Although her voice betrays her true reason for speaking (her love towards Matsunaga), just about everything she says is true and valid — this would be the perfect point for Matsunaga to leave, the countryside would be a place where he could get better, indeed perhaps she is right even in that he isn’t really cut out for being a gangster after all (which is true considering the way he has let the gang boss to use him, as Matsunaga has just found out). If only Matsunaga was man enough to make the decision, and not worry about losing face.

    But Matsunaga does not reply. He doesn’t say no, either. He leaves the bar and takes a flower (still a yakuza) in a scene that mirrors an earlier scene where he took a flower, contemplated change, met Okada and threw the flower (and his change) into the sump.

    This time, as he is heading towards the sump, it is indirectly again Okada who stops him in his train of thought. The flower girl tells her that she should pay, and (after Matsunaga has again resorted to violence) the shop keeper informs him that the area has been transferred to Okada. Matsunaga has, effectively, been cast out of his gang, and Okada has now taken everything that he had — his position, his girl, the place where he used to stay.

    If anything, this would be the point to bow out and leave. He has pretty much been freed by the yakuza, but he does not want that freedom. What he wants instead is revenge, indeed personal revenge against Okada. He doesn’t even stop to contemplate it, the violence seems to come naturally.

    Kurosawa takes us from the flower shop to Okada by giving us two cuts of the sump in between, perhaps to mark the rottenness of Matsunaga’s decision, or the source of it. Note also, however, how the second image of the sump slowly fades into Okada playing the guitar, with Okada superimposed on the image of the sump for a good three or four seconds. This is what he has become the king of. This is what they have been fighting to control, and what Matsunaga has now come to avenge. A stinking sump!

    As a side note, note in fact how this fade actually includes everything that Matsunaga has lost. In addition to his area (the worthless sump), it includes the girl (who betrayed him), and the apartment (that doesn’t even belong to him), all masterfully brought together into one single image now commanded by Okada.

    The Kingdom of Drunken Angel

    (The Drunken Angel Kingdom, from a poor region-free disc as I cannot capture from the good quality Region 1 Criterion)

    The fight sequence then follows, and as I have pointed earlier, it is not a heroic fight but one that finishes as a complete farse. The end of that fighting scene still puzzles me, however, as it doesn’t seem to fit in with what I have just described to be going on. Why, indeed, is he elevated into “angelhood” by the music and the visuals when he dies? I am not sure, but note, however, that if he is an angel he is a very strange angel in his death — he is hanging upside down, and with his hand pointing downwards. It is an interesting position, and one that perhaps says quite much about the complexity of Matsunaga’s problem.

    Matsunaga's death

    (Matsunaga’s death, from a poor region-free disc as I cannot capture from the good quality Region 1 Criterion)

    Ultimately, however, nothing comes out of Matsunaga’s death. Absolutely nothing. Save for the bar girl’s grief, of course. This is also why I don’t see why his ashes should have been paraded around the sump — apart from, perhaps, to show how the sump eats you up. But the bottom line is that I don’t see anything glorifying in his death.

    Indeed, nowhere do I see what Richie suggests is Matsunaga’s “sense of himself”. In fact, if anything, Matsunaga has comepletely lost any sense of himself. Throughout the movie, he has been pulled by Sanada at one end and the yakuza at the other. Whenever he tries to take a hold of himself and make a decision, he is distracted by something else, or someone else’s pull. The only real decision he makes is to leave Sanada to “save face”. As I argued regarding the dream scene, he is too hasty, wants results too quickly, and ultimately too easily resorts to violence to solve his problems.

    And so, even when the yakuza at the end effectively release him, instead of letting go and rebuilding his self, he resorts to the yakuza violence and goes for his revenge, which does nothing but destroys him. To quote Sanada again, “Human sacrifice has gone out of style. Japanese make so many pointless sacrifices.” Matsunaga’s “sacrifice”, to me, is an epitome of a pointless death.

    Richie, of course, argues that Matsunaga’s act of violence at the end is actually a sign of his going against the yakuza, as it shows that he no longer honours the gang hierarchy or his superiors. I don’t think that this is the case, though — if it were, you would have no internal fighting inside yakuza, and I doubt that this is true. Instead, in my view Matsunaga’s act is partly motivated by his personal revenge, and partly by the yakuza code — remember, “You really gain face when you put your life on the line.”

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    Jon Hooper

    Vili, that’s a brilliant analysis. I’m fascinated by that composite image and grateful to you for drawing our attention to such a suggestive detail – Matsunaga’s kingdom indeed. As for whether Matsunaga is redeemed or not, I’d have to go back to the film in order to put forward anything in the way of a counter argument, so convincing is the evidence you lay forth here. Time is a problem at the moment so I may not be able to give it another look. You may well be right, and the details you mention certainly point to it, but isn’t it strange the way a film affects us – I get this strong sense that Matsunaga is redeemed. Perhaps it’s in those closing images, in the music. On the emotional level, that’s what the film communicates to me, but it may not be what the film is saying at all.

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    yippee

    The two convincing arguments forwarded explore the complexity that makes Kurosawa’s films fascinating. Both theories are more than plausible! Matsunaga redeemed, Matsunaga’s life wasted.

    Can it be both at the same time? That’s how I think Kurosawa’s films often end. Both things at once. You know, when in Seven Samurai, the battle was clearly lost by the bad guys, but Shimura says, “We’ve lost again.” If it is a matter of degree (specific battle v.s. way of life) to what degree is Matsunaga’s redemption true? To what degree is his failure?

    On another note:

    From Vili’s argument:

    To quote Sanada again, “Human sacrifice has gone out of style. Japanese make so many pointless sacrifices.” Matsunaga’s “sacrifice”, to me, is an epitome of a pointless death.

    My question: Are we sure the subtitles are pretty accurate? I mean, does Sanada say, “Japanese make so many pointless sacrifices.” ? How interesting! Would I say, “Americans only care about personal gain.” ? Criticizing one’s own culture–does it imply someone outside that culture is watching or listening? (I am thinking about how Kurosawa is thought of as “not Japanese enough”) Or is it the big view that sees “Japanese” or “American” ?

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    Vili Maunula

    I think Yippee has a point in that the two contradictory types of endings (Matsunaga the angel and Matsunaga the fool) could well be seen to co-exit simultaneously. Seven Samurai is, indeed, a very good example of such an ending.

    But here, nevertheless, is another interpretation to consider. Note, how the whole death scene involves Matsunaga alone. Why is Okada suddenly not interested in pursuing him? And where are all those by-standers who were curious about the fight until the two burst out into the hallway? Surely, the portrayal of Matsunaga dying alone is a small mistake in realistic storytelling? I mean, give us Okada madly rushing after him, and a few peeping Toms at least!

    Of course, this could well be a cinematic device to heighten the impact of Matsunaga’s death. And I won’t argue against that. But note also how the almost cathartic music kicks in the very moment when Okada stabs him and then falls out of the screen leaving Matsunaga alone, and how it is only after that when everything suddenly becomes white, or very angelic indeed.

    Since there is no one else witnessing this death — had Kurosawa wanted realism, he could at least have included someone on a nearby balcony — one could perhaps argue that what takes place on the gallery is actually no more taking place in reality, but rather within Matsunaga. This is the way he himself interprets his death, seeing his actions as something heroic, something worthy of his death, something in which he is totally alone. A yakuza’s death.

    This would then go on to justify the urgent need for the “coda”, which functions as serving us the more realistic view of Matsunaga’s death, or in other words stressing its total pointlessness and contrasting it with the young girl who survives and is happy even in the sump. It is as if the film would be saying — look, here is the cinematic ending for a yakuza, but here is the reality, and it is the reality that we should really be dealing with.

    I don’t want to suggest that this is necessarily what Kurosawa means with the ending (simply because I am not really more interested in what Kurosawa thought that he intended than, for example, what Jon thinks that Kurosawa intended), but it would seem to fit with his idea of showing the young post-war Japanese that the yakuza way of life is not what it is made to be. Or at least Richie quotes Kurosawa as saying that he made Drunken Angel “to denounce the way of gangsters, and to show how silly they are as human beings”. (49)

    “Human sacrifice has gone out of style. Japanese make so many pointless sacrifices.”

    Regarding the “pointless sacrifices” quote, I just re-watched the scene and Sanada does indeed specifically say that Japanese make those sacrifices, which does make the statement more loaded considering the time and place in which it is uttered. Well spotted, Yippee!

    Interestingly, Sanada here actually uses the word nipponjin rather than the more common nihonjin. I may be reading too much into this, but nippon is not only the more formal of the two possible pronunciations of the country’s name, but in the Japanese sound system it also has a harsher, less gentle sound to it. Anyone familiar with the language probably knows the extent to which sounds appear to have specific metaphorical meaning for the Japanese, so perhaps there is something to this.

    Jeremy’s Japanese is better than mine — what would you say, Jeremy?

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    Jeremy

    Just got the chance to read everything, it’s all fantastic. For me it’s a mixture of the two viewpoint presented here. I see many things that suggest Matsunaga is redeemed and his death should be celebrated(although I agree a parade is a bit too much), but indeed he is all caught up in the “saving face” thing, that he does completely waste his life for stupidity and false ideals.

    Simply just quitting, is too clean, too unnatural. Continuing on, is again too simple and clean. To avoid a black and white, Kurosawa gives us a large gray area.

    Matsunaga knowingly self-destructs, he badly wants to renew himself, but he simply is overwhelmed with current life. This is realistic and truthful of many people. Regardless how bad they wish to change their ways, they simple will not for a large variety of reasons.

    I often wish I could go back to the past, knowing what I know now, and correct many things I did wrong. However I know myself too well, and have a strong feeling, that no matter what, I would only repeat the very mistakes I regret. This to me, is the very core of the Matsunaga problem, a very realistic battle. Perhaps movie wise it can be a bit weak as we often wish for a solid answer, but reality often refuse to give one.

    .

    Interesting the “Human sacrifice has gone out of style. Japanese make so many pointless sacrifices.” quote.

    I dabble a bit in Japanese, but I’m at no point in a position to declare what is correct and what is wrong. I am after all, just a white kid from Texas. ­čÖé

    As Vili mentions, Sanda uses the term nipponjin, rather then nihonjin.

    “Jin” meaning “person” and the Nippon and Nihon is the Japanese word for the country of Japan.

    From my understanding, 95% of the time the use of Nihon and Nihonjin is the correct way of referring to Japan and to a Japanese.

    The only occasion for the use of Nippon is to show extreme pride and honor.

    For example a Japanese would nearly always use “Nihon”, but say in the Olympics they would more then likely use the word “Nippon”. Also during WWII, the term Nippon was used exclusively when the Japanese mentioned Japan. (It’s where the derogatory word “Nip” came from, when American’s first learned of this). Now of days, I doubt you would ever hear anything other then “Nihon”(but with the Olympics coming, I’m sure news casters with use Nippon when talking of the events).

    Anyways, to me it could simply be old habits. Giving that the war ended not long ago, the exclusive use of “Nipponjin” could still be in effect, or it’s just habit. Then again perhaps, Sanada wish to instill honor to the Japanese, while still being critical of their ways.

    So basically I dont know, it could be what Vili mentioned, what I mentioned, or something entirely different, and lets not forget it could me nothing at all. It is still rather interesting.

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    lawless

    Vili – Somewhere along the way, Jon Hooper’s essay, which I assume was linked here, dropped out. I don’t know if you can find or restore it.

    As for your question as to how Matsunaga changed and why he’s become an angel: He’s had an epiphany. Not only has he decided to have his TB treated, but he’s discovered that the gang and its boss never cared about or thought much of him and only gave him his position so he could be cannon fodder after Okada returned.

    Having realized that his loyalty was not only not reciprocated, but was misplaced, he acted to protect Sanada’s nurse/assistant, Miyo.So not only has he come around to Sanada’s way of thinking about the yakuza, he’s acting to protect another human being — one he doesn’t even know that well, but who means a lot to Sanada — just as Sanada acted to protect him. While he resorts to violence in this endeavor, it might well be the case that Okada’s death (which, admittedly, is part revenge) is the only effective way to keep Miyo safe, and the only reason he doesn’t succeed is that he didn’t accept treatment for his TB until it was too late. He rolls the dice and risks — and sacrifices — everything.

    I didn’t interpret his objection to Sanada going to the police as only motivated by face; he legitimately thought he could resolve the situation within the confines of the gang and he might well have thought that notifying the police would only make things worse, as the yakuza would retaliate against Sanada as well as capture and punish Miyo.

    Matsunaga could have saved himself had he gone to the countryside with the barmaid instead, but in that case, he wouldn’t have stood up to his former masters in defense of someone else; he would have continued to put himself first. Also, the two are not mutually exclusive; if he had succeeded in killing Okada, he could then have left for the country and washed his hands of the yakuza in the hopes they wouldn’t pursue him.

    I think Yippee/Coco is right to say that we don’t necessarily have to choose between the interpretation that says that Matsunaga’s death is redemptive and the interpretation that it’s wasted. As for the upside down position he winds up in: It’s a classic martyrdom image and also the image of the Hanged Man in tarot — not that I think Kurosawa was familiar with tarot (although who knows), but that it’s an archetype of ultimate sacrifice.

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    Vili Maunula

    Thanks for point that out, lawless. I have now restored the post from an old backup.

    I have the horrible feeling that during last year’s server move, more was lost than I then assumed. I’ll have to take a closer look at some threads when I find the time.

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    lawless

    Vili – Thanks! Fascinating reading, though it doesn’t change my analysis of Matsunaga’s ultimate destiny. Elaborating on your thought that he didn’t accomplish anything and his death was wasted: it’s true, it didn’t accomplish anything in the end. In that respect, he somewhat resembles Noge in No Regrets. But he had a change of heart during his lifetime; even if carried out through violence (which is after all the only means he know), he not only turned on the yakuza, but tried to prevent them from harming someone else (Miyo) to help a third person (Sanada), not himself. He stopped living selfishly and within himself and started living selflessly for others. That’s how he became an angel and fulfilled some of the potential inherent in his dream.

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    Vili Maunula

    lawless: But he had a change of heart during his lifetime; even if carried out through violence (which is after all the only means he know), he not only turned on the yakuza, but tried to prevent them from harming someone else (Miyo) to help a third person (Sanada), not himself. He stopped living selfishly and within himself and started living selflessly for others. That’s how he became an angel and fulfilled some of the potential inherent in his dream.

    I think that this is a very important point. Maybe you are right, and he has after all earned his status as an angel, or at least “half an angel”.

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