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Drunken Angel: Shimura vs. Mifune

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    Vili Maunula

    It is an often repeated fact that Kurosawa felt Mifune’s presence in Drunken Angel to be so strong that the character of Matsunaga overshadowed that of Shimura’s Sanada.

    I would perhaps disagree a little, however. Not that Mifune’s performance isn’t excellent — it is, and certainly so for an actor of his age — but I think that the real reason why Shimura’s Sanada fades away is not so much due to Mifune than it is due to the script not quite living up to what it sets up to deliver at the beginning.

    In the first half of the film, we have quite a round character in Sanada. I really enjoy Shimura’s portrayal of him, and would perhaps go as far as to say that it is Shimura who gives those 110% here in crafting a very lovable “drunken angel”. Then, however, something happens.

    Suddenly, all references to Sanada’s alcoholism seem to disappear and he becomes single-minded and sober about trying to save Matsunaga. In a way, he really becomes that “idealistic young doctor” that Kurosawa and Uegusa had originally planned the character to be. I find this the main reason for why Mifune takes over. He has a battle to fight (against himself and his boss), while Sanada now simply seems to be running errands.

    This may of course also be the result of editing, if scenes with Shimura were left on the cutting room floor because Kurosawa was so mesmerised by Mifune’s performance. But surely Kurosawa would have noticed that he was destroying a character there?

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    Jon Hooper

    I wouldn’t go quite so far as to say that the character is eclipsed or that he fades into the idealistic young doctor. But in the second half the turning point does indeed seem to be when Okada returns. It’s as if in the first half Kurosawa allowed Sanada to put down his stake on Matsunaga’s soul, and in the second, though Sanada does not exactly fade into the background, the battle becomes mainly one Matsunaga has to fight through his moral choices. That said, we do continue to see Sanada as a protector, and with the emergence of pure evil perhaps his own flaws get put aside for the sake of the greater cause, which as I said is the gangster’s soul.

    To be honest, in this and other films I find myself casting my vote for Shimura. People tend to notice Mifune more than Shimura in Seven Samurai too, but I’m all for Kambei. He’s the film’s moral core, after all.

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    yippee

    Jon, the last bit, first: “Seven Samurai” is a film with a satisfying conclusion exactly because of Takashi Shimura’s characterization of Kambei (Ganbei). I agree! He not only holds his own against Mifune-when the two are on screen together-Shimura’s character has a quiet strength that really is an unbelievably perfect foil for Mifune’s character. Both are at their very very best! Kurosawa succeeded in making something so satisfying you could eat it!

    But, is it fair to suggest that Kurosawa knew himself, and is admitting to us via his autobiography, that in “Drunken Angel” a dynamic balance was not quite achieved?

    Vili, since Kurosawa was an acknowledged master editor (And I believe this completely, without question) and held the film in his own two hands, I think we must dismiss the idea that good stuff was left on the cutting room floor. I tend to think it happened the way Kurosawa said it did- that Mifune was more interesting and attractive, and that Shimura’s character suffered in comparison. It began in the writing (Uekusa’s fascination with the yakuza life…Kurosawa tells us as much) and Mifune’s charisma takes it from there. Vili summarizes perfectly:

    In the first half of the film, we have quite a round character in Sanada. I really enjoy Shimura’s portrayal of him, and would perhaps go as far as to say that it is Shimura who gives those 110% here in crafting a very lovable “drunken angel”. Then, however, something happens.

    Suddenly, all references to Sanada’s alcoholism seem to disappear and he becomes single-minded and sober about trying to save Matsunaga. In a way, he really becomes that “idealistic young doctor” that Kurosawa and Uegusa had originally planned the character to be. I find this the main reason for why Mifune takes over. He has a battle to fight (against himself and his boss), while Sanada now simply seems to be running errands.

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    Vili Maunula

    Vili, since Kurosawa was an acknowledged master editor (And I believe this completely, without question) and held the film in his own two hands, I think we must dismiss the idea that good stuff was left on the cutting room floor.

    Isn’t this something of a circular argument? 🙂 Everyone makes mistakes.

    Which, of course, doesn’t mean that Kurosawa’s editing is necessarily to blame here. Actually, I doubt that it is, but I thought I would raise the idea in case someone happened to know more about it than I do.

    Also I tend to find Shimura’s performances more captivating, by the way. Mifune was an excellent, versatile actor who could go from “zero to a hundred” in a blink of an eye and maintain a high level of tension even when he didn’t. His performance in Record of a Living Being is my favourite in this sense.

    Shimura’s style, however, is much softer, slower and more contemplative. He is in some sense more human of the two.

    Also, if Mifune’s characters are usually driven by external conflicts — problems between them and the world around them — Shimura’s appear to be more preoccupied with internal issues. Although, perhaps this is simply how Kurosawa preferred to cast them.

    I wonder how High and Low would have worked with Shimura in the main role instead of Mifune, because that is one of the few roles Mifune portrays in a Kurosawa film where the conflict is primarily internal. I really love Mifune’s performance there, too, so it is not like I would want to suggest that Shimura would have automatically been a better casting choice. And perhaps the underlying tension that Mifune brings to the role is in fact what makes Gondo such a powerful and captivating figure, yet very human and someone to associate with. But in some ways Gondo perhaps does appear more of a role for Shimura than Mifune.

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    Jon Hooper

    I wonder how High and Low would have worked with Shimura in the main role instead of Mifune, because that is one of the few roles Mifune portrays in a Kurosawa film where the conflict is primarily internal. I really love Mifune’s performance there, too, so it is not like I would want to suggest that Shimura would have automatically been a better casting choice.

    Indeed, Mifune does such a good job that it is difficult to imagine High and Low with Shimura, but you are right that in this he takes on the sort of role Shimura would have tackled in the earlier films. Another example is Red Beard, of course, which at an earlier date could perhaps have been made with Shimura cast as Red Beard and Mifune as Kayama. That said, it would be hard to imagine Shimura, even the Shimura who potrayed Kambei, making such short work of the men in the brothel as Mifune does.

    People often forget it was often Shimura who was closer to being the alter-ego of Kurosawa in some of the earlier films than Mifune was. Admittedly, he got too old, but when critics wonder what Kagemusha and Ran would have been like with Mifune in the lead role, one could very well say the same about Shimura.

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    yippee

    Fun digression. When I first began viewing Kurosawa’s films intentionally (that is-with a view toward learning about and understanding his ouvre) the thing that just bent my head around was to view a film, then read the credits.

    Seriously, THAT GUY was both Ganbei and the lead in Ikiru? And THAT GUY who played Kikuchiyo is the same guy in High and Low? Whaaaa? I couldn’t believe the range that Kurosaw pulled from these guys.

    Seriously,the first couple of DVDs had to be stopped so that I could look at the credits, and ponder the range, and figure out who was who. It’s hard to remember now not knowing these actors, and how that felt, but the surprise cannot be underestimated. I was thinking the other day, that Nakadai, too, looks so radically different in Yojimbo and Sanjuro-it was really a while until I understood he was the same guy! And, what Kurosawa did with Setsuko Hara in “The Idiot”-wow, Ozu would never have seen her that way.

    (I am thinking also, how Kobayashi finds something in Nakadai that Kurosawa did not-an heroic and virile quality missing in Kurosawa’s Nakadai. Too complex to begin that argument here…another time…)

    One of the richest delights in film appreciation is Kurosawa’s use and re-use of the same group of actors. What pleasure to see a face again, once you’ve begun to recognize them. Bokuzen Hidari…always so happy to see him! Oh, and all the other faves…Minoru Chiaki, Kamatari Fujiwara.

    It is fun to speculate and think about how far our favorites might stretch.

    I don’t suppose that there really is a Mifune v.s. Shimura issue if you appreciate both actors. Shimura is this incredible actor with a huge range, and Mifune has a natural energy and charisma that makes him riveting on the screen. They both are wonderful, but, in some cases, you need a certain guy for the job, right? I mean, I cannot conceive of Shimura as the lead in Yojimbo for one second, nor as Sanjuro. There is something wrong in Shimura for those roles. What if Mifune was the lead in “Ikiru”? Would that work? Or, is that another case of the wrong guy for the job?

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    Jon Hooper

    Seriously,the first couple of DVDs had to be stopped so that I could look at the credits, and ponder the range, and figure out who was who. It’s hard to remember now not knowing these actors, and how that felt, but the surprise cannot be underestimated.

    I know what you mean. It seems to go beyond acting style in some parts – it’s as if there were some kinds of physical transformation going on. Granted, the MIfune of Record of a Living Being has make-up on, but that doesn’t account for the astonishing difference in appearance, mannerism, demeanour etc. It’s also hard to realise that the Shimura who plays Sanada in Drunken Angel is the same person who plays Kambei.

    You are right about there being certain roles where either Shimura or Mifune would not have worked. I wonder, though, what a more mature Mifune would have done with Ikiru. The fact that it is prehaps Shimura’s greatest performance for Kurosawa makes it hard to imagine the film in any other way. Certainly, it would have required a transformation on a par with the one in Record of a Living Being. I’m not sure whether Mifune could have projected the same sense of humility and sadness, but then again there are roles which I would have marked as being beyond him, had I not seen them.

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    Lewis Saul

    (I am thinking also, how Kobayashi finds something in Nakadai that Kurosawa did not-an heroic and virile quality missing in Kurosawa’s Nakadai. Too complex to begin that argument here…another time…)

    But don’t forget that years later, AK used him in what I consider to be one of his greatest acting achievements — Kagemusha…[true he was 2nd choice, but that’s too complex for now … another time!] 🙂

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    yippee

    Good call, Lewis. I am a big fan of “Kagemusha”, and, despite all I’ve read about how Nakadai was second choice-actually, I think he’s wonderful! I’m glad that you feel the same way. It seems to me that “Kagemusha”, and Nakadai don’t get the respect and attention that they deserve. (I know that Mifune wasn’t ever considered. Whatever caused the big break in the Kurosawa-Mifune collaboration, it was an uncrossable chasm. What is sad is that Mifune was filming “Shogun” while “Kagemusha” was being filmed).

    My Kobayashi comment, let me explain- ( I’ll try to keep it short. I know that’s not the main thread, here.) it’s not evaluative as in “he is better for this director, worse for that director”. It is about how incredibly different Nakadai seems under different directors.

    Jon said (referencing the Nakadai’s Kurosawa tranformations):

    I know what you mean. It seems to go beyond acting style in some parts – it’s as if there were some kinds of physical transformation going on.

    And, even though Kurosawa brings out many Nakadais, there are some he can’t see, but that Kobayashi seems to discover. Like, I’m thinking of how handsome Nakadai looks in “Harakiri” and “Kwaidan”-he actually looks like a different person. The angles of his face look different-particularly his eyes. His heroic qualities are less intermixed with that twitchy Nakadai thing that is so up-front with Kurosawa. There is a scene early on in Kobayashi’s “Harakiri” with Nakadai and another samurai-and, I’ve never seen Nakadai less taut and tense or more at ease, and comfortable in his skin. I suppose that means more conventional-but, it is a side we don’t see in Kurosawa.

    So, to try to work this back to the main thread, and how actors are partly shaped by their directors because directors are individuals and individuals see different things in others-maybe it works like this: your friends can see a certain range in who you are, and sometimes that feels limiting, right? I mean, it can also be comforting, sure, because they “know” you. But, then, sometimes it is nice to escape to a new environment-in fact, half the pleasure of travel is the opportunity to reinvent who you are…in a new context, with new friends. Maybe it was nice for Nakadai to work with Kobayashi and Kurosawa and to be able to work a wide range of characters. Nakadai has been very complimetnary about working with both directors.

    Jon also goes on to muse about the possiblity of Mifune in “Ikiru”:

    I wonder, though, what a more mature Mifune would have done with Ikiru. The fact that it is prehaps Shimura’s greatest performance for Kurosawa makes it hard to imagine the film in any other way. Certainly, it would have required a transformation on a par with the one in Record of a Living Being. I’m not sure whether Mifune could have projected the same sense of humility and sadness, but then again there are roles which I would have marked as being beyond him, had I not seen them.

    Gosh, I wonder what “Ikiru” would have been like with Mifune? I’m beginning to think he could have done it. It would have been such a different film, though. Hey, speaking of which, I looked up the sites for the re-makes of “Sanjuro” and “The Hidden Fortress”.

    Somehow, it saddens me. Are we all replaceable?

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    Jeremy

    I find this very interesting, this area is among a few things I was planning to explore and what I hope to offer this weekend.

    I just want to say, the times when Shimura’s Sanada is throwing stuff at Mifune’s Matsunaga is among the greatest bits of cinema I have ever seen.

    These scenes are a great example of two powerful actors and their characters fighting it out for lead role.

    To be fair to Kurosawa, perhaps editing and directing mistakes were made, this I cant really answer. I just know when you have two actors to the likes of Shimura and Mifune within the same frame its a miracle to even contain them, much less give them the proper weight that the script my be asking for. There is only a handful of directors that have manage to place two truly powerful actors together and even all those have arguably made mistakes in the attempt.

    Indeed this battle continues in Seven Samurai, but this film had the room to hold the internal battle, as Drunken Angel did not.

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    lawless

    To go back to the original thesis of this thread, I like Shimura’s Sanada better than Mifune’s Matsunaga and felt Shimura owned the screen as much or more than Mifune. They’re very different actors, as has been noted, with Shimura being more versatile and Mifune more charismatic, but Mifune’s gangster’s a touch too frenetic. Shimura, as he always does, fits his role like a glove; his performances are seamless.

    This is one area in which I would give Stray Dog higher marks; Mifune and Shimura compliment each other better there.

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