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Drunken Angel: Some similarities with Rashomon

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    Vili Maunula

    My Criterion copy of Drunken Angel arrived on Monday (that’s what I call good timing), and I’ve re-watched the film a couple of times now. So good to see it with good subtitles! Unfortunately, I haven’t had too much time to arrange and type down my thoughts yet, of which there are many.

    In any case, I thought that it might be appropriate to kick off the Drunken Angel discussion with a few notes about what to me seemed very similar to Rashomon. There are actually two major points, one being the famous fight scene that ends with Matsunaga being stabbed to death and hanging upside down from a balcony, and the other being the final scene of the film that follows.

    I had never thought about it before, but the final fight scene in Drunken Angel is in some ways quite identical to the final fight scene in Rashomon. For one, while both movies are very rich in music (and I am sure that we will get to discuss Drunken Angel‘s music in detail in some other thread), in both films the fight scene is carried out in almost total silence — all we hear is the heavy breathing of the duelling parties.

    The way the fight is portrayed in Drunken Angel is also reminiscent of Rashomon‘s final duel (or the other way around, depending on your chronology). We have no heroic acrobatics here. Instead, the fight deteriorates into a Rashomon-like farce when the two participants find themselves slipping on the white paint (an obiously significant act in itself). In both films, I feel that Kurosawa is really making a point about violence and its place in the world — that, although being glorified by many, the reality of violence is really what we see in these scenes: farcical, unnecessary, inhuman.

    In my discussion of the final scene in Rashomon, I toyed with the idea that if we take the commoner to stand for the audience, the film in a sense has two endings — the point when the commoner (metaphorical audience) departs, and then the ending of hope that we nevertheless see afterwards.

    There seems to be something similar going on with Drunken Angel, if you look at the transition from Matsunaga’s death to Sanada holding the eggs and then through a fade into the coda. Is it just me, or could you imagine the film ending with that fade? In narrative terms it would, perhaps, leave too much open, but purely in terms of the way that the scene is being handled, and mainly because of the fade-out, it really seems to me that the film could end there. In fact, you could perhaps argue that on a symbolical level what the coda is there to serve us is already present in that brief scene of Sanada holding the eggs — eggs almost universally being symbols of rebirth, hope and the future.

    So, in a way there again seem to be two endings to the film, of which the hope-bringing second ending (the coda) of course really resembles that of Rashomon. The baby just happens to be some 17 years older!

    I am not entirely sure where I wanted to go with this (I warned you that I haven’t had the time to organize my thoughts), so you might just want to take these as mere observations. Do let me know what you think of them, though!

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    Lewis Saul

    Don’t forget, Kurosawa had an entirely different ending in mind, which the censors nixed [see interview with Danish guy <who I’ve corresponded with> on extras] … in the original ending, Matsunaga’s funeral was a big deal, parading around the sump — I think that SCAP felt it “glorified” the gangster to too great an extent…

    Lewis

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    Vili Maunula

    Thanks for the tip, Lewis! I saw that there was something on the censors, but I haven’t watched it yet.

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    Jon Hooper

    I’ll need to watch Drunken Angel again before I can comment on what you said – I too have just received the Criterion edition, though I haven’t yet had a chance to see it. You did remind me, however, of that extraordinary fight scene which, as you say, takes place in almost total silence. There are several such scenes in Kurosawa’s movies and they are some of my favourites – the scene in Ikuru where Watanabe is nearly hit by a truck, the killing of the thief in Seven Samurai, and even the famous attack on the castle in Ran where Kurosawa masks realistic sound with music, until the gunshot brings the full sounds of battle flooding in. I wonder how much of an innovator Kurosawa was in this respect – was he alone in experimenting with the absence of sound and dramatic music, or can it be found in the works of other directors? At any rate, I’m looking forward to watching Drunken Angel again and will give some thought to what you’ve written.

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    Jeremy

    You do get a very optimistic ending with the schoolgirl, that has Rashomon qualities. Where in Rashomon it gave a cleansing feel, and offered hope for men. The optimism in Drunken Angel is very tack on and distracting. In fact it goes rather opposite of the movie’s entire theme and even breaks Okada’s character a bit.

    This can be solely blamed on the censors misunderstanding on what Kurosawa wanted to present. Kurosawa’s original ending, really would of put a entirely new concept to the Japanese postwar mindset, but this is completely lost altogether due to them.

    I want go into this as Lars Sorensen clip in the Criterion DVD is very well done, and he also offers some great Kurosawa Vs. The West concepts.

    It’s a must watch.

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    Vili Maunula

    Silence

    Somewhat related to Jon’s point, in the Toho “It’s Wonderful to Create” episode that comes with Criterion’s Drunken Angel, Kurosawa says that he imagines/d his films first as silent movies without dialogue. He also mentions that in his view films have somewhat unfortunately changed from being expressive to being descriptive. Silences, clearly, are very expressive indeed, and in the case of the fight scenes in Drunken Angel and Rashomon really heighten the discomfort that the characters are going through.

    It’s a good question whether other directors have experienced with silences to the degree that we have in Kurosawa. The first film to come to mind is 2001: A Space Odyssey, which has brilliant parts for both music and silence. Did Kubrick do it in other films? I seem to remember a silent sequence in the latter half of Full Metal Jacket but I haven’t seen that film for years so it may be a false memory.

    David Lynch is another director who springs to mind. His early films Eraserhead and The Elephant Man both play with silence and noise, and although his later films seem to be more filled with music (perhaps due to his having found a brilliant contributor in Angelo Badalamenti), at least The Straight Story has significant silences in it.

    Just last week, I happened to see Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man again, and found myself somewhat surprised by the amount of silence in it. I tend to remember the film mainly for Neil Young’s score, which I think is brilliant, but the more I think about it the more it seems to me that Young’s score there really functions to enhance the silence. The score, after all, is not quite music, not quite silence, not quite noise, but a dream-like ambient repetition of a theme that is composed of just a few notes.

    It is perhaps also interesting to think where that power of silence actually comes from, and how it functions in different film traditions. European film (if I am allowed to generalise) is far more familiar with silence, and as a result there is perhaps much less of an impact when it is present in a film. The American tradition, meanwhile, emphasises sound and background music, consequently making silences far more powerful.

    The Ending

    I’m not sure what you mean, Jeremy, by the ending breaking Okada’s character. Could elaborate on that?

    For me, the ending is actually not all that bad, to be honest. In fact, if I really had to name one of the two tacky, it would be Rashomon. And while I cannot really compare the actual ending of Drunken Angel with the one that Kurosawa had originally planned, I must say that I cannot quite fathom how the funeral ending would go together at least with the current version of Matsunaga’s end. For, as Matsunaga specifically never actually changes for the better, it would seem that parading him as the “good guy” would really make no sense at all. Perhaps more was rewritten than just the ending, though.

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    Jon Hooper

    So, in a way there again seem to be two endings to the film, of which the hope-bringing second ending (the coda) of course really resembles that of Rashomon. The baby just happens to be some 17 years older!

    The character of the schoolgirl, played by Yoshiko Kuga, who, as Richie tells us, reappears in The Idiot, does indeed seem to stand in for Rashomon’s baby this time. Perhaps one of the reasons Vili and other critics have less of a problem with the girl as symbol of hope and with the coda is that in Rashomon it is tempting to view all the characters as being liars of one sort or another, and therefore the baby scene as being forced upon a narrative that has thus far offered not the merest glimmer of hope, whereas in Drunken Angel the girl has been introduced earlier in the film, and the doctor too, for all his flaws, seems essentially good and to cling to some kind of hope in mankind. If he did not retain some kind of optimism, why would he dedicate himself to saving its denizens?

    The fade at the end of the fight scene is one of those memorable fades that seem, on a stylistic level at least, to work better and to give a greater sense of completion than the final shot itself. As Vili says, the narrative demands a little more, but I do think there is a sense that the movie ends there in our minds.

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    yippee

    “Drunken Angel” smells like “Rashomon” in that in both feature Takashi Shimura as “the flawed good guy” (with many a punto interrogativo after the “good”), and Toshiro Mifune as the “bad” (but hypnotically attractive) guy. In fact, Kurosawa said that Mifune was so attractive in “Drunken Angel” that it deformed the arc of the film, and that Shimura became less the center than originally planned. Isn’t it about this film that Kurosawa said Shimura gave 100% but that Mifune gave 110%? Something like that.

    So, these character investigations form the good/bad character opposition that fuels the films, and have a certain “Kurosawa-esque” feel. Kurosawa is very very very interested in the question of what a good man might possibly be, the disguises with which his goodness might be hidden, and the possibility of transformation into a good guy.

    It is interesting to me that “Drunken Angel” is the earlier film, and is the one where Mifune’s character feels a bit less clearly “bad”, and thus, is more complex and interesting. And, I think that’s a good thing for the film, actually, although quite distressing for Kurosawa in his evaluation of it. He blamed his buddy Uekusa for sympathizing with the yakuza too much…and noted that Mifune was just too damn attractive.

    The clear difference to me, in the films, is in the telling: we have diegesis blended with mimesis in an astonishing, never-before-seen artful way in Rashomon. That classic contrast/war between showing and telling merges into high art! Yow. This is amazing. Utterly amazing formal aesthetic breakthrough.

    “Drunken Angel” is all about Mimesis.

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    Vili Maunula

    Perhaps one of the reasons Vili and other critics have less of a problem with the girl as symbol of hope and with the coda is that in Rashomon it is tempting to view all the characters as being liars of one sort or another, and therefore the baby scene as being forced upon a narrative that has thus far offered not the merest glimmer of hope, whereas in Drunken Angel the girl has been introduced earlier in the film, and the doctor too, for all his flaws, seems essentially good and to cling to some kind of hope in mankind.

    I think that this is pretty much it. The baby seems to drop down from the sky, in a very deus ex machina sort of a way, whereas the girl is at least shown to us earlier and made a part of the story.

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    Jon Hooper

    A couple of things worth noting however:

    a) the baby is Rashomon is a foundling left to die by its parents. I think there tends to be an automatic response to the fact that it is a baby, in other words some kind of cute and cuddly thing, whereas in fact its abandonment is an act of cruelty. The fact that the woodcutter agrees to take it in should not eclipse the context in which the baby was found.

    b) Drunken Angel’s schoolgirl has battled with TB, and is there anything in the film to suggest that she will be able to lift herself out of the circumstances of squalor, of being forced to live in proximity to the sump?

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    Vili Maunula

    Good points, Jon, although I am not sure if the girl actually needs to leave the sump to be happy. In fact, she seems happy enough as it is, both before and after she has found out that she has beaten the disease.

    She has made the best of a depressing situation, and I think that this is not far from what the film is trying to say. Your surroundings don’t make you who you are, but rather the way in which you react to those surroundings.

    The girl also reminds Sanada and us that although you cannot help everyone, for every person you lose there is another person you can save, if you only have — as Sanada points out — the willpower.

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    yippee

    I agree with Vili that the baby in “Rashomon” is all ’bout deus ex machina- and I also get Jeremy’s point-that the schoolgirl’s transformation at the end feels like a “tack-on” or a deus ex machina-like plot device. And, I am o.k. with both-we all understand the convention.

    It just may seem a bit out of context to use the ancient device in Rashomon-a film that otherwise is so avante garde, so risky, unusual and unconventional.The baby, of course, can’t lie-so is untainted by the stink of the rest of Rashomon. This purity provides a chance for the woodcutter’s redemption.

    The schoolgirl’s situation in “Drunken Angel” is less clear, as already discussed. And, I understand how that makes it a less satisfying conclusion. You know, “Drunken Angel” really ends for me, in some ways, with Mifune’s death. I think that’s why Kurosawa thought that the arc of his film had been compromised by Mifune’s attractiveness. Once you’ve killed off the most interesting character…it’s gotta be quite a challenge to conclude satisfyingly.

    Somewhat related in terms of conclusions and transformations: one of the most overlooked and astonishing performances of transformation and hope is Noriko Sengoku’s character of the unwed, disaffected pregnant girl who becomes a nurse at the end of “The Quiet Duel”. She foreshadows the transformation/redemption/hope of the young girl who becomes a nurse in “Red Beard”.

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    Jeremy

    Vili Maunula wrote 1 week ago:

    Silence

    The Ending

    I’m not sure what you mean, Jeremy, by the ending breaking Okada’s character. Could elaborate on that?

    Sorry for the late response, I been apart of my own Rashomon recently.

    To answer you question-No, not really, I dont know what I mean.

    Okada skipping happily down the street and everything is lollypops and unicorns isnt the Okada we have seen. Sure he saved a young girls, this is good, but he still has problems and Japan still has problems. Perhaps he simply enjoying a small victory, that is fine, but we should end the film with that. It defeats the purpose of large battle we have witness.

    The way it is doesn’t ruin the film, just cheapens it. Rashomon had excuses, reasons and a need for a happy ending. Drunken Angel needed a happy sorrow, and ending roughly around where we see the bar girl, carrying the ashes of Matsunaga would of been killer. Or even ending as Vili mention is all good too.

    I like the school girl, she is a great thing for the story, but she could of been concluded earlier.

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    Vili Maunula

    Okada skipping happily down the street and everything is lollypops and unicorns isnt the Okada we have seen.

    I think you mean Sanada, right?

    But I do get your point, and would say that there is validity in it, although I personally don’t have any really big problems with the ending.

    I pretty much also agree with yippee, that the real ending of the film is in many ways Matsunaga’s death or, as I suggested earlier, the scene that immediately follows with Sanada carrying the eggs. But the narrative seems to demand a coda.

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    Jeremy

    Oh, yes, Sanada I mean. It’s hard keeping all the character straight.

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