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Drunken Angel: the dream

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    Jon Hooper

    Like the Jungle Boogie musical number, and also like the medium’s presence in Rashomon, the dream sequence in Drunken Angel is another which comes in for criticism as not quite fitting the film. Unlike the already discussed dance hall scene, however, I find the dream to be one of Drunken Angel’s most memorable scenes. Richie compares it with the dream in Wild Strawberries, which admittedly is even more remarkable as cinema, but I think Kurosawa does a very good job of getting the feel of a dream or nightmare across, something which is seldom done so well in today’s cinema. The dream is preceded (I think it is a couple of scenes earlier actually) by a remarkable scene of a shadow play on the wall behind Matsunaga, the shadows of the puppets already giving a sense of the strange and dreamlike mood to come, and of course working as symbols. As Richie notes Kurosawa, in the dream itself, uses dissolves instead of cuts, and towards the end of the scene the pursuing gangster becomes a kind of ghost, his image fading away as he runs after the mourning Matsunaga; pursuer and pursued are shot at two different speeds. The dissolves also give a sense of “dream time”, in other words time in the dream does not flow as normal time does, and also the constantly breaking waves in the background give a strong sense of the elemental imagery of dreams.

    Richie writes of the dream that it is a pointer to Matsunaga’s reform, and I pretty much go along with this, but while he says that the meaning of the dream is perfectly clear I think there might be more to discuss, not that I am about to offer anything more than what Richie already does. According to Richie, the dream reveals that Matsunaga does not want to be what he is, i.e. a gangster. A coffin is washed ashore on the beach. Matsunaga in mourning clothes, a white scarf around his neck, a flower pinned to his jacket (the carnation again), chops the coffin open with an axe, and is confronted with the image of himself, dressed in the sports suit he wore earlier in the film, who then chases him along the beach.

    The meaning would seem to be that Matsunaga is in conflict with himself, that he does not want to be a gangster, that his clothes ill fit him. However, what of the axe, that he uses violence to break open the coffin, that his act eventually frees his worse self? The fact that he is chased by his doppelganger would seem to suggest that he cannot escape his past, that it will ultimately provide his destruction. The way I interpret it is that the dream provides a commentary on the last third of the picture. Matsunaga will not be able to escape his past – he will not be able to flee the world of the sump or from Okada. His only option, other than to simply become one with the pursuing worse self, to revert back to who he was, is to take a stand, to defeat the gang boss and be redeemed, even if his life cannot be saved. It might not be the course Sanada wants him to follow, but it is his way out. A note about the colour scheme (if that is the right word in a black and white picture): the fact that Matsunaga is dressed in black, but with white adornments like the scarf and the carnation, perhaps indicates that so far he has undergone only a partial transformation, that he is still linked to his past self (and indeed in death, as Vili pointed out, he is not entirely whitewashed, his suit being white on one side only).

    Still, there seems to be more to the dream than I have discussed. Any thoughts?


    Lewis Saul

    Thought I’d post this section from my blog here — see esp. the note about the music in the last paragraph. I find that part of the score absolutely astonishing!


    The “dream sequence” —

    A plain white casket on a beach. The foamy waves wash up all around it.

    A dissolve to a different angle, from behind. Matsunaga, dressed in black with a white scarf, now appears, running towards the casket with an ax in his hand. Putting his left foot on the casket, he brings down the ax but it never reaches the casket in this cut…

    Another dissolve to a close-up. Matsunaga is still swinging the ax…

    Dissolve to a slightly longer shot — this time we see him hit the casket with the ax…

    Back to the closer shot … Back to the longer shot …

    Dissolve to a new POV — the previous cut ended with the ax landing on the coffin. In this shot, we see a “different” Matsunaga, dressed in a regular shirt and pants. He is in the coffin. The top is off, except for two boards, which go flying in each direction, nicely simulating the box being chopped open, by the actions in the end of the last cut. Matsunaga #2 looks up in terror!

    Dissolve to a close-up of the “other” Matsunaga (#1), with the white scarf, whose eyes are also filled with terror, from the POV of the Matsunaga #2 in the coffin! He reels backwards, leaving only white space…

    …coming up from this white space to Matsunaga #1, The timing of the cuts in this sequence is interesting to note:

    Matsunaga #1 (in black with a white scarf) is running in slow motion on the beach, looking back at Matsunaga #2 who is chasing him [and running much faster than #1!] (about 3 seconds)

    Dissolve to Matsunaga #2 (from the coffin) (about 1 second)…

    Dissolve to Matsunaga #1 (about 2 seconds)…

    Dissolve to Matsunaga #2 (less than 1 second)…

    Dissolve to Matsunaga #1 (about 2 seconds)…

    Dissolve to Matsunaga #2 (about 1 second)…

    Dissolve to Matsunaga #1 (about 4 seconds)…

    Dissolve to Matsunaga #2 (about 1 second)..

    Dissolve to #1 for about 8 seconds. Then, in a gorgeous double exposure, #2 appears (ghost-like) frame right — he looks like he is just inches away from catching his double, #1.

    What follows is one of Kurosawa’s best “special effects” [up to this point, chronologically] — the above double exposure remains for a few seconds after the next cut begins:

    Matsunaga is waking up! But as this cut begins, the double exposure still is taking up most of the frame — you can barely see Matsunaga’s face in the very bottom of the frame at first! Then suddenly, you can see him waking up, the double exposure still visible. As in a nightmare, his head goes up and down and the frame turns to black. He sits up, staring directly into the camera.

    (*)About Hayasaka’s music for the past three minutes…

    After the gangsters remember where they have seen Miyo before, the music becomes very somber and foreboding for just long enough so that we get the idea that Miyo is in danger [and, again, we can see that Kurosawa probably spoke the truth when he implied, as he did in One Wonderful Sunday — that the best musicians were probably working in the {lucrative black market-controlled} cafes … this orchestra is — well, the intonation is a bit off. But we can use our imagination].

    The following action between the doctor and gangster required a different dynamic, and the music begins to change. It is subdued for their conversation. An English Horn begins a germ of a melodic cell. The mood is sad, as the doctor is likening Matsunaga’s condition to that of the scummy pond … right before the dream sequence is about to begin — a soft major cadence; then Hayasaka develops the English Horn germ into a melody, in the minor. The music gets weirder as the gangster chops at his own casket — and when the beach chase begins, the composer begins manipulating the tape recording of his orchestra (playing it backwards) and combining that with the forwards orchestra — all coming to a head when Matsunaga wakes up — on a crashing diminished chord! — great music for 1948 or any time! [only not performed so well!]



    I find this scene very weird, its very French/Italian. It something I plan to look at again and give is some proper thought.



    I, too, find the scene quite European. It is also one of my favorite scenes in the film, yet I have never really tried to rationalise and put into words what I subconsciously think that the scene communicates. Here’s an attempt, though.

    Jon wrote earlier:

    The way I interpret it is that the dream provides a commentary on the last third of the picture. Matsunaga will not be able to escape his past – he will not be able to flee the world of the sump or from Okada. His only option, other than to simply become one with the pursuing worse self, to revert back to who he was, is to take a stand, to defeat the gang boss and be redeemed, even if his life cannot be saved.

    I see the dream sequence very differently. For me, it is not so much a confrontation between Matsunaga’s past and future, but rather between who he is and who he has the potential of being.

    The way I see it, the Matsunaga wearing the black suit is his present self, the smartly dressed gangster whose self/soul is nevertheless totally black. There is hope, however, symbolised by the white scarf that has taken hold of him, his head, his actions. As he runs to the coffin, it is almost as if the scarf would double as his wings, making him an angel. This association is furthered (at least in my mind) by the very “Biblical” sky that we have on the background, and towards which Matsunaga is running.

    Matsunaga is determined to open the coffin, and employs an axe to do it. It is an act of violence of some sorts, and as the film up to this point has already shown us, violence appears to be the only way in which Matsunaga is able to confront his problems.

    What Matsunga is doing here is raising the dead. In the coffin is buried his other self, the Matsunaga who needs no fancy clothes or gangster mannerisms to feel at ease with himself. His mistake, however, is the haste and violence with which he wants to release this other Matsunaga. Unlike Sanada, who is ready to deal with issues for as long as they need dealing with (for example the door that refuses to stay open at the very beginning of the film), Matsunaga needs immediate results.

    And this, of course, is too much too soon. Matsunaga freaks out at the sight of his uncovered other self, and runs from him. His other half, zombie-like in his mannerisms due to having been buried for so long, tries to catch up with him, but Matsunaga wakes up before the dream reaches its conclusion, whatever that conclusion could have been.

    After waking up, Matsunaga has a very brief moment to contemplate the meaning of the dream before he is interrupted by the shouting coming from the entrance, where Sanada is confronting Okada and his men. Perhaps because Matsunaga therefore has no time to think about the meaning of the dream, the dream itself ends up communicating nothing to him (but remains, of course, important to us as the audience).

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