Drunken Angel (Akira Kurosawa, 1948)


You can pretty much disregard the whole plot, about the uneasy friendship that develops between Takashi Shimura’s alcoholic doctor and Toshiro Mifune’s wild gangster, and the doctor’s determination to cure the unruly gangster’s tuberculosis, even though both Shimura and Mifune are outstanding, as usual.  Yeah, it’s nice to see an unlikely bond develop between the two, as each confronts both each other and their own problems – the doctor’s alcoholism and the gangster’s fast lifestyle – but the whole thing’s a little farfetched, and the whole issue of the gangster’s dangerous former boss getting out of prison, putting he, the doctor, and the doctor’s (formerly the boss’s) woman in danger makes the whole thing a little too much of a conventional and predictable gangster story.  Not to mention, the ending is way too preachy, spelling out the film’s themes concerning the dangers of the life of a hoodlum and the benefits of people from different circles learning to understand one another like we’re retards (Kurosawa really was often like the anti-Hitchcock – Hitchcock’s endings were too abrupt, Kurosawa’s were often too drawn out.).  It’s a good story, and I liked the flawed protagonists, neither one purely good nor purely evil, but still, disregard it, because the real selling point of “Drunken Angel” is the production value.  What a depiction of post-war Japan!  Starting from the very first scene, we see the murky swamp that sits in the center of this decrepit town, at night, with a young guitar player strumming his instrument off in the distance.  We’ll return to this image often, and it never loses its power – the wind rippling the disgusting water, the semi-ruined buildings rising above that swamp like ghosts, and the invasive yet soothing sound of those guitar chords piercing that serene yet atmospheric sight, as well as inside the doctor’s office, and then cut to the guitar player himself, the camera regarding him from afar.  And then during a busy day in the run-down but lively market square, as the doctor makes his way towards the bar, or the gangster plucks a flower from the flower stand.  Or in a hopping night club, where the singer does her big act with the big band behind her and the gangster, drunk off his gourd, steals the spotlight in dancing with a girl.  That swamp, with the light guitar riff, at night couldn’t contrast more with this lively nightclub, but each exudes incredible atmosphere, of the lifestyle of well-to-do gangsters and hedonists in a club right out of Prohibition-era Chicago or a gangster movie, transposed to Japan, and then of the mournful ruins outside, and the doctor’s office, as he works and the gangster lies on his mattress with the shadows dancing above him, with that guitar strumming, strumming.  Boy, did Kurosawa have a knack for exuding pitch-perfect atmosphere, particularly urban nighttime atmosphere, in his non-Samurai films like this and “Ikiru” and “High and Low” – purely energetic one moment, slow and sad and brooding the next.  Even if the post-war decrepitness of “Drunken Angel’s” Japan was exaggerated to emphasize mood, and even if the story direction, complete with the inevitable showdown, leaves something to be desired, once again Kurosawa proves his adeptness at making the setting his most compelling character, at creating a fully-realized place that materializes the mood of all those in it, and evoking the overarching feelings of an entire people in an entire place at a particular time.



1 comment so far

  1. oasism on

    hi, thanks for information

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