The DefinitiveS
An ongoing series of in-depth essays and appreciations on the very best of cinema

Drunken Angel (1948)

Director: Akira Kurosawa
Cast: Takashi Shimura, Toshiro Mifune, and Reisaburo Yamamoto
Rated: Not Rated
Runtime: 98 min.

by Brian Eggert

The Definitives:
01/28/2008

Original Release Date:
04/27/1948

Rather than a picturesque park or square, a festering cesspool resides at the neighborhood’s hub in Drunken Angel, the 1948 film and first major cinematic accomplishment by Japanese master Akira Kurosawa. The bubbling sump, perhaps gutted during United States bombings of Japan in WWII, fills craterous earth with disease, refuse, and bile water—the spleen of Kurosawa’s postwar society. Reflecting characters grim enough to stare into it, Kurosawa’s pond signals Japan’s universal postwar despair, or “kyodatsu condition”. The defeat of the Imperial Army marked a staggering blow to Japan’s sense of honor, and with the U.S. army’s Occupation of Japan, the country’s citizens were reminded of their embarrassment every time Western influence reared its invasive head. For Kurosawa, the only thing worse than disgrace and humiliation was to profit from it.

Yakuza gangs thrived in this postwar atmosphere, exploiting national desperation by maintaining the infinitely profitable Black Market. With Japan lamenting their defeat and criminality prospering, Kurosawa sought to bring down the gangs; in his book Something Like an Autobiography, Kurosawa said, “I wanted to take a scalpel and dissect the yakuza.” In doing so, Kurosawa also places responsibility on the individual gang members: whether they were products of their own troubled existence or of society’s influence did not matter; Kurosawa believed that yakuza members were individuals, thus responsible for their own actions and behavior. In effect, Kurosawa makes a message film straightforwardly denouncing gangsterism, like Hollywood’s The Public Enemy had done in 1931 (though Kurosawa forgoes the soapboxing foreword of that film).

Written by Kurosawa and Keinosuke Uekusa, Drunken Angel also criticizes the U.S. Occupation, but keeps it mostly out of focus in the background, and holds Western influence responsible for generating a more organized yakuza, called gurentai. English-language signage in the market signifies the presence of a foreign entity; that entity, however subtle, infers Western influence on Japanese culture. We can imagine familiar scenes from other wartime movies with American soldiers directing traffic and harassing locals, but no such references were allowed by the occupying army. Several U.S. censorship boards were established in Japan to prevent any underlined mention of the Occupation. And yet, Kurosawa depicts his yakuza gangsters dolled up in trim suits and slicked-back hair, or dancing to “Jungle Boogie” songs in their nightclub to emulate the American hoodlum pop-culture. The Occupation sought a smooth transition and renovation of Japan, but instead it transformed Americanized yakuza into a militaristic version of Prohibition-era mobs. In the first scenes, when yakuza boss Okada (Reisaburo Yamamoto) is released from prison, he stands by the cesspool, wearing his now-outdated kimono he had going into prison years before, during the war; the next day after his release, Okada modernizes himself into the current yakuza garb: a classy ensemble straight out of The Roaring Twenties.

Kurosawa’s camera returns to the cesspool throughout the film, as if asking Why does this sump remain? The implication is that yakuza gangsterism sends Japan into the lower depths. And while Westerners should be a restructuring presence, they do nothing to prevent it. Japan is caught in the middle, suffering as both institutions, Western influence and yakuza gangs, suck the life from Japanese dignity. The sump continues to bubble with symptoms of “kyodatsu”, while ingrained American occupants act as an ever-present and disgraceful reminder. Through it all, yakuza benefit from the national, spiritual miscarriage Made just before his seminal work Rashomon, Kurosawa considered Drunken Angel to be his first whole film. He wrote in his autobiography, “It was my picture. I was doing it and no one else.” Prior to this he made six other pictures, each with their moments and thematic allusions to his later films, but in no way were they as complete a narrative, nor as dramatically powerful. Here Kurosawa finds his longstanding harmony between story and social relevancy, whereas before he mastered only one or the other.

Takashi Shimura plays Doctor Sanada, a self-destructive alcoholic who dilutes his own rubbing alcohol to further his addiction. In one scene, Sanada chases an alcoholic patient out of a bar from professional concern, but then he sits himself down for a drink. Sanada hates disease and fights it with an unparalleled passion; disease represents something he can defeat without personal involvement, as opposed to the unrealistic effort of self-healing. It is his choice to be a wreck. Sanada places himself in the slum, shooing children away from the decrepit cesspool, while his former classmates work in the best hospitals in Tokyo.

Stumbling into Sanada’s clinic, Matsunaga (Toshiro Mifune) wants a bullet removed from his hand. Sanada agrees, but makes the hood pay for his crimes, denying him anesthesia and charging him extra. While stitching his patient’s wound, Sanada notices Matsunaga’s coughing and fever, signs of a hole in his lung, and suggests Matsunaga may have Tuberculosis. Advising him to get X-rays, Sanada warns that even if treated, Matsunaga will likely die of the affliction. Even after getting the x-rays to confirm the TB, Matsunaga does not view the results, afraid of what they might mean. Instead, he continues with his wild gangster lifestyle, filled with smoking, drinking, and late nights, committing virtual suicide in the process. He too denies the reality of his existence.

Kurosawa identifies the self-destructive nature of yakuza gangs against their country. Other doctors might chalk up Matsunaga’s rejection of treatment to ignorance is bliss, but Sanada takes it personal, as if his own salvation depends on Matsunaga’s health. Sanada and Matsunaga’s doctor-patient relationship is a brotherhood, wherein a revolving sense of purpose is bestowed. Matsunaga pushes the Doctor away, thus providing a way for Sanada to save himself through the (attempted) healing of others; Sanada stresses the importance of life, thus calling for Matsunaga’s introspective examination. Several mentions of Sanada’s youth suggest he was once just like Matsunaga, young and proud, even defending his own arrogant buoyancy comparable to the jealously-preserved yakuza honor.

Matsunaga plays the part of a gangster well, dressing himself like a doll. He desires to escape from his lifestyle, to survive in spite of his self-destructiveness. He repeatedly visits Sanada, lingering around his drunken angel in hopes that he might be rescued. A dream sequence shows him running on a beach in yakuza garb, chased by a non-gangster version of himself. Matsunaga’s self-reflection, in lieu of his encroaching death, allows him to awake from complacency. All at once the hateful death drive lifestyle of the yakuza becomes his enemy, with Okada as the personification of Matsunaga’s failure and wasted life, therefore he must face his enemy to remove his costume altogether.

While scouting the Black Market underground for inspiration, Kurosawa and Uekusa came upon their Sanada—an alcoholic doctor they met in a slum, talking about his treatment of gynecological diseases with a perverse lack of discretion. He looked worn, with several days’ growth of facial hair, tired eyes, and a lively, haughty tone in his discussion. Takashi Shimura brings the character to life, complete with blunt diagnoses, ruthless bedside manner, yet an endearing dedication worthy of a savior.

Drunken Angel marks the first collaboration between unrivaled actor Toshiro Mifune and the director; furthermore, it was the first of several Kurosawa pictures where elder acting legend Takashi Shimura would play spiritual guide to Mifune’s apprentice. Kurosawa films like Stray Dog, The Quiet Duel, and Seven Samurai were to follow, all wherein Shimura teaches Mifune’s naïve character life lessons, usually acting as a parental supporting role to Mifune’s lead. Though the Kurosawa-Mifune relationship produced the most popular films in either of their careers, the Kurosawa-Shimura partnership lasted longer and supplied fixed stability, enduring from Kurosawa’s first film Sanshiro Sugata to one of his last, Kagemusha.

Shimura’s appeal is punctuated by delicacy and empathy, while Mifune was a more kinetic force, one Kurosawa allowed to surge freely, eventually creating a timeless film icon the world over. Shimura never achieved such international celebrity; his popularity nested exclusively in Japan as the second most popular Japanese actor. Mifune could play sentimental, just as Shimura could, but he was defined by his onscreen intensity. When Drunken Angel opened in theaters, Mifune’s brand of wild energy was yet unknown to prevalent Japanese acting styles. His performance overpowers Shimura, who would otherwise be Kurosawa’s core, stealing the movie and solidifying a name for himself as a true original. (Worth noting is the 1965 Kurosawa-Mifune picture Red Beard, the last collaboration between the director and actor in a partnership that lasted through fifteen pictures over seventeen years. Mifune plays a version of Shimura’s Sanada—a stubborn-but-lovable doctor—in a film that, in Japan, would become their most popular and successful film together.)

In narrative structure, Drunken Angel is followed by Kurosawa’s Ikiru, the 1952 masterpiece wherein Takashi Shimura’s civil servant character Watanabe awakes from a similar complacency after discovering he has stomach cancer. In his last weeks of life, Watanabe manipulates a bureaucratic system to do one worthy deed in his otherwise pointless life: clean up a foul landfill and turn it into a children’s playground. Both Matsunaga and Watanabe fight their own system of oppression; Matsunaga fights the representation of himself and yakuza gangsterism: Okada.

Kurosawa diagnoses Japan with the disease of Americanization, even while directing under the U.S. military’s occupation of Japan. Military and industry censors demanded preapproval of all Japanese scripts; democratic senses of Nationalism and mentions of the Occupation were strictly cut. As a result, Kurosawa’s film underwent a number of changes, including a dramatically altered last scene. But always cleverly subversive, the director still implies several of the Occupation’s repercussions.

Drunken Angel is by no means Akira Kurosawa’s greatest achievement; rather, it is his first vital narrative and his first whole thesis on Japan’s postwar “kyodatsu condition” of many to follow. The director’s preoccupation with Japan’s postwar despair first appears in his 1946 film No Regrets for Our Youth, and it lasts all the way into 1991 with Rhapsody in August, his filmic response to the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs. Kurosawa’s commentary is not invasive; it lingers just behind his diptych storyline, allowing the poetic relationship of his characters to involve us, while his underlying message swells the material to his artistic designs.


Recommended reading:

Galbraith IV, Stuart. The Emperor and the Wolf: The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. New York: Faber and Faber, 2002.

Goodwin, James. Akira Kurosawa and Intertextual Cinema. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, c1994.

Kurosawa, Akira. Something Like An Autobiography. New York : Knopf: distributed by Random House, 1982.

Richie, Donald. The Films of Akira Kurosawa, Third Edition, Expanded and Updated. With additional material by Joan Mellen. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1996.

Richie, Donald; Schrader, Paul. A Hundred Years of Japanese Film: A Concise History, with a Selective Guide to DVDs and Videos. Tokyo; New York: Kodansha International: Distributed in the U.S. by Kodansha America, 2005.