With Dada Chen at NYAFF 2013

With Dada Chen at NYAFF 2013
With Dada Chen at NYAFF 2013

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

ACF 286: Kurosawa's Drunken Angel

Drunken Angel / Yoidore tenshi
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Starring Takashi Shimura and Toshiro Mifune
Japan, 1948, 98 min.

Drunken Angel is of great significance for at least two reasons. As he wrote in Something Like An Autobiography, Kurosawa regarded it as the film in which he started to exhibit his own style. Equally important, it was the first Kurosawa film in which Mifune appeared. They would go on to make over a dozen more with one another, films that by all measures include almost all of those for which each of them are most well known.

The movie's title refers to Shimura's character, Doctor Sanada, a gruff alcoholic who runs a pathetic clinic alongside a fetid pond in which garbage is dumped. One night he is awakened to treat a young yakuza (gangster) named Matsunaga (Mifune) who has "injured his hand." In the course of treating him, Sanada realizes that Matsunaga probably has TB, a fairly widespread disease in post-war Japan.

Dr. Sanada orders children from the neighborhood not to play in
the filthy, disease breeding water of the pond.

Matsunada and Sanada are frequently at one another's throats -- both figuratively and literally. Matsunada engages in tough-guy, yakuza posturing, claiming he isn't concerned about possibly having TB because he doesn't fear death. Sanada repeatedly claims he'll have nothing to do with someone who won't take care of himself, but can't bring himself to give up on his reluctant patient because he reminds Sanada of what he himself was like as a young man.

Mifune with Reisaburo Yamamoto as Okata,
a higher ranking yakuza recently released from prison

I've watched the film at least three times to date, and expect to watch it again from time to time in the future. It may have been the first Kurosawa film I saw that was not a period piece. In any case, it certainly has one of the most memorable scenes I've ever seen in any film. It consists of Mifune, drunk and suffering from TB, his pompadour flying, jitterbugging in a dance hall. It's priceless and absolutely not to be missed.

Drunken Angel is available on a single disc DVD from The Criterion Collection. On-disc extras include an audio commentary featuring Japanese-film scholar Donald Richie, a 31-minute documentary on the making of Drunken Angel, and Kurosawa and the Censors, a new 25-minute video that sheds great insight into the challenges the director faced from the censorship policy of the U.S. occupying forces in post-WWII Japan. The DVD package also has a 28 page booklet with an insightful article by Asian film authority Ian Buruma and two chapters from Something Like An Autobiography that pertain to the film.

Overall, the aged film has been well-restored. However, there is often one very thin, vertical white line on the right side of the image. Sometimes there is more than one. But this should in no way dissuade you from buying, or at least renting, this very important, must-see film from early in Kurosawa's career.

ACF rating: 3.5 out of 4 stars (highly recommended)

(Note that the widescreen screenshot images above come from one of the video extras. The actual film is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio.)

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