DVD Review Of Drunken Angel
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 12/8/10
Watching Akira Kurosawa’s black and white 1948 film Drunken Angel (Yoidore Tenshi) is an interesting experience, since he clearly had not mastered his art form yet, but there is so much that is good, that would become great, in just a few years. It’s like looking at a fetus and seeing distinguishing characteristics of its parents, yet none are fully formed. The same could be said to be true of the director’s aborning partnership with leading man Toshiro Mifune: it’s not fully formed, and part of this is because Mifune really is not the main character of the film, and part of it is that the titular lead, the drunken angel, is played by Takashi Shimura, one of the best actors in film history- just watch Ikiru, and Kurosawa’s leading male actor until Mifune asserted himself after Seven Samurai. He simply owns every scene he is in, even when being overpowered and bullied by Mifune, for the scenes have genuine emotion and comedy in them, just like in real life- a rare feat for film, especially in the 1940s, the pre-modern era of film.
Mifune plays a doctor named Sanada with a taste for booze in the postwar ruins of Tokyo, where pools of water have gathered and tuberculosis and other diseases are rampant, and almost as big a threat as the dirty hands of the yakuza. Mifune is a mid-level yakuza, named Matsunaga, who has TB, but is scared that it will a) lessen his grip of power over the local merchants he exacts protection from, and b) kill him. Sanada knows this, but does not only want to save his life, but cleanse his soul. There is something inside the doctor that impels him to take on more than the material bodies of his patients. This is best shown in scenes with a seventeen year old TB patient (Yoshiko Kuga), who has all the faith and optimism, in life and himself, that Sanada wishes Matsunaga had. But, Matsunaga has a seeming death wish, and ignores the doctor’s pleas, even as Sanada tracks him down and dotes upon him.
Sanada, meanwhile, has rescued a prostitute, Miyo (Chieko Nakakita) from her yakuza, Okada (Reisaburo Yamamoto) who went to prison; but now she fears his impending release. He tries to fortify her, but, like Matsunaga, she seems unable to muster the strength he can. When Okada returns to the slums, he aims to take back his territory from Matsunaga. Matsunaga relinquishes it, on the order of both men’s Big Boss. What follows is a scene in a jazz club that is very effective, for it not only details the power shift between the two gangsters, but also documents the Japanese occupation by America, and the influence of then contemporary American pop culture and slang on young Japanese, from the Big Band songs to the zoot suits and bobby socks many of the young Japanese wear. But, then Okada wants to reclaim Miyo, and this forces Matsunaga, whose disease has him at the point of spitting up blood, to try and protect the doctor and his nurse. Okada also ends up taking Matsunaga’s bitch, a whore and dance hall diva, named Nanae (Michiyo Kogure). This sets up a dynamic that leads to a final knife battle between Okada and Matsunaga. Just as Matsunaga seems to have Okada, he spits up blood, and Okada overpowers him. They fight out into a hallway where freshly spilled paint makes both men slip, and allows Okada to kill Matsunaga. The next day, Sanada and a barmaid who wanted to run away with Matsunaga, mourn his death, and we learn Okada has been sent back to prison, whereas, on a positive note, the teenaged schoolgirl with TB has been cured.
Some of the screenplay telegraphs emotions and scenes to come, but these flaws are overcome, for the most part, by the acting of Shimura and Mifune. The cinematography by Takeo Ito is solid, early on, when the film takes on a Neo-Realist tone- from its early shots of the sewery sump puddle that festers under the feet of the Tokyo residents (it bubbles in an eerie sort of foreshadowing of the opening of Godzilla Vs. The Smog Monster, made by the Toho studio two decades later), but verges on the spectacular in the final twenty or so minutes of the 98 minute film, where the expressionistic angles match the emotional turmoil of Matsunaga. And, although most of the music in the film is diegetic, it is wisely used sparingly by Fumio Hayasaka, especially The Killer’s Anthem guitar piece played by Okada (a nice touch- a musical cue- that was taken by Sergio Leone, in Once Upon A Time In The West, two decades later, and used in a similar manner for Charles Bronson’s character, Harmonica).
As for the DVD package? Unfortunately this is one of the VERY lesser releases from The Criterion Collection. First, the video transfer, in a 1.37:1 aspect ratio, is from a really bad source, and the film is at a mediocre ten year old VHS tape quality, laden with lines, scratches, ghosts, blobs, and assorted other imperfections- the worst reel is the ‘dream sequence.’ What is puzzling is how Criterion has boasted , in the past, of restoring film quality to films that were far better, to begin with. As example are the re-releases for Seven Samurai and Federico Fellini’s Amarcord, whose initial releases had a quality of 90-95 (on a scale of 100, and the rerelease upped that about 5 points. By contrast, this release of Drunken Angel is at a substandard 55-60. Granted, the costs of this would be far more daunting than the tweaks given to the other films, but….is not that the supposed stated reason Criterion exists? If all we were to get was a half-assed job, then perhaps this could be an Image Entertainment release? The audio portion of this release is not much better. Naturally, no English language dubbed track exists either, and Criterion continues its misguided policy of using white subtitles for a black and white film which often makes reading them an exercise in eyestrain.
The supplements are a bit better, with a 31 minute long making of documentary on the film, part of the Toho Masterworks series Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful To Create. It has some interesting information, but the better feature is Kurosawa And The Censors, a 25 minute long video piece that looks at what Kurosawa faced from American propagandists, while shooting the film, and how that was similar yet different from the censorship he faced under the militarist years of Japan. There’s also an insert booklet with an essay by cultural historian Ian Buruma, and excerpts from Kurosawa’s memoir, Something Like An Autobiography. Then there is an audio commentary by the hit and miss Japanese film historian Donald Richie, who relates how he was on the set for the filming of Drunken Angel, the first time he was ever invited to do so, and where he first met Kurosawa. It’s an ok commentary from Richie, who manages to be hit and miss within a single commentary- usually he’s on the mark or rambles off into his own hermetic world of memories. While almost never scene specific with comments, Richie does make some good points, but he also makes some key errors. As example, he feels the film is a bit didactic and preachy, but this really isn’t the case. Dr. Sanada is didactic, but the film is not. The film is rather impassive toward its inhabitants. On the other hand, the film does have some flaws, like reveling in American gangster clichés, that Richie does not expound upon. He does pick up on something that I noticed right away, that the film is set in summer, but was filmed in January- thus why characters are seen in light wear, but their breath is visible in the air. But then he gaffes by claiming Sanada and Matsunaga are opposite sides of the same coin. But they are clearly not. Sharing some similarities does not make a pair of individuals part of the same coin. The two men have differing temperaments, philosophies, habits, and goals. Overall, though, it’s a solid performance by Richie.
The same can be said for Drunken Angel. It has flaws (as I’ve detailed above), and they are manifest; the worst of them being a dream sequence where the consumptive Matsunaga emerges from a casket to chase himself on a shoreline. This was done better a decade later, in Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, and over three decades later in Kurosawa’s own Kagemusha. But, it also deftly uses symbolism, visual and musical, and this overcomes its occasional fall into gangster clichés. Kurosawa, himself, felt that this was his first ‘real’ film, the first unencumbered by interference from outside sources. Thus, it is like its creator, a thing aborning, and while that fact does not mitigate the film’s flaws, it does add a bit more to some scenes and actions, for the cineaste, for it adds a duplicity to them: one sees both the flaw and imagines how the older, better Kurosawa would have handled such a scene. And, let’s face facts; given that it’s Kurosawa, even his biggest flaws are better than the greatest merits of many lesser filmmakers. Thus, the word interesting has more aptness than good, bad, or variants thereof. Take that not as a copout, but an observation, flaws notwithstanding.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Alternative Film Guide website.]
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