Kurosawa films
Film posters courtesy of Toho Studios

Akira Kurosawa Films 101: 1946 – 1948

Day Two of Akira Kurosawa 101 examines three of his films that address the nature of life in Japan immediately at the end of WWII and the American Occupation.

Drunken Angel (1948)

Japanese and American film critics, as well as the director himself, consider Drunken Angel to be the first “Kurosawa” picture that Kurosawa ever made. The movie, his eighth as director, treats for the first time many of his most familiar moral and social themes and employs some of his most effective devices. Here we find the struggle against societal ills, the quest for self-actualization, the figures of good and evil, and the bold visual and aural style of later films like Seven Samurai, Ikiru, High and Low, and The Bad Sleep Well, to name but a few.

Drunken Angel, too, is the genesis of Kurosawa’s partnership with Toshiro Mifune, the actor who would define his mature work in a series of 16 films, and composer Fumio Hayasaka, one of his closest friends and most intimate collaborators. As if with a knowing nod to the critics of the future, both are exemplary. Mifune gives a visceral and sometimes over-the-top performance, and Hayasaka provides a beautiful score that underlines the film’s emotional and political tensions.

Kurosawa was not exactly a young man when the movie was made (he was 38), but there is still a pleasure in seeing, fresh off the lot, as it were, the people and the stories that would populate his career. Small missteps and broad visual strokes that are not exceptional but perhaps a bit more prominent may weaken the whole but give some sequences a vitality that is probably, admittedly, an anachronism. Nonetheless, seeing Shimura’s breath condensing in what ought to be the summer night, seeing Mifune chase himself in a near-ridiculous dream sequence, and, most of all, watching the young actor’s energetic performance steal the show give the movie a youthful charm for Kurosawa devotees.

Drunken Angel (1948)

The story centers around the relationship between Sanada (Takashi Shimura), a rude and alcoholic, yet altruistic doctor, and the young yakuza Matsunaga (Mifune). While treating the latter for a gunshot wound to the hand, Sanada recognizes the possible symptoms of tuberculosis. Seeing in the careless young man an image of his former self, Sanada berates him to change his lifestyle and treat his disease, but he resists confronting his weakness, preferring a life of lush denial until his health worsens and he begins to contemplate changing his life.

Events take a tragic turn when an old gang leader is released from jail and Matsunaga is cast back into the pit of corruption and self-destructive living just as he overcomes his childish shame and submits to the doctor’s dictatorial care.

There is a lot at stake in Drunken Angel. As in Kurosawa’s later work, illness is to be diagnosed and treated holistically; bacteria and uncleanliness are symbols of greater problems personal and social, visually symbolized by the huge, stagnant body of sewage containing trash and waste to which Kurosawa continuously redirects his camera. Although Mifune’s gangster comes to dominate the film, his fate is ultimately counterpoint to the doctor’s. If Matsunaga’s volatile deliberations fill up the screen, then Sanada’s steady, gruff prescriptions are the center of gravity, drawing the supporting characters in and flinging them out again with new implications for the viewer.

In the riveting climax of the movie’s second-act noir Matsunaga proves himself worthy of Sanada’s obsessive ministrations, and the film ends on a hopeful note that prefigures Rashomon. The feeling that nothing has really changed, and nothing really will change, is tempered, as in so much of Kurosawa’s later work, by the knowledge that change is worth the struggle. — Dylan Nelson

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This article was originally published on 11 October 2010.