The credits roll over a bubbling, black morass. The camera reveals a rather large pond, perhaps a bomb crater but certainly a vestige of war. It is inky, fog-laden, a thoroughly noxious stew with garbage and various discards floating on its surface. It seems to be located in the center of town, surrounded by mostly impoverished dwellings and false-front shops for American sailors. A lone guitarist plays his funereal riffs on its sullen banks. It is the black heart of the film and its womb—a daily, inextricable symbol of the sickened state of a society grappling both with misery and new found freedom.
Born of the considerations of postwar Japan, Drunken Angel marks the first major breakthrough and the opening of an era for Akira Kurosawa. Many consider it to be his “first film,” in the sense that the distinct elements that color the oeuvre we know so well came together for the first time. It incisively and cohesively epitomizes an era of the human condition and it’s amazing the film turned out the way it did. It was filmed in 1948 during the occupation and, though there is no depiction of soldiers, the physical and social ruin of war is visible—in fact it forms the very fabric of the film. Fortunately for posterity Drunken Angel managed to sneak by the American censors unabridged.
Toshiro Mifune, in his late twenties and at the height of his erogeneity, plays a gangster named Matsunaga. His lifestyle is both glamorous and a seemingly logical outcome of the war, having to cope with the dour conditions of postwar Japan. He commands respect and deals in fear. He avails a doctor named Sanada (Takashi Shimura) to remove a bullet from his hand which he tells him is a nail. The film centers on the relationship between these two: the good doctor and the troubled youth. Sanada is not afraid of him. He tells the gangster he is afflicted with tuberculosis to which he can only react by roughing him up. This will characterize their relationship for most of the film as the gangster is persuaded to confront his illness and defeat it by a doctor who alternates between loathing and compassion for his patient.
To the credit of Kurosawa and his script-writers the character of the doctor was rewritten numerous times, even during production, because they felt he was “too clean.” Besides his motivation for helping Matsunaga being incredulous at best, based on some intense compassion beyond the Hippocratic oath, the doctor as he was initially written does nothing to shape the thematic aspect of the film. Giving him the vice of drinking not only makes the character more realistic (and more human) but also strengthens Kurosawa’s powerful commentary on postwar society. The doctor’s sickness like Matsunaga’s is symbolized by the toxic sump at the heart of the neighborhood.
So Kurosawa and his script-writer Keinosuke Uekusa hit upon a better characterization during filming, but Kurosawa diminished its impact in the editing room by giving us a little too much Sanada v. Matsunaga. It becomes wearisome, in part because Sanada just isn’t a very interesting character anyway, but also because Shimura plays him with too much fervency. The young Mifune maybe overplays his hand a little too. And it’s a little obvious that the costs in time and money that went into building the elaborate set Kurosawa tried to recompense by packing the fetid pond into as many frames as possible. But the criticism ends there.
Matsunaga’s boss is finally released from prison to discover that his former girlfriend, Miyo (Chieko Nakakita), is now the doctor’s assistant. His introduction might be as cool as Orson Welles’ Harry Lime in The Third Man, except that it’s less dramatically relevant due to the weight given to the doctor-patient struggle and the illness itself. It’s American film-noir through and through. The pond musician who we’ve already heard many times before is once again heard by Matsunaga and Sanada in the stillness of the night. This time we see him up close. Suddenly a second musician emerges from the shadows, playing an entirely different tone on his guitar that inspires the other musician, but fills our protagonists with dread as they listen. It’s Matsunaga’s boss playing some kind of melancholic prison hymn. Kurosawa has him steal into the soundtrack just as he steals into the narrative and the lives of the characters we’ve come to care about. There’s definitely shades of this device in modern arthouse, particularly Tarantino.
Matsunaga wishes to protect Miyo and Sanada, but much more than that, he wishes to rebel against the life he formerly embraced. Having confronted his illness he now must confront the deeper and more pervasive sickness at its heart. It is an internal struggle, symbolized succinctly by his dream. Matsunaga is running along a beach being chased by someone. There is no cutting here, only mattes and dissolves and the entire sequence is rendered with slow-motion photography. He comes upon a coffin that has washed up on the beach. Opening it, he recoils in horror for the body inside is none other than himself. This scene would apparently influence Ingmar Bergman for he uses a similar device in the dream sequence for Wild Strawberries.
Matsunaga resolves to kill his boss who has since dismissed him—one thing that cannot be tolerated in this profession is sickness. The characters of the boss and the girl (and the doctor to an extent) gave Kurosawa and Uekusa a chance to externalize Matsunaga’s struggle, to give him an enemy that would inspire fear and a woman needing protection that would inspire courage. These are both sides of Matsunaga’s psyche. His days of preying are over. Like almost any film-noir motives are uncertain; Sanada and Miyo believe that Matsunaga had gone back to his old ways, attempting to kill his boss to become the boss. But only we see his dream and only we know the depth of his struggle; for Matsunaga it was personal, a redemptive killing.
Like so many films, a look at the perspective of its intended audience reveals much. The postwar Japanese could better understand things which have been lost to international audiences and intervening generations. The sump is a result of the war, caused by the Americans and the imperial government, and it is closely linked with ongoing illness, particularly that afflicting Matsunaga. The film is in the Western mode and features characters in Western garb, namely Yakuza who adapted to and thrived in these conditions. Using a Western style, Kurosawa is clearly critiquing the postwar embrace of Western modes. Though Yakuza then as now are vestiges of the feudal system, Kurosawa clearly associates them with the corruption of the occupation. It’s curious that their predilection for gambling did not figure as a prominent motif; it would have been apropos for a character like Matsunaga. The overall tone seems to be saying that the Japanese have become the foster children of the occupation, just as Matsunaga is to his oyabun, or family boss. This film was popular in Japan. Perhaps the last time Kurosawa would be lauded in his home country for a Western approach.