Kurosawa #3: Drunken Angel (Japan 1948)

Mifune (foreground) and Shimura in a scene with typical film noir lighting effects producing a ‘disturbed’ mise en scène

This is the film that many have argued put Kurosawa “on the map”. It was his first ‘personal film’ and the first film that he made with Mifune Toshiro. Very much a film ‘of the moment’, it took a genuine social issue from the streets of a devastated Tokyo and fashioned it into a cinematic treatment, drawing upon the crime film/melodrama in a film noir mode then popular in Hollywood, Britain and in Europe – where similar stories could be found in the ‘rubble films’ of Germany (West and East) and the neo-realist films of Italy. It was awarded No 1 film of the year in Kinema junpo magazine.

At the centre of the film is a crusading doctor, a local practitioner with an office near the festering stagnant pool formed by a bomb crater at the centre of a community living and working in ramshackle dwellings. The doctor’s crusade is to save the locals from environmental and lifestyle diseases such as TB. But Doctor Sanada (played by Kurosawa’s other ‘go to’ actor, Shimura Takeshi) has his own fatal weakness. He’s an alcoholic forced to acquire medical alcohol from his colleagues or to visit the sleazy drinking dens in the neighbourhood. One night a garishly dressed hoodlum bursts into his surgery with a gun wound and demands treatment. This is Matsunaga (Mifune), a local gangster (yakuza) controlling the black market who turns out to have a shadow on his lung.

There are many intriguing aspects of this film. Perhaps it doesn’t all fit together – as Yoshimoto Mitsuhiro argues. Watching it on a faulty Hong Kong disc was quite difficult, but I was impressed nevertheless. Even more clearly than in the earlier Sugata Sanshiro films, Kurosawa presents his familiar master/apprentice, older/younger male pairing. The doctor sees himself in the young thug and in turn Matsunaga attacks the older man because he knows that he is right – and he can’t bear it. The film works through symbol and metaphor. The festering pool is both the source of real disease (the mosquitoes that breed there) and a metaphor for the moral and economic degradation of Japan. Sections of the narrative are separated by long shots of a young man playing a guitar seen across the pool in the moonlight. Objects are thrown into the pool. Garbage of course, but also a doll, a flower etc.

The story – by Kurosawa and his old school friend Uekusa Keinosuke – seems to me to be quite rich in the range of characters and their interrelationships. There are more female roles than in some Kurosawa films and this reflects the pressure by the Occupation authorities to promote the new democratic rights for women – which are mentioned in the dialogue. Doctor Sanada has an assistant who ‘lives in’ and she is the wife of the local yakuza boss who abused her and who has been imprisoned. When he returns, Sanada bravely tells him that his wife now has the right to refuse him. The other three female characters are perhaps generic types from the film noir crime genre. A bright and confident schoolgirl, one of Sanada’s patients, follows his advice and triumphs over her TB infection – a symbol of hope for the new Japan? Gin serves in a local corner bar. She loves Matsunaga and in some ways represents the traditional Japan, while Nanae is the typical femme fatale of the film noir – and a clear representation of the moral pollution which has arrived in Tokyo via the Occupation. (The film appears to have had some constraints in representing the Occupying forces directly.)

Perhaps the biggest strength of the film is also its biggest weakness – Mifune’s performance. Kurosawa had seen Mifune at an audition for new players to be contracted at Toho in 1946. He had supported Mifune’s selection then and cast him now as Matsunaga. Kurosawa has stated that what astonished him about Mifune’s performance skills was the sheer energy and the swiftness of his movements and his thinking. This direct style was well utilised by Kurosawa (although as he points out in his autobiography, Mifune appeared in several films for other directors before Drunken Angel). As the sick yakuza, Mifune is electrifying and brilliant though Shimura is, audiences can be forgiven in thinking that Mifune’s is the central character. He too spends much of his time drunk, but it is the doctor who is the ‘drunken angel’.

Here’s an extract from the film. It’s a nightclub sequence showing Mifune as the gangster. At the end of the sequence, a typical Kurosawa wipe takes us (very briefly) back to the surgery and Shimura as the doctor. At the opening of the clip, Nanae dances with the yakuza boss. A drunken Matsunaga (with his bandaged hand) then essays a terrifying jive with one of the hapless bar girls. [This clip has since disappeared from YouTube but I’m leaving the analysis here until I can find something else.]

The extract demonstrates the importance of music in the film – it was the first time that Kurosawa worked with Hayasaka Fumio. It also brings together some of the visual elements that are so striking. I’m not sure if the song is the one for which Kurosawa himself wrote some of the lyrics. I think it is, but Yoshimoto and Keiko McDonald seem slightly at odds on this. McDonald gives a detailed reading of all the popular songs and other musical references used in the film. I’m fascinated by both the music and the singer. I’m reminded strongly of 1930s films, especially from German and British musicals and melodramas – there is something of the stereotypical representation of the ‘jungle’ in the performance and the song here is indeed titled ‘janguru bugi‘ (‘Jungle Boogie’) and performed by Kasagi Shizuko. She was well-known at the time and this was one of her more popular numbers. I think that this nightclub scene could have come from various national cinemas at this time. China before 1949, India in the late 1940s and 1950s are just as likely as Hollywood. In a later fight scene, Mifune appears reflected in three mirrors – much as Orson Welles at the end of Lady From Shanghai. The Welles scene was also from 1948 – Kurosawa was part of what was happening in global cinema, not a ‘copyist’. I think that Drunken Angel is the first Kurosawa film which seems thoroughly ‘composed’ in terms of dramatic lighting and camerawork.

The portrayal of the doctor and the weight of expectation of death from disease is explored in at least three other Kurosawa films which would make an interesting quartet – Silent Duel, Ikuru and Red Beard. I haven’t seen Silent Duel yet and it’s a while since I saw Red Beard, but certainly it’s interesting to compare the Shimura roles in Drunken Angel and Ikuru. Kurosawa began writing Drunken Angel at a time of despondency which was visualised as the pool. The doctor is fighting to convince his patients (i.e. Japan) that there is a future for them if they change their ways and this is what happens for at least one of them. In Ikuru the Shimura character dies from the disease hanging over him – but not before he transforms the neighbourhood.


Kurosawa Akira (1982) Something Like an Autobiography, Vintage

McDonald Keiko (2006) Reading a Japanese Film: Cinema in Context, University of Hawaii

Yoshimoto Mitsuhiro (2000) Kurosawa: Film Studies and Japanese Cinema, Duke University

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