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  • Ravi Swami

"Drunken Angel", Dir : Akira Kurosawa, 1948

Updated: Oct 17, 2021

Akira Kurosawa's 1948 film "Drunken Angel" marked the first of several collaborations with the actor Toshiro Mifune that led to iconic and memorable roles for the actor such as that of "The Seven Samurai".

As a result of the later films, in the public consciousness Mifune is mostly associated with the films set in Japan's Medieval era and not so much with a gritty series of Kurosawa films set in the contemporary Japan of the immediate post-war years, and here he is almost unrecognizable as a result, besides which he is a lot a younger.

Set in a shanty town on the outskirts of a bombed-out Tokyo that bears no resemblance to the Tokyo we know today, ravaged as it was by war and the American Occupation, the "Drunken Angel" of the title is doctor Sanada (Takashi Shimura) who runs a small ramshackle clinic tending to the local inhabitants and that is located on the edge of a festering and heavily polluted swamp of human and industrial waste.

The shanty town itself, comprising of low-rise bars, gambling dens, dance halls and stalls, is lorded over by Yakuza gangs who extract protection money from the various businesses and serves to illustrate how Japan, defeated in war, teetered on the edge of descending into the feudalism of earlier eras at a time of economic collapse.

Dr Sanada however, despite a combination of poverty and alcoholism, has a more progressive outlook as a result of being a daily witness to the victims of crime, rampant disease and other social ills that stem from the degradation that surrounds and threatens to engulf him.

The film opens with Matsunaga (Mifune), a Yakuza who is both feared and admired by the local populace, seeking treatment from Dr Sanada for a gunshot wound to his hand. The Dr treats the wound while trying to probe Matsunaga as to the cause but receives aggression in return and furthermore, he suspects the Yakuza has tubercolosis and tells him to seek medical attention.

This infuriates Matsunaga and he threatens to kill Sanada before storming off into the night.

Dr Sanada's nursing assistant, a young woman, Miyo, lives in fear of Matsunaga's sworn Yakuza brother, Okada, who has been released from prison and is determined to seek out Miyo even though he had been abusive toward her, by using Matsunaga to determine her whereabouts.

Dr Sanada lives with regrets over his career and fate that drive him further into alcoholism whilst also feeling a sense of responsibility toward Matsunaga, who he believes has redeeming qualities in spite of a past characterized by violent crime, and makes several ultimately futile attempts at trying to convince him to seek medical help before his T.B worsens.

Kurosawa uses the plot device of a schoolgirl who is being successfully treated for T.B as a way of showing that science and rationalism offer a way out of a feudal mindset that is suspicious of modern medicine.

The plot reaches a climax when the dying Matsunaga discovers that his status within the Yakuza has been undermined by Okada and that he is being written off due to his T.B and so he decides to kill Okada. To add to his rage, his former girlfriend Nanae, a nightclub dancer, has deserted him for the rival Yakuza.

Matsunaga tracks down Okada to his apartment, where he finds Nanae, and the two men have an ugly brawl that ends with Okada stabbing Matsunaga, bringing the story to a tragic conclusion.

Dr Sanada is left to reflect on the situation and feels the weight of defeat and sadness over the death of Matsunaga but his mood is lifted when the schoolgirl appears with the news that her T.B has been cured.

Kurosawa uses the visual metaphor of the swamp to represent the general decay that surrounds and permeates the shanty town, a source of both physical and spiritual sickness and it is an ever present symbol present in almost every shot in the film.

On a technical level, the films is notable for the many "matte painting" shots, used to replace skies and rooftops and perhaps distracting construction work since the film appears to have been made largely in exterior locations.

Toshiro Mifune delivers a blistering performance as Matsunaga, stubbornly refusing to accept that he has T.B and only grudgingly accepting treatment from Sanada, by which time it is already too late since he is on a terminal trajectory, and when he is offered a lifeline by the daughter of a bar owner to leave Tokyo for the country and a better quality of life away from the organized crime that had dominated his life, he refuses to take it, which seals his fate.

The plot contrasts ideas about karma / inevitability and the hierarchy of feudal systems like that of the Yakuza, with rationalist thought and science, with the latter offering an escape from the cycle that binds the inhabitants of the shanty town to the swamp and everything that it represents.

As a curious footnote, my mother was recently diagnosed with a recurrence of latent T.B and received a course of strong antibiotics. T.B in its' latent form, ie, non-infectious, is very common amongst her generation of Indian immigrant and she first experienced a recurrence following the death of my father in 1997.

It was an odd and rather unsettling experience watching the film in that context, as a result.

"Drunken Angel", Dir: Akira Kurosawa, 1948

BFI Player.


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