Drunken Angel holds a unique position in Akira Kurosawa’s oeuvre, being a sort of bridge between his lesser-known early films and his much more famous mid-career films. The former category, Kurosawa insisted, consists of films that Kurosawa wasn’t able to control, thanks at first to Japanese political forces and then to American occupation censors. Drunken Angel, by the master’s own account, was the first film that was truly his.
The postwar setting of the film is key. Despite caricatures to the contrary, Kurosawa’s films and his own explicit writings and interviews make clear that he made films not for any Western audience, but for the Japanese people in the post-World War II setting. He was particularly interested in addressing Japan’s notion of its national identity following its surrender to the Allies. With samurai blood flowing through his veins, Kurosawa held closely to his Japanese heritage in all of its rich history. Note the remarkable number of jidai-geki films that he made, ones based in an earlier historical period (Rashomon, The Idiot, Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, The Hidden Fortress, The Lower Depths, Yojimbo, Sanjuro, Red Beard, Kagemusha, and Ran to name the most famous). Kurosawa’s most immediate postwar films, however, were based in the present (No Regrets for Our Youth, One Wonderful Sunday, The Most Beautiful, Drunken Angel, Scandal, and Stray Dog). Kurosawa was pushing for relevance in these films, and it can be safely concluded that with Drunken Angel, his first film with artistic autonomy, he addressed issues he believed were most important to Japan at that time. But the film itself is more convincing than any of this side history.
It is immediately evident in Drunken Angel that it portrays a Japan in a state of rebuilding. The opening credits roll with a low tilt on a dark sump at night. Nothing about the image is hopeful or upbeat. The sump will feature in the film as central to the narrative structure and the psychological symbolism of the main characters. A lone guitarist sits on the sump’s edge playing a monophonic, minor-key melody that sets the mood as a few prostitutes wander out of the frame to cement the negative impression of the setting. Takashi Shimura plays the title character, Sanada, an alcoholic doctor at a clinic in the bad side of town. Toshiro Mifune, in his first role for Kurosawa, does a bit of rookie overacting as Matsunaga, a local yakuza (gangster) who finds out he is infected with TB after getting Sanada to remove a bullet from his hand.
Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto points out that Drunken Angel’s setting and characters makes it “a highly self-conscious film” (Kurosawa: Film Studies and Japanese Cinema, Duke University Press, 2000, p. 138). The sump and the symbols associated with it, sometimes human figures, directly relate to the film’s moral theme. Japan is in a sump-like state, and even its angels are drunks. It has been polluted by its own national amnesia due in part to the influence of the American occupation. Kurosawa’s commentary on the US influence is subtle but certainly present. The club where many of the yakuza congregate is “No. 1 – Social Center of Tokyo,” a name so uncreative (and English) that it could only have been so named by the US occupational authorities. At this club, Western music plays, mostly jazz. Stephen Prince argues that these scenes especially make use of Hollywod cinematic codes that reinforce the identification between the amoral yakuza and the West (The Warrior’s Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa, Princeton University Press, 1991, p. 85). While this is possible, it seems difficult to identify only the club scenes as “borrowing syntax from the American cinema.” For one thing, the very American style of the club is bound to bring Americanism to one’s mind. Second, an enormous amount of Kurosawa’s cinema was using American film syntax, by the director’s own admission. His affinity for John Ford in particular (and borrowing from the Western genre) show this. But most important, an emphasis on American cinematic syntax would have undermined the force of Kurosawa’s reproof. By laying the blame for Japan’s condition on the US, Kurosawa would have enabled rather than rebuked and empowered the Japanese people to emerge from its postwar situation. Though at times cynical, Kurosawa’s cinema is always about personal, social, and national responsibility rather than international blame.
Therefore, when Prince argues that the “national schizophrenia” of the film “is the result of the Americanization of Japan,” this kind of scapegoating seems excessive. While Drunken Angel portrays some of the realities reflecting America and its effects on Japan, the film puts the moral culpability and responsibility on individuals. At the risk of giving into auteur theory, this is a common thread in Kurosawa’s films. Red Beard, to which this essay will return later, is a prime example of individual responsibility also located in a medical setting. Prince’s analysis acknowledges this fact when he points out “the film’s critique of outmoded behavioral codes,” Sanada’s proclamation that “willpower can cure all human ailments,” and Sanada’s comment that “the Japanese like to punish themselves with petty sacrifices” (p. 84). Prince’s overall argument that “Kurosawa attempts to describe a new ethic for Japan and the shape of a new social order” (p. 79) is, then, quite accurate. The film is surely about “a double-loss of identity” (p. 86), both a progressive one and a sacrificial one. Matsunaga’s life and health depends on letting go of his status as a yakuza and the “resignation and passivity” that accompany. Sanada, on the other hand, is presented as angelic because of his sacrificial loss of identity. When he meets with a past classmate, he is reminded that he could have easily become a well-to-do physician, opting instead to be a doctor like Red Beard, serving the dregs of society despite the lack of income.
Yoshimoto seems to hold to a more realistic view of the character of Sanada. Prince seems to imply that Sanada’s angelic nature serves as an explanation, if not a justification, of his alcoholism and edgy demeanor. Yoshimoto, on the other hand, sees Sanada’s character as a miscalculation on Kurosawa’s part, saying that Kurosawa “tries to go beyond the simplistic dichotomy of good and evil by making Sanada a drunkard” (p. 139). From a non-cinematic perspective, it’s easy to understand how a character like Sanada would be an alcoholic. But the effect does not serve Kurosawa’s didactic purpose, instead offering his Japanese audience something less than the role model that he wants to offer. Perhaps Sanada would stand out better if the narrative did not seem to focus on Matsunaga, even making him a sort of “tragic hero” (ibid.) through his contempt for the yakuza world that leads to his death. Still, the final fight between Matsunaga and Okada is choreographed to maximize the pointlessness of their feud. Covered in paint and hanging off of an apartment balcony, Matsunaga’s death is mixed with tragedy, stupidity, and the faintest hint of honor.
It is fascinating that Kurosawa’s first project under his own control shares so much in common with the last film he made before the great shift into (what many have called) a radically different style of filmmaking: Red Beard. Kurosawa felt that after Red Beard he had reached an impasse in his filmmaking, having said everything he wanted to say. His metaphor of medicine and sickness, in Drunken Angel and Red Beard gives him the ability to give his prescription to the Japanese people with maximum clarity. In Red Beard, the title character bears similarities to Sanada in Drunken Angel, but with a few differences. First, he isn’t an alcoholic. Also, he is in charge of a larger clinic with more patients (and worse-off) and more doctors and nurses. Most significantly, his wisdom concerning physical, psychological, and spiritual health and sickness surpasses that of any other character in Kurosawa’s films. Also gruff and impatient at times, Red Beard is more likely to fight back when someone attacks him, not only exploiting his knowledge of the human body and its weak spots, but perhaps also containing some of the samurai ideal in his physical prowess. Yasumoto, the arrogant young doctor at Red Beard’s clinic, becomes sick at a point in the film, just as Matsunaga in Drunken Angel. But Matsunaga’s physical and spiritual/mental illnesses coincide, whereas Yasumoto is first cured of his cynicism and selfishness before becoming physically sick. His sickness serves the theme of Red Beard by allowing a very Matsunaga-like character (the young girl) to nurse Yasumoto back to health and thereby help her own spirit in the process. These examples simply demonstrate the ways in which Red Beard seems to work where Drunken Angel fails. Stephen Prince identifies this and devotes excellent space and even praise to Red Beard. Yoshimoto, probably the better scholar, appears to miss this or at least neglect it, and he devotes less space to these two important films than to almost any other film of Kurosawa’s.