Precious Bodily Fluids

Drunken Angel

Different but similar

Different but similar

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.

Human-like objects in sump

Human-like objects in sump

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.

Diagonal, "Eisenstein-like" composition

Diagonal, "Eisenstein-like" composition

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.

This entry was published on September 27, 2008 at 8:56 pm. It’s filed under 1940s Cinema, Akira Kurosawa, Japanese Film and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

10 thoughts on “Drunken Angel

  1. Though the only Kurosawa film I have seen in the recent past is Stray Dog and I have not seen Drunk Angel, and I am ignorant of the writers you mention, I found your essay especially interesting, and the chosen frames from the film particularly illustrative of your commentary.

    I find the following statement puzzling though:

    “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.”

    Is not your essay based on the auteur paradigm?

    This said, there seem to be interesting parallels between Stray Dog and Drunken Angel, which I would like to highlight. In the immediate post-war period, perhaps Kurosawa’s concern was not so much on finding “culpability” but exploring the consequences of individual choice in the aftermath of the war. Like the protagonists in Stray Dogs, the petty thief and the rookie cop who pursues him, the protagonists in Drunken Angel, are equally capable of being the other. This possibly reflects the duality that under-pins eastern thought. If Kurosawa moralises, it is to portray one choice as essentially right and the other essentially wrong, and as you intimate I don’t think he at all seeks to blame the US occupation for what he sees as wrong in the country. After all, as you say, his filmic syntax is adopted from the West, and in Stray Dog he was clearly influenced by Dassin’s Naked City. Yes, the low-life of bars and cabarets are associated with the west: hotel signs and night club neon in English, and western music playing, but it is always the individual that is responsible for his actions even in this milieu.

    I think Yoshimoto is off-base. Why can’t Sanada be a drunkard? Kurosawa sees duality within each person, just as he gives Matsunaga a “hint of honour”, he gives Sanada a tragic persona. I don’t believe Kurosawa’s purpose is “didactic”. He makes his protagonists profoundly human not classic role models – and this is of itself a break from the classic cinema of pre-war Japan.

  2. Your response is thoughtful, especially considering that you haven’t seen the film. Certainly Drunken Angel shares things in common with Stray Dog, which is definitely the better film of the two and probably Kurosawa’s first masterpiece. I’ll try to respond to your points in order.

    Auteur theory. At this point, I self-consciously (and a little shamelessly) adhere to the general idea of auteur theory, knowing at the same time its problems. Yoshimoto’s alternative to auteur theory seems a desirable alternative. I’ll try to expound on it later at more length, but the general idea is to greet each film on its own terms, in its own context, and not to read into it the “author’s” perceived ideas that s/he has shown in other works. Cinema is a complex art, and rarely an individual endeavor. Even in the work of a particular filmmaker, there will be variables affecting the films. (In Kurosawa’s case, a variable would be the very different “Japans” that existed throughout his career: pre-war, war, postwar, the breakdown of classical Japanese cinema, and then the new and very Westernized age of Japan coming into its own.) At the same time, I think that the main argument against auteur theory is potentially naive and a little reductionistic. There’s something to it, but it’s been taken too far (thanks to the French and the Americans).

    In Stray Dog, you are right, there is that message that the cop and the thief are equally capable of being the other. There is also the sense that the cop and the older, wiser cop are equally capable of being the other. Kurosawa’s attempt to blur, just a little, the line between good and evil works better in Stray Dog by providing good, evil, and that in-between character that could go either way. He is pulled by opposing forces that were both strong in the postwar period. Japan was trying to forge a new national identity, and Kurosawa was showing that they had these two basic options they could pursue. Drunken Angel, I think, doesn’t work as well because Kurosawa doesn’t effectively offer a compelling character who is good. However, if it would have been a straight-up tragedy (like Throne of Blood or Ran), it might have worked better, too.

    In this way, I think Yoshimoto is right. (As an aside, I would be personally very hesitant to say that he is off-base, because the guy is about as smart a cinema scholar as there is these days. He’s at NYU and put out a work on Kurosawa that’s probably the new standard not only for Kurosawa studies, but Japanese film and cinema studies in general.) I would content that Kurosawa’s purpose is certainly didactic, as so many of his films reflect a strong didactic humanism. It’s not humanism for its own sake, or even to show the possibilities of the human condition. He’s trying to show people why they should follow one path and not the other.

  3. As I said, I don’t know of Yoshimoto, and in fact I am generally ignorant when it comes to film theory and criticism, but even if the reverse were true, my view on Sanada would remain the same. Perhaps, “off-base” was too strong a metaphor – it was a (pathetic?) attempt at allegory – the US influence and the Japanese fanatical adoption of baseball and all that…

    But I can agree with Yoshimoto’s take on auteur theory, and on this score, a paper by a fellow-Australian, Rafaelle Caputo, Film noir: “You sure you don’t see what you hear?”, Australian Journal of Media & Culture (Vol5 No 2 1990) (available on-line
    ), uses a critique of Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past (1947), to argue the same thesis in relation to film noir:

    “… I feel the best way to proceed in the reading of film noir is along a path suggested by [a] line from Out of the Past [spoken by the Robert Mitchum character]: ‘All I can see is the frame … I’m going inside to look at the picture’.”

    I suppose also one could adopt the same approach when reading your post: who Yoshimoto is irrelevant, it is what he says that must stand or fall on its own terms.

  4. Thanks for the article reference; I will check it out.

    A couple things. First, don’t assume that you know Yoshimoto’s argument from my very-incomplete summary of it. Second, your last comment, aside from being a hypothetical, commits a fallacy of equivocation pretty seriously. Not only would you need to have direct (not indirect) contact with Yoshimoto’s thinking before judging whether it stands or falls, but actually who Yoshimoto is can be relevant. Yoshimoto’s scholarship is the scholarship of an individual. Though it may be informed by others, his arguments are his. Auteur theory in its purest form neglects the very collaborative nature of filmmaking, much more collaborative than a scholarly argument.

    I’m spending more time on this than I should be, but that last bit was just a bit too trite to be ignored.

  5. At the risk of again committing a “fallacy” and of being “trite”, may I have the last word and say that perhaps you are Plato to Yoshimoto’s Socrates…

    I may not match your intellect or your hubris, but I think it bears saying that you are writing a blog here not a doctorial dissertation, so if you can’t tell me what a “fallacy of equivocation” means in plain English, you should give up blogging.

    As Rufus T. Firefly said in Duck Soup: “Clear? Huh. Why a four-year-old child could understand this… Run out and find me a four-year-old child, I can’t make head or tail of it.”

  6. I’m starting to think that, despite my best efforts to parse your arguments and explain myself clearly, you are more interested in taking all of this personally. I don’t claim to know exactly what “blogging” is. See the “About” section. I’m here trying to think out loud and if anyone wants to discuss with me, that’s great. Of course I’m making an effort to access and interact with thinkers who can shine some real light on these films, which is only natural. I don’t have the kind of intellect or hubris that prevents you from showing me I’m wrong. I’m not that smart. This comes down to my vocabulary, which isn’t beyond understanding.

    I believed that you committed a logical fallacy and I explained in clear English how you were comparing apples with oranges. Logical fallacies are not restricted to the realm of doctoral dissertations. If they were, people wouldn’t have such a problem with our current president.

    Please help me understand if I have misinterpreted you – I say this sincerely. I am prone to misunderstanding sometimes.

  7. I am not an automaton – not yet anyway – and yes I do take it personally when some-one talks over me, and uses words like “trite” to describe what I have said.

    The basic rules of blogging are to engage your readers by respecting them, and writing in clear and simple language. You fail on both counts.

    Instead of saying ” your comment commits… a fallacy of equivocation”, perhaps it would have been simpler to say “your argument is logically flawed because…”, and avoid the use of a loaded and offensive word like “trite”. As an aside, while we are getting pedantic, a comment cannot “commit” anything, but of course a person can, so you saying that my “comment… commits” is of course double-speak for “you commit”, and the sub-context is clear: I am a dumb-ass who makes “trite” arguments.

    There is no misinterpretation or misunderstanding. Rather than argue my original statement:

    “I think Yoshimoto is off-base. Why can’t Sanada be a drunkard? Kurosawa sees duality within each person, just as he gives Matsunaga a “hint of honour”, he gives Sanada a tragic persona.”

    you don’t argue the substance of what I have said, but the fact that I have the temerity to disagree with your revered Yoshimoto, and anyway I can’t be right because he has a greater claim to be right. This is BS.

    If as you say, Yoshimoto argues:

    “the general idea is to greet each film on its own terms, in its own context, and not to read into it the “author’s” perceived ideas that s/he has shown in other works.”

    we can only validly engage in this debate solely by reference to the actual film and nothing more. Therefore, my statement that “who Yoshimoto is irrelevant, it is what [you say] he says that must stand or fall on its own terms” is entirely logical.

    We can agree on one thing though: your President sucks big time.

    Yoshimoto for president!

  8. I’ll respond to you in order.

    I actually had to look up the word “automaton,” as I had never heard it before. I have no problem at all with having to look up a word; I appreciate the new exposure. And as I said on the “About” section, my effort on this blog is to avoid pretense, so I’m being honest about my limits. It’s ironic that I had to look it up, though.

    As I said, I did not mean to talk over you. I may have used a phrase that was unfamiliar to you, but then I explained it. I think that’s okay to do whether I’m blogging or doing anything else. Maybe I shouldn’t have used the word “trite.” Your statement to which I was referring seemed to imply more than just a logical argument. Perhaps I was wrong. If you tell me that you didn’t mean to be sarcastic, I will believe you and we can put it behind us.

    I may be new to blogging, but I’ve looked around, and I know there is a wide variety of blogs containing discourse at various levels. I’m nowhere near incomprehensible compared to many others I’ve found. To show my cards a little, there are a number of graduate students in cinema studies who have blogs and like to analyze films using the tools and honing the skills they’re being given in the classroom setting. I’m one of them. I assumed that people who were interested in talking this way would read and respond, and people who weren’t interested wouldn’t gravitate this way. Taking all of this into account, I don’t disrespect my readers at all. Whatever you and I have going on is unusual, and I actually do respect you. Your blog reflects not only an affinity for but a high level of competence especially with regard to film noir, much higher than my own. I am very interested in what you think and I look forward to changing my thinking because of your insights. As for my “double-speak,” even though I disagreed with you, I spoke in the terms I did out of an (unsuccessful) attempt to be respectful. I didn’t want to identify “you” as the source of something wrong. I was trying to be objective.

    I was also trying to argue with “the substance of what [you] had said.” I’m not remotely offended that you disagreed with Yoshimoto. It seemed to me that you were drawing conclusions about his argument without interacting with it directly (as I said, my summary of him may have been oversimplified). I’ll admit that I may have read too much into your disagreement with him. Initially, I thought that you hastily concluded that he was simply wrong, but in retrospect, it seems that you meant only to say that his point about Sanada was simplistic. You could be right about that. The lack of space that Yoshimoto gives to Drunken Angel, along with his conclusions, could be indicative of a bias against the film.

    The way I write is the way that I think, the way I critique myself. The lack of emotive thought here, which apparently looks like insensitivity, is simply an attempt at critical analysis. When something looks right, I tend to accept it and move past it quickly toward the problematic areas. I hope this serves as a helpful explanation.

  9. Water under the bridge Zach. Thank you for engaging with me…

    Kathie: Is there a way to win at this?
    Jeff: No, but there’s a way to lose more slowly.

    – Out Of The Past (1947)

  10. Pingback: Drunken Angel « Precious Bodily Fluids | Follow The Swarm

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