Drunken Angel (Yoidore tenshi)

Director: Akira Kurosawa
Screenplay: Keinosuke Uegusa & Akira Kurosawa
Stars: Takashi Shimura (Doctor Sanada), Toshirô Mifune (Matsunaga), Reisaburo Yamamoto (Okada), Michiyo Kogure (Nanae), Chieko Nakakita (Nurse Miyo), Noriko Sengoku (Gin), Shizuko Kasagi (Singer), Eitarô Shindô (Takahama), Masao Shimizu (Boss)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1948
Country: Japan
Drunken Angel: Criterion Collection DVD
Drunken AngelIf for no other reason, Akira Kurosawa's Drunken Angel (Yoidore tenshi) is a landmark film because it marked the director's first collaboration with actor Toshiro Mifune, who would go on to star in 15 more of Kurosawa's films over the next two decades. Kurosawa immediately recognized the power of Mifune's on-screen volatility, and cast him as an angry young hoodlum named Matsunaga who develops an unexpected relationship with a noble, but downtrodden and alcoholic doctor. Interestingly, Mifune's last performance for Kurosawa was in 1964's Red Beard, in which he plays an idealized doctor who guides a young protégé into spiritual maturity.

There is little in the way of idealization in Drunken Angel, which takes place in the slums of postwar Tokyo and focuses the dregs of society--both the impoverished and the criminals who feed on them. Kurosawa literalizes the social corruption by setting the majority of the action around a fetid cesspool in the middle of a black market square. The cesspool, which becomes like a major character, constantly bubbling and retching, is the first thing we see in the film (in close-up, no less, giving it the appearance of an alien landscape). Kurosawa uses it frequently as a transition device, and even when it is not the primary focus, it is always there in the background, reminding us in purely visual terms of everything that is poisonous and destructive.

Doctor Sanada, the physician who first treats Matsunaga for a bullet wound to the hand, is played by Takashi Shimura, another of Kurosawa's favorite actors (they collaborated on 22 films, this being their fifth). Kurosawa often cast Shimura as Mifune's opposite (for example, in 1954's Seven Samurai Shimura played the wise and noble samurai leader while Mifune played the buffoonish samurai impostor), but here he uses them as two sides of the same coin. While Sanada exists in legitimate society and Matsunaga in the criminal underworld, they have much in common, including their anger and frustration with the world around them. Matsunaga is sick morally and physically (it is discovered he has tuberculosis and is therefore dying), and Sanada is wrestling with his own demons, namely the alcoholism that drives him to drink from his own medical supplies. Yet, despite his flaws, Sanada is at heart a good man who yearns to help those who won't help themselves. Thus, Matsunaga is a perfect case for him--a wayward, tubercular criminal who needs to redeem his moral ways in order to save his own life.

A crucial subplot in the film involves the return of a yakuza don named Okada (Reisaburo Yamamoto), who has been in prison for the past four years for cutting up a man's face with a knife. Okada serves several purposes in the film. First, he provides a further link between Sanada and Matsunaga in that his abused mistress, Miyo (Chieko Nakakita), now works as Sanada's nurse. When Okada threatens violence to reclaim her, Matsunaga, despite coughing up blood and being on the verge of death, feels that he must defend the doctor, even if it means his own demise. The ensuing fight between the two criminals--one on the path to redemption, the other beyond any kind of salvation--is one of Kurosawa's most bravura violent setpieces, conveying with simple authority the desperation of two men hellbent on killing each other. On a cultural level, Okada represents the “old” Japanese ways of feudalism and honor, which the postwar occupying Americans were trying to drive out. He is, in a sense, a relic who emerged from prison to find Japan a much different place than when he went in, which is a none-too-subtle jab at the connections between feudal honor and criminality.

While Drunken Angel is best known as the first time Kurosawa and Mifune worked together, it was also a breakthrough for Kurosawa as a filmmaker. He made the film completely on his own terms, and even though he had to concede certain elements to the occupying American censors (including the out-of-place optimistic ending), it is still a singular vision of the general corruption of Japanese society in the wake of World War II. He had explored this terrain before and would continue to do so for several years, using the struggle of good characters amid the ruins of Tokyo and its rising black markets as a way to confront both the lingering memories of defeat and the challenges of rebuilding that lay ahead.

Drunken Angel Criterion Collection DVD

Aspect Ratio1.33:1
AudioJapanese Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
Subtitles English
  • Audio commentary by film scholar Donald Ritchie
  • 31-minute documentary on the making of Drunken Angel
  • “Kurosawa and the Censors” featurette
  • Insert booklet featuring an essay by cultural historian Ian Buruma and excerpts from Kurosawa's Something Like an Autobiography
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateNovember 27, 2007

    If Criterion can't dig up good materials for a transfer, you know they probably don't exist, which is unfortunately the case with Drunken Angel. The liner notes about the transfer immediately inform us that “the original film materials for Drunken Angel survive in considerably degraded condition,” and it shows in the transfer. Although mastered in high definition from a master positive and then digitally restored, Drunken Angel does not look very good. The slightly pictureboxed image is a bit unstable in places and is overall very grayish with little contrast, which tends to obscure much of the fine detail. There are persistent vertical lines throughout the film, although none of them are particularly distracting. The soundtrack, which was mastered at 24-bit from an optical soundtrack print and then digitally restored, fares better, with a generally clean sound.
    Japanese-film scholar Donald Richie contributes another of his erudite, highly informative commentaries on Drunken Angel, explaining how the film fits into both Kurosawa's body of work and postwar Japanese cinema in general. There are also two documentaries included. The first is 31-minute documentary on the making of Drunken Angel, which is part of the Toho Masterworks series Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create (other episodes of this series appear on Criterion's Kagemusha, Seven Samurai, and Ran DVDs). “Kurosawa and the Cenors” is a fascinating 25-minute video essay featuring an extended interview with Danish film scholar Lars-Martin Sorensen, who takes us through the history of Allied-enforced political censorship of films in postwar Japan, with special focus on Kurosawa's immediate postwar films. Sorensen's discussion is illustrated with actual censorship documents and clips from half a dozen films. The discussion of Drunken Angel is particularly interesting in showing how much Kurosawa got away with (depictions of black marketeering and prostitution, mentions of venereal disease, keeping the “blasphemous” title) as well as what he had to change (namely the ending). The insert booklet contains an essay by cultural historian Ian Buruma and excerpts from Kurosawa's Something Like an Autobiography.

    Copyright ©2007 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    James Kendrick

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