Pulp Appeal: Drunken Angel

800px-Yoidore_tenshi_posterDrunken Angel is one of[1] my favorite films by acclaimed Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, who is mainly known in the west for his samurai films, particularly Seven Samurai and Yojimbo. Drunken Angel is an earlier film, the first collaboration between Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune, probably one of the most widely known Japanese actors outside his home country. He went on to star in 15 other Kurosawa films, including both the classic Seven Samurai and Rashomon, the latter frequently cited as one of the greatest films ever made.[2]

drunken_angel_04Drunken Angel is the story of the broken-down, curmudgeonly Doctor Sanada, played by perennial Kurosawa compatriot Takashi Shimura,[3] and his ministrations to the poor in the slums of post-WWII Tokyo. The film’s plot begins with Toshiro Mifune, a low-ranking yakuza gangster named Matsunaga, seeking out the doctor to treat a gunshot wound. In the process, Sanada diagnoses Matsunaga with tuberculosis. There’s a physical confrontation as the hot-blooded gangster doesn’t want to hear about his problems, but it’s clear to the viewer that it’s mostly bluster.

Drunken_Angel_03

The Tokyo portrayed in this film is a noir city through and through. The movie is set in a slum swimming with filth. In fact, the opening shot is of a literal toxic cesspool at the center of the neighborhood. This pool of filth is returned to several times throughout the film, which is anything but an understated metaphor. Around this cesspool shopkeepers and residents live their lives while preyed upon by the petty gangsters who exist on the margins of the slum. Doctor Sanada spends significant amounts of time chasing kids away from the edges of the cesspool, desperately trying to save them despite knowing they’ll just keep coming back.[4]

Through the course of the movie, Sanada attempts to steer Matsunaga onto the straight and narrow, away from cigarettes, womanizing, and booze, and for a time Matsunaga complies, mostly because the doctor seems to be as angry and belligerent as the gangster himself. There’s one iconic moment where the two of them are drinking, and the doctor says, “I’m not afraid of you. I’ve killed more people than you have.”

I won’t spoil any more of the details,[5] but, as in all good noir, the plot thickens with betrayals and backslides, stolen loves and stolen time. It’s not ultra-heavy on the action (though it is listed as PG-13, mostly because of a particularly memorable knife battle at the climax), but it’s definitely pulp noir of the stripe read in Detective Fiction Weekly or Black Mask.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear to be streaming on any of the major services, but it was repackaged in the Criterion Collection. The film was followed up the next year by Stray Dog, another noir film exploring the decadence of post-war Tokyo from the point of view of a rookie police officer, but that’s a “Pulp Appeal” for another day.

[1] I’d be hard-pressed to pick one favorite, but I’d probably go with Ikiru. I couldn’t swear to that under oath as I love almost every movie he made. The only exception I can think of is Kagemusha, and even that just drops from “love” to “really like.”

[2] I agree. As much as I like Drunken Angel, from a critical standpoint Rashomon is probably Kurosawa’s best film.

[3] Shimura is also one of the main stars of Gojira (Godzilla), and was a mainstay of Japanese film for decades. IMDb has 263 listings for him over a 50 year career.

[4] I would call this maybe a bit heavy-handed by modern standards, but then I think about crapfests like James Cameron’s Avatar and its “unobtanium” and I realize Drunken Angel is positively subtle by comparison.

[5] If you are interested in just reading the plot and having it spoiled, then here is one of the best summaries and examinations of the film I’ve come across: Kurosawa, In Order #7 – Drunken Angel.

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3 Responses to Pulp Appeal: Drunken Angel

  1. Reblogged this on Mangled Latin and commented:

    I’m sure it’s pretty obvious from this Pulp Appeal article, but I love Akira Kurosawa’s movies.

    Like

  2. Reblogged this on Dark Perceptions and commented:

    Cameron talks Drunk Angel, an early Akira Kurosawa film.

    Like

  3. Pingback: Pulp Appeal: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly | Broadswords and Blasters

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