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DRUNKEN ANGEL

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Takashi Shimura, Toshiro Mifune, Reazaburo Yamamoto, Michiyo Kogure, Chieko Nakakita
Director:  Akira Kurosawa
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  98 Minutes
Release Date:  November 27, 2007

“The Japanese love to sacrifice themselves for stupid things.”

Film ***

Akira Kurosawa often referred to Drunken Angel as his first film.  Technically it wasn’t, but for him, it was the first movie he had made where he felt he had control and could make exactly the picture he wanted.

At any rate, it was his first collaboration with Toshiro Mifune, which proved to be one of cinema’s most productive pairings of a director with an actor.  Mifune looks surprisingly young, but even at an early age, exhibited all the energy and ability to captivate an audience that would define his career.

The same can be said of Kurosawa.  Even at an early point, Drunken Angel shows the marks of genius that would develop over the decades to come.  They include Kurosawa’s ability to stage a shot, his use of framing, and his camera movement.  But first and foremost, it includes his ability to tell a solid story on celluloid.

That story revolves around a doctor-patient relationship in post-War Japan.  The opening shots show the credit over a bubbling sump, which seems to be the disease-ridden focal point in this small town.  There we meet a doctor named Sanada (Shimura) treating a yakuza named Matsunaga (Mifune) for a gunshot wound to the hand.  The stern, disapproving doctor also informs Matsunaga that he may have tuberculosis; very common after the second World War…potentially deadly, but treatable, provided the patient is willing to give the disorder the attention it requires.

The hotheaded Matsunaga doesn’t seem to be the type that will do that, though.  Ignoring his doctor’s orders about women and booze, he wanders through the town as though he owns it.  In fact, he is at best a second-in-command, while the real boss Okada (Yamamoto) is awaiting release from prison.  In an interesting twist, Okada seems poised to claim the doctor’s nurse (Nakakita) when he gets out, leaving Matsunaga in a position between his boss and the physician whom he doesn’t seem to much like, but is the only person in his life actually trying to help him.

Sanada is the drunken angel of the title.  In an interesting parallel, he and Matsunaga are both sick; one from alcohol, one from TB.  Each represents something the other instinctively distrusts; for Sanada, Matsunaga is reckless, arrogant and foolish, where as for Matsunaga, the doctor is authoritative and intolerant.  It is not, as another movie might say, the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Kurosawa has crafted a work that seems to invoke American film noir…shady characters, shadowy lighting, and a feeling of moral ambiguity, or at least objectivity.  He would develop these threads in future works such as Stray Dog and The Bad Sleep Well.

Drunken Angel isn’t quite on par with those films, or with Kurosawa’s many later epic escapades.  But it’s still an intriguing, character-driven early work that points the way toward the master’s future greatness.  And it also brought Kurosawa together with Mifune for the first time.  The last time would be Red Beard.  By then, Mifune had come full circle…he would be the one playing the doctor.

Video **

This print shows its age quite a bit…there are some scratches, spots and flickers that are hard to ignore.  No more than you might expect for a 60 year old film, but definitely paling next to some of Criterion’s other astounding Kurosawa offerings.  The black and white photography renders many images well and with good contrast, but neither the whites or blacks are completely deep, and a little murkiness exists in some of the most lowly lit sequences.

Audio **

The mono soundtrack is perfectly serviceable…I can’t comment on the quality of the dialogue rendering being that the movie is in Japanese, but there are some important music cues that work well.  A little bit of noise is present in quieter moments, but nothing terribly distracting.

Features ***

There is an excellent Donald Richie commentary track, plus a 31 minute look at the making of the film from the “It is Wonderful to Create” series on Kurosawa, and a new 25 minute piece chronicling the difficulties Kurosawa had with the censors in releasing this film.

Summary:

If nothing else, Drunken Angel is a film of historical significance simply because it marked the first collaboration between Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune.  As director and actor, they helped craft some of international cinema’s most legendary films.  Though this one isn’t quite up to par with those later works, it still serves as an indication of what these artists were capable of, and of the greatness still to come.

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