Drunken Angel (Yoidore tenshi)

Japan (1948) Dr. Akira Kurosawa

Every story has a beginning and in the case of the fabled and very profitable relationship between director Akira Kurosawa and actor Toshiro Mifune, that beginning is here. So, if the trivia question “What was their first collaboration together?” ever rises, you now have your answer – Drunken Angel.

In post-war Japan, grouchy alcoholic doctor Sanada (Takashi Shimura) is visited one night by hothead gangster Matsunaga (Mifune) to be treated for a bullet would after a gun fight. During the check up, Sanada diagnoses TB in Matsunaga and warns him to take better care of his health and seek proper treatment, but being young and brash, Matsunaga ignores this advice.

But this secretly worries Matsunaga and he eventually returns to Sanada for further help and the two strike up an unlikely friendship until Matsunaga’s gang boss Okada (Reisaburo Yamamoto) is released from prison. Okada is the former abusive boyfriend of Sanada’s nurse Miyo (Chieko Nakakita) and wants her back. With Matsunaga now in Sanada’s debt yet wanting to serve Okada, he finds himself torn between two loyalties.

This is a curious film for many reasons beyond the genesis of the Kurosawa-Mifune partnership. It was made during the US occupation of Japan thus Kurosawa was burdened by the rules of the US censorship board, which meant any commentary on the occupation or anything considered critical were verboten. This didn’t stop Kurosawa from circumventing the rules with sly visual digs that were missed by the censors however.

Initially the role of Matsunaga was a small one with the titular Drunken Angel being Sanada himself and the sole focus of the story but Mifune, in just his fourth film role, impressed Kurosawa so much he extended the part until both characters had equal screen time. Mifune’s performance is raw and startling if you’ve only seen the polished and nuanced actor he later became, but his presence and potential here is palpable.

From a tonal perspective there is a touch of the neo-realism about this film (despite appearing seven months before De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves kick-started the movement) found in the opening shot of a muddy swamp outside Sanada’s clinic. Kurosawa uses this metaphorically to represent the negativity in the small town and the destiny of everyone who messes up.

With each return to the site, something new has been dropped in this expansive pool of sludge, and Sanada finds himself warning off the young kids who have nowhere to play, reminding them of their recent health treatments. But with his brusque bedside manner Sanada is seen as off putting as he is a lauded doctor, his only ray of hope being a chirpy teenage schoolgirl (Yoshiko Kuga) also suffering from TB but is fighting it into remission.

In the opposite corner Matsunaga is at the age where he believes his youth and being a Yakuza makes him indestructible and continues with the booze and the women at the expense of his failing health until he start coughing up blood. But as debilitating as TB is for Matsunaga, Sanada’s medical ethics and no-nonsense attitude towards gangsters proves a formidable ally and the message finally begins to sink in.

And this is where irony comes into play. The Yakuza have their own code, built around loyalty, subservience and respect which Matsunaga adheres to as much as he expects his underlings to do the same for him. With Sanada having saved his life, Matsunaga is indebted to him and uses his position to repay him – but with Okada now back and ready to reclaim his turf, Matsunaga also has to show his loyalty to his boss.

One code, two masters – where does his loyalties lie? Since Okada is a gang boss and recently imprisoned it is clear he is not nice people, illustrated by the fear Miyo has that he’ll find her again. Matsunaga tries to play peacemaker, staking his Yakuza reputation on Sanada as a trustworthy man, infuriating both Sanada and Okada, only to learn the harsh realities of how tenuous a gangster’s connections can be.

For Kurosawa this is a step into the direction of film noir and he embraces the visual representation of it during the final act, using mirrors, shadows and jaunty camerawork to capture the moment, buttressed a suitably dramatic musical score. As part of his US censor digs, the male cast are dressed in modern Western attire thus look like Hollywood gangsters, a symbolic nod to the American influence of Japan.

Yet this story is designed to be an anti-war polemic, quite understandable coming three years after Hiroshima, using Matsunaga and Okada as the symbols of the folly of feudal turf disputes. In the film’s denouement, Sanada spells out his anger at people making wrong decisions based on false loyalties, lamenting the lack of foresight in making the most of our one life on earth.

This may be one of Kurosawa’s least viewed films but one can see its influence on many other films that came in its wake. For instance, when Okada arrives from prison, he sits outside Sanada’s clinic and plays a tune on a guitar that Miyo instantly recognises, similar to westerns and noir films where the villain whistles their “signature tune” to invoke fear in their victims.

Elsewhere when Matsunaga is at his most ill, the make-up job is reminiscent of Conrad Veidt’s somnambulist in the silent classic The Cabinet Of Doctor Caligari, so the influence works both ways! As mentioned before Mifune opens a strong account for himself in this role but the big story is seeing Takashi Shimura, usually the kindly old man, playing such an angry and irascible man like Sanada, although his humanity still shines through.

Depending on how much Kurosawa you have seen, Drunken Angel may not instantly appear like a prime cut from his prolific catalogue but it does show his versatility as a director, and gives us taster of how he and Japanese cinema grew in a post war environment.