There is a cesspool in the center of town at the beginning of Drunken Angel. The prostitutes hang out by it. The children play in it. Doctor Sanada (Shimura) waves them all away. He knows this remnant of post war Japan is no place for children. Yet here they are.
The first patient we see is a young angry man, Matsunaga (Mifune). He’s in for a bullet in the hand, no doubt due to his association with the Yakuza. Dr. Sanada notices symptoms of Tuberculosis (TB) and he tells Matsunaga to get an x-ray. This is not news the violent man wants to hear.
In the midst of Matsunaga throwing the Dr. around (it won’t be the last time) a young Nurse (Nakakita) enters the office. The tussle stops. The Nurse, and a lot of other women, spend time trying to speak rationally in this film. Not a lot of it is heard.
Drunken Angel feels like a metaphor for Japan, post-World War II. Still alive among the ruins, there are children playing in an environment unsuitable. Some women make themselves available to the Americans (not pictured, but implied by the dress of the prostitutes). The strong young men (represented by Mifune) are angry and poison themselves with drink and womanizing while working for warlords – like the recently released Okada (Yamamoto) – who somehow survived the war. Older, well intentioned, but still damaged persons like Dr. Sanada try to push the young into a better way of life. No one knows how to communicate except for the women who are not prostitutes. And the men don’t really listen to them until it’s too late.
It’s amazing artwork, for the most part. Amazing that he got it past the overworked American censors at the time.
It seems the Dr. is being thrown about the room by his most stubborn patient in every scene they share. His attempts at medicine are well intentioned, but not received as well due to his gruff delivery, and his own reliance on drink. The script is incredibly frank for its time and considering Japan is under U.S. control as part of the terms of surrender.
There are challenges to the film. The fight scenes are awkward and frequent. There seems to be two modes for Dr. Sanada: calm introspection and yelling. Perhaps its a symbol of the time. I am also unsure of the diagnosis of TB. I don’t exactly know how it works, but I don’t think a few eggs and laying off the booze and women are enough to bring someone back from the brink. As a metaphor, I can accept it.
Mifune is fine in the film. He really is representative of Japan’s stunted pride. Young men in Japan know they have no power even if they are really just tools used by the remaining warlords to shore up the old guard. More importantly, the men struggle with self-worth. Matsunaga sees the Dr. for his weakness of will, rather than the wisdom of his words.
The Dr., who has the right answer and the kind heart needed to survive, is struggling. Sanada is the true Angel of the film, and when he’s not fighting with Matsunaga, Shimura is incredible at portraying his inability to have his own deeds match the advice for his patients.
Kurosawa plants the seeds of brilliance in this film. There are several perspectives, including the rainstorm shot of Mifune above, that qualify as artwork, worthy of hanging on a wall. Even the shot below works on many levels. One can see the seeds of his talent that will eventually blossom into skill.
Drunken Angel is a flawed, but brilliant first film by one of the world’s greatest directors. Knowing he is this good when he started out makes me hopeful for a future I already know.
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