Drunken Angel – Review
A drunken doctor with a hot temper and a violence-prone gangster with tuberculosis form a quicksilver bond.
Many films that deal with alcoholism often get it right, from showing the effects of alcoholism to illustrating how alcohol abuse help can make things turn for the better. Akira Kurosawa’s first collaboration with the young actor, Toshiro Mifune, is certainly poignant. The notorious restrictions that Kurosawa was forced to inflict upon his own film ultimately made the underlying symbolism of post-war Japan much more incendiary and relevant than it may have originally been written. With a fantastic soundtrack and excellent script that is both post-modernistic and winsomely gloomy, this is a film that is seldom mentioned amongst Kurosawa’s great films but is perhaps his most important. The film is strewn together with tantalizing bits of symbolism with the doomed fates of the characters mingling between addictions and addictive personalities – this is a film about hopelessness and coping with harsh reality.
A diseased pool is omnipresent in the center of town, sparkling with carrier mosquitoes while children play near it unaware and joyfully uncaring. The drunken angel himself is Doctor Sanada (Shimura) who is stuck amidst the cesspool. His practice is a modest one and his blunt demeanour is respected but often ineffective. He forms a relationship with a young gangster Matsunaga (Mifune), who shows up on his doorstep one night with a bullet in his hand. The doctor sees something of himself in that proud reckless face, soon to be stricken with tuberculosis. Sanada is the anti-hero (one of Kurosawa’s many anti-heroes), a flawed Samaritan who perhaps has found kindness in his doomed alcoholic state and seeks to form a fruitless one-sided friendship with Matsunaga, a lost soul also doomed by the social criminal ladder of alcoholic proportions. This is Kurosawa depicting humanity in its raw quivering form, but doing so in an understated, tasteful way. He is not hesitant to voice the unabashed message of what is relevant for all nations that have suffered the after effects of war.
It becomes apparent fairly early in the film that Matsunaga is merely a stand-in for Boss Okada who has just been released from prison. Okada seeks to resume his place and Matsunaga is quickly shoved aside as his illness becomes more and more severe. Matsunaga looks upon Okada with the utmost respect however and, even when his girlfriend has abandoned him for Okada, he still regards him as his closest friend. The ending of the film is dramatic and tragic, absurd and touching – one of Kurosawa’s best. The character of Okada is an interesting one. Several times throughout the film he plays a song called “Killer’s Lullaby” on guitar. Following this Western-influenced tune is violence. Is Okada longing for Western things or bitterly remembering what such things will inevitably bring? Okada represents the uncompromising nature of selfish man whose only objective in life is to satisfy his material and short-sighted desires. There is also the relationship between Matsunaga and a local waitress who is devoted to him. He ignores her and flees when she says she will take care of him during his sickness where they can live out in the country. His rejection of her is perhaps the most tragic occurrence in the film because she is his salvation if only he could downplay his sense of pride.
The film ends with Sanada accepting what all doctors must accept, that he is only life’s tool; he can only delay the inevitable. He must accept losing control, losing himself (or what he saw of himself in Matsunaga) to a force as powerful as addiction and as uncompromising as destiny. He accepts it for what it is, there is no need for sorrow or regret, only acquiessence and an infusion of meaning into supposedly trivial things. For Sanada’s future, perhaps it’s alcoholic rejuvenation or perhaps he will find salvation from that prison. Kurosawa, ever the realist, leaves that puzzle unfinished (as it should be); Sanada and Matsunaga’s fates end up being neither sad nor joyous, but simply meant to be.
Excellent acting, fantastic soundtrack, subtle yet highly effective symbolism.
Occasionally awkward dialogue, slight flow problems.