December 3, 2007

Drunken Angel: Early Kurosawa as it was meant to be seen


Reviewer: Dylan de Thomas
Rating (out of 5): ***½

Early works in artists' careers can be fascinating, giving viewers a window with which to view later greatness, and that certainly is the case with the new Criterion Collection release of Akira Kurosawa's Drunken Angel (1948). The crisp digital transfer will give fans of the venerated Japanese director the opportunity to see (the first viewing for some – this is the official region 1 debut on the DVD format; GreenCine previously offered an import) what the master called his first "real" film – that is, the first time he had complete creative control on a project. Perhaps more notably, it was his first collaboration with actor Toshiro Mifune, beginning one of the greatest cinematic collaborations in the history of film, which ran through 1965’s Red Beard.

The film itself is an entertaining melodrama about Sanada (Kurosawa regular and Ikuru star, Takashi Shimura), an alcoholic slum doctor, and his tempestuous relationship with Matsunaga (played by Mifune), the Yakuza boss of the neighborhood who happens to be infected with tuberculosis. The grim diagnosis is made in the outstanding opening scene, where Matsunaga presses Sanada into service to remove a bullet from his wrist. The doctor does the procedure sans anesthetic – "Not for your kind!" he cries when begged for a shot of morphine.


While the over-the-top aspects of the movie – let's just say that Mifune found subtlety later in his career – might be a turn-off for some, the bravura set pieces that populate the film more than make up for any anti-TB public service announcement vibe the movie sometimes gives off. A terrific nightclub dance scene and the final confrontation between Matsunaga and his gangland rival are two for the ages.

The central metaphor for the movie is a literal cesspool in the middle of the slum – appearing in the opening credit sequence – which bubbles and oozes with a palpable nastiness. I took the ugly puddle as a symbol for the state of post-war Japan and the Allied Occupation of the island nation, which clearly weighed heavily on the director. That said, the film does not stay in such a reductive state, instead showing the weight that the country was feeling, reeling as it was from the collective trauma of the war.

Bonus Features: A 30-minute clip from the Toho documentary "Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create," focusing on this early period of his career and an excellent commentary track by Japanese film scholar Donald Richie.

Not included: a drinking game, where one takes a shot every time the titular angel slugs one back. That one’s on me.

See also: The Hospital, Stray Dog, The Bad Sleep Well, Bringing Out the Dead

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Posted by cphillips at December 3, 2007 2:32 PM