Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Running Time: 98 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 1.0 Japanese
Release Date: November 27, 2007
Review Date: November 22, 2007
Before he became world famous for Rashomon, Japanese director Akira Kurosawa directed eleven features in his native Japan that at the time didn‘t make much noise outside the country. Drunken Angel was his seventh feature and his first with the actor who would become synonymous with some of his greatest works: Toshiro Mifune. If for no other reason, the film is important for their first tandem work, but actually the movie is outstanding for many reasons, and for someone like me who’s catching up on early Kurosawa, an absolute must.
Dr. Sanada (Takashi Shimura) is the man of the film’s title, a doctor who enjoys the bottle but who also seems quite adept at his job. He’s known for his “tough love” philosophy of medicine: he doesn’t sugarcoat his diagnoses, and he can get so exasperated with patients that he will hurl bottles and cans at them if they don’t comply to his wishes for their recovery. District Yakuza leader Matsuyama (Toshiro Mifune) comes to the doctor to have him dig a bullet out of his hand. During the examination, the doctor discovers that Matsuyama is suffering from tuberculosis. He can cure him, but it will take the elimination of smoking, drinking, women, and late night hours of partying and gambling. Needing to keep up the façade of strength and control, Matsuyama refuses, especially since the previous Yakuza leader Okada (Reizaburo Yamamoto) is scheduled to be released from prison any day. However, as his health becomes more precarious, he’s forced to return to the doctor for treatment.
Mifune doesn’t get top billing in the film, but he’s absolutely mesmerizing as the local gangster kingpin. He must have had the same electric reaction on moviegoers in Japan at the time that Clark Gable had when he first burst onto the scene: dominating and charismatic (the film was a tremendous box-office smash in Japan). And his performance is so beautifully modulated going from a position of supreme respect to one of almost total disgrace (his walk along a street at low ebb to the strains of a “Cuckoo Song“ is one of the most startling moments in world cinema). It’s an amazing achievement. And Takashi Shimura is likewise winning as the feisty doctor. Afraid of no one and daring to face down the Japanese mafia as well as ornery patients, he gives no quarter. Also making a very strong impression is Michiyo Kogure as the former mistress/wife of the imprisoned Okada, longing to leave the village and start a new, safe life in the country. Her delicacy and fearfulness is neatly etched in Kogure’s excellent performance.
Kurosawa’s touch, of course, is everywhere. The film’s central symbol is a fetid bog in the center of this Tokyo district obviously representing the corruption at the core of the country‘s makeup. Teaming with all types of pestilence and bacteria, the bog is returned to by Kurosawa for close-ups of the oily, bubbling cauldron of disease again and again as central character Matsunaga lapses deeper and deeper into his illness. A climactic fight between the two Yakuza princes is pure Kurosawa: thrilling, unpredictable, and messy. Accompanied by startlingly lilting music that’s a counterpoint to the viciousness that we’re witnessing, it ends with a high overhead shot that swoops lower into framing one of the film’s iconic images. Unforgettable. Even in his earliest films, Kurosawa was patenting his style with these grand and glorious flourishes.
One must, of course, mention the exceptionally unusual music of Fumio Hayasaka. Sometimes a melancholy refrain on a single guitar (which I found eerily similar to the use of the zither in The Third Man though it doesn't continue throughout the movie) and sometimes a complete orchestral score, the music is haunting, another element that Kurosawa would exploit magnificently in his films to come.
The film’s original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.33:1 is presented slightly windowboxed on this DVD release. Criterion is very upfront in the transfer notes that they had very problematic elements to work with, and while doing the best they could, the transfer is merely tolerable, and that’s about all. There are thin white scratches throughout, some issues with haze, and definite spotting from time to time. Sharpness on the whole is average with mediocre black levels. Whites fare better in this transfer. Shadow detail is somewhat stronger but never great. The white subtitles are very easy to read. The film has been divided into 17 chapters.
The Dolby Digital 1.0 mono sound has an average amount of hiss and required a reduction in volume to prevent distortion. There were no pops or crackle, however.
Japanese film scholar Donald Richie provides a very chatty audio commentary. He was actually on the set during filming, so he has many interesting stories to tell about the making of the film and his friendship with Kurosawa but most particularly with composer Fumio Hayasaka. There are only a couple of lengthy pauses during the film where Richie seems to have nothing to say.
“Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create” is a 31-minute documentary taken from a Toho-produced television series on the director’s great works. The 4:3 feature does deal with Drunken Angel, but other films also get mentioned.
“Kurosawa and the Censors” is a most interesting 24-minute anamorphic featurette with film scholar Lars-Martin Sorensen discussing the two different censorship boards that Kurosawa and other filmmakers in Japan had to navigate in order to get films made in the post-World War II era.
The enclosed 28-page booklet contains an essay by Bard professor Ian Buruma on the concept of the yakuza in the film and two chapters from Akira Kurosawa’s autobiography that deal specifically with the making of the movie.
Watching the seeds of a master cinematic artist being planted in his early work is a fascinating exercise in film going. Drunken Angel provides us with one such opportunity, and it’s most heartily recommended.