Drunken Angel (Criterion) Review
The notion of the Platonic whole has influenced many of our fancy ideas about the meaning of true love. That two parts of the same broken whole need to find each other again to be fulfilled is a beautiful thought that many non-romantic partnerships seem to confirm as well. Can you imagine Blair but no Brown, Laurel without Hardy or Morecambe lacking Wise? Many great working partnerships in movies also prove that sometimes people achieve much more than on their own because they find the right collaborator, and that this coming together generates great work that apart both parties will struggle to match. Think John Wayne and John Ford, Tim Burton and Johnny Depp, and, more to the point, Toshiro Mifune and Akira Kurosawa.
Akira Kurosawa would cast Toshiro Mifune in sixteen of his finest films between 1948 and 1965. He would often cast him as a force of nature needing to be taught and saved by an older sensei, he would cast him as an old man avoiding the holocaust, he would cast him as Macbeth, and eventually he would become the sensei character tutoring the young upstart he had once been in Red Beard. The director found that Mifune the actor understood what was wanted with little, if any instruction, and that the instinctive forcefulness of his style would infuse their films with energy that traditional technique sucked out of them. After they fell out in the sixties, Kurosawa still made some fine films but even when he made the masterpiece that is Ran critics still found themselves imagining what Mifune would have done with the role of the elderly patriarch.
Mifune had made three films before Drunken Angel, and Kurosawa was making his fifth collaboration with Takashi Shimura filling once again the role of a spiritual teacher to a young tearaway. Mifune was cast according to type as the boisterous gangster who Shimura's alcoholic doctor would work to save from the TB that had taken charge of his lungs as well as the moral corruption that had taken over his life. Shimura's role is the vanity part of the film with easy admiration to be earned for playing such a humane character, and he does it well as a daring older man who regrets his own misspent youth and wants to help others get out of the squalor around them. Still, the camera and the film becomes far more bothered with Mifune's westernised gangster whose fight against TB mirrors the fight for his humanity.
At times, Mifune is an imposing bully playing it cool but his humanity starts to win the battle for his soul and the words of Shimura start to be heeded, and a certain broken tenderness appears and we become enthralled as he fights every drink, every cigarette and the effect of his rival Okada. It is a fight that he won't win as temptation is everywhere and with his new decency comes the awareness that others are more vulnerable than him, and that he realises that perhaps his own sacrifice will free others. In making a potentially two dimensional role so alive, Mifune manages to steal the film and, even if its title remains Drunken Angel, the film is far more about his Matsunaga than the gruff doctor of Shimura.
Drunken Angel is an important film for the director as he finds the courage to start giving his own view of the diseased and impoverished Tokyo struggling against westernization and its dubious benefits. What had been a fairly non specific humanism of his earlier films becomes a hatred of corruption and even if the film has a supposed happy ending in the good examples of the doctor's patients, what has come before is fairly unrelenting in its focus on the swamp of these Tokyo slums. This is possible as Kurosawa has become a wiser and subtler director through experience, and that in Mifune he has found the perfect embodiment of his theme of humanity fighting against the world we live in. There are time that Drunken Angel is melodramatic and the finale of Okada fighting Matsunaga is so stacked with symbolism and free from words that it seems like Kurosawa has returned to the world of silent cinema rather than let filthy dialogue ruin his vision. Kurosawa's best films manage the balance between subtlety and symbolism better than he does here, but in some ways the anger and emotion helps the piece to maintain its impact all these years later.
Mifune and Shimura would star again as master and student in The Quiet Duel, Stray Dog and The Seven Samurai and their relationship on screen would work better than it does here as Mifune became a more pragmatic performer, but it is Kurosawa's fascination with the elemental actor that begins here and continues in some of the finest films in World Cinema. Kurosawa's films without Mifune, save a few, always seem a little bereft, and Mifune, as fine an actor as he became, would perform admirably in the works of other film-makers without having the same impact or soulfulness that he brought to Kurosawa's work. Their secret feud robbed the world of more great movies, but the films of this collaboration from Drunken Angel through to Red Beard will remain testament to this oddly perfect union.
Criterion have restored Drunken Angel for this release and have clearly been working from not the greatest materials because despite their efforts a lot of damage remains visible and audible in the presentation. The film is presented in 4:3 with the usual window box for those who have displays with ovescan problems. Most of the sequences of the transfer have come out well and the interior shots work best in terms of contrast and sharpness whereas the exterior and long shots are softer. This is a fine effort visually hamstrung by the print worked from which is riddled with lines marks and constant damage. The audio comes in Japanese monaural which has background hum and light pops through the whole of the soundtrack which don't overwhelm the dialogue or score but are a constant reminder of the film's age. The removable English subtitles are clear and easy to follow.
The film is accompanied by a commentary from Donald Richie, a fine writer on many of the great Japanese directors. Richie was actually present during the shooting of the film as he was friends with Fumio Hayasaka for whom this was his first of many fine scores for the director. Richie is immensely well informed and his actual presence on set allows the whole shooting of the movie to be illuminated by his comments. This is an ideal commentary for both those new to the director and those who have read well on Kurosawa's career and Richie is honest enough to be critical of scenes such as the nightclub boogie sequences with Mifune's arse wiggling not to his taste at all. The extras include a very interesting piece on Drunken Angel's passage with the censors which highlights how the director had to be crafty to challenge the taboos on presenting the occupation negatively and throw light onto why Kurosawa's original ending was forsaken for the somewhat inappropriately cheery one in the final film.
As is their normal practice with Kurosawa, Criterion include an episode of the Japanese series on the director, It is Wonderful to Create. The 31 minute documentary deals with the writing of the script and puts a far more positive spin on the director's intentions than I believe was the case with the movie described as being anti-Yakuza rather than anti-westernization. Some time is given over to Kurosawa appreciating Mifune as an actor and Mifune's son is interviewed to give background on his humble beginnings and his experience in auditioning for Toho. This audition forms the main part of the excerpt from Kurosawa's Something Like an Autobiography included here with the director challenging the studio habit of giving trade unionists and director's equal votes at auditions. There is also a short essay by Ian Buruma on the film and its historical context which is affectionate if not quite the way I understand the director - his assertion that Kurosawa made films about Japanese for the Japanese seems a shaky contention when viewing later western produced films like Dreams and Rhapsody in August, or even earlier very un-Japanese films like Scandal or Dersu Uzala.
The best of the extras is a visual essay from Lars-Martin Sorensen on Kurosawa and the Censors which details the various forms of censorship imposed on Japanese films during the occupation with the film requiring outline, script and final cut approval. Illustrating how Kurosawa dared to bend the rules and explaining the probable nature of the film's upbeat ending as a sop to the authorities for the pessimism of the rest of the film.
It's a Criterion disc and without the BFI disc to compare with, I'll believe that this is as good as they could have achieved without better source materials. The film is a good movie but the director and his lead were shortly to make some even finer films and in comparison with these later films Drunken Angel seems less impressive. On its own terms though, this is a striking movie and what the director saw as the birth of his film-making.