Drunken Angel Review
With many of his later works so heavily criticised for their overt sentimentality, it is often easy to forget that Kurosawa would often combine this quality with a more sardonic underpinning in his earlier efforts. Drunken Angel is a case in point: whilst it may share a lachrymose coda with Rhapsody in August (or, indeed, Rashomon), its bitter edge is present from the opening titles. In static close-up and accompanied by Fumio Hayasaka’s brooding score, we witness the bubbling, typhoid-ridden waters which form some kind of landmark to the film’s Tokyo slum. This, we later learn, is the territory of a brash, young Toshiro Mifune; hardly the most inviting of environs, even for an up-and-coming yakuza. The point Kurosawa is trying to make is that this isn’t your average big screen heavy. Whilst he may share the fatalism of his Warner Bros. counterparts, this is as much to do with his having TB as it is any kind of in-built death wish. Indeed, what Kurosawa is doing is deconstructing the archetype – much like David Chase, creator of The Sopranos, he’s made his gangster weak in order to find out how he works.
In this respect Drunken Angel can be twinned with Stray Dog (made the following year) as any film in which Kurosawa considers the characters of modern day Japan also hinges on a taking of the post-war mood. Yet if Drunken Angel offers a deconstruction of the gangster, then surely, by extension, it is also deconstructing the gangster film and as such the Mifune character isn’t the sole focus. Indeed, Mifune doesn’t even occupy the leading role, rather than part is taken by Takeshi Shimura as his stern, authoritarian doctor. The subversion is again apparent from the off as we open with Shimura patching up a bullet wound on Mifune’s hand. Rather than follow the cocksure gangster and relegate the doctor to the sidelines as is so often the case, we instead find our attentions occupied by the elderly gentleman. As such Kurosawa is able to take us on a more humanist bent as he contrasts youth and experience in a manner that would later recur between the two actors in the likes of Stray Dog and Seven Samurai.
And yet it is indicative of a certain unevenness that Drunken Angel is completely stolen by Mifune. Seemingly unable to occupy the supporting role, his physicality and, as the film progresses, increasing resemblance to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’s somnambulist killer, continually steals Shimura’s thunder. Of course, history may have a part to play in this as it is difficult to ignore the fact that this was the actor’s first collaboration with Kurosawa or to stop yourself from comparing this initially rather suave figure to the more feral characters who adorned their later period pictures. But then some fault must also lie with the director himself for allowing Mifune such leeway (he even admits as much in an extract from the 1964 Sight and Sound article reprinted in the disc’s accompanying booklet). Indeed, Drunken Angel had many of its qualities reconfigured into 1965’s Red Beard, albeit with Mifune in the role of the doctor and as such with no chance of his central figure being in any way overshadowed.
That said, Drunken Angel should be considered a flawed work as opposed to a disappointment. Kurosawa’s basic cinematic command is much in evidence, most notably during a striking feverish nightmare reminiscent of M.R. James or the heavily scored death scene which easily competes with Throne of Blood for sheer visceral power. Moreover, this is the film generally considered to Kurosawa’s first in auteurist terms despite being his eight feature and as such offers a treasure trove of thematic correlations. As well as the resonances with Stray Dog, Seven Samurai and Red Beard discussed thus far, we also have the opportunity to compare Mifune’s TB-stricken character with Shimura’s elderly cancer victim in Ikiru; to consider Shimura’s character here in light of Dersu Uzala’s forest dweller; or to enjoy the more basic thriller elements as a precursor to the delights of The Bad Sleep Well and High and Low. Indeed, in spite of its difficulties which can, perhaps, be put down to director inexperience (much the same is true of Stray Dog), Drunken Angel remains an incredibly rich work and will no doubt satisfy those with even only the remotest of interests in the director.
Drunken Angel comes to DVD in a decent, if not perfect, fashion. The print is understandably showing signs of age and as such the film is blighted by the occasional judder and some noticeable flicker. That said, the contrast and clarity levels are extremely pleasing which does suggest that we are getting the film as good as could be expected for a film of this age. Indeed, despite the flaws, there are no technical difficulties and the presentation does mark an improvement over some the other BFI discs of early Kurosawa ventures, Stray Dog and Rashomon. With regards to the soundtrack, again this is perhaps as should be expected. We get the original Japanese mono (spread over the front two channels) with English subtitles (disc generated but non-optional) and it is mostly clear if blighted by the occasional crackle and pop. We also have to contend with some distortion during the louder moments, but as these only to be found intermittently, this doesn’t prove to be too distracting. As for extras, Drunken Angel comes with the BFI's standard Kurosawa accompaniment: a handful of biographies on the disc for the director and his two leads, plus a booklet of reprinted Sight and Sound articles and Philip Kemp’s liner notes in the case.