Although shot during the U.S. occupation of Japan, the film shows no soldiers--due, most likely, to U.S. censorship. Kurosawa's subtle criticism of America unfolds in the moments when the film seems to exceed its genre, as if jeering at American moviemaking conventions. In a nightclub scene, a singer belts out a song about the jungle to a big-band score. She might as well be shaking maracas and wearing a grass skirt and a fruit basket on her head. Kurosawa keeps the camera at a low angle, looking up into her face. From this angle, her wide eyes and exaggerated gestures seem far more menacing than cheerful. Twig arms and a bony chest give her the look of both a twelve-year-old and a decaying corpse. You get the impression that this is what America has given Japan.
Like the mosquitoes, low angles plague the characters. It's as if this were the only way Kurosawa could get a shot of someone's face, because everyone is always looking down, literally and figuratively. Even the children are cynical: when the doctor shouts at some kids to stop playing in the dirty bog water, they shout back, "You're just a drunk!" There are no heroes. The doctor is certainly the most altruistic character, but he's bad-tempered (and alcoholic). Matsunaga's heroism is confined to his brooding good looks and a misguided loyalty to his gang. Ultimately, Drunken Angel is a portrait of discontent so pervasive that heroism is not even a dream.
The U-M Center for Japanese Studies offers a chance to see Kurosawa's post-war cinematography on a big screen on September 25.