Akira Kurosawa once said, “A truly good movie is interesting and easy to understand.” His 1948 film Drunken Angel fits that description. Its plot is easy to understand: An old gangster gets out of jail and takes over a young gangster’s turf. Violence ensues. People die. The plot would be cliche if Kurosawa didn’t drag the center of the film to the outskirts of town, to a doctor’s office situated mere steps from a bog. Here’s the “interesting” half of Kurosawa’s equation: most of the action unfolds in the meetings between the curmudgeonly alcoholic physician (Takashi Shimura) and his newest patient, the young gangster Matsunaga (Toshiro Mifune, in his first role for Kurosawa), who’s also an alcoholic and is dying of tuberculosis. In fact, most of the violence takes place between these two, when Matsunaga beats up on the doctor from time to time for trying to make him change his ways.
The doctor utters the first words of the film, “These mosquitoes are killin’ me.” Whether real or metaphorical, there are constant references to mosquitoes, leeches, parasites, and disease (typhus, syphilis, and TB). As he attempts to get Matsunaga to leave gang life, the doctor describes mobsters as “rotten, maggot-infested bacteria.” It’s obvious these are dark times. The opening titles splay across a close-up of the bog, which in black and white looks like gurgling grey mud. (The set designer used straws to blow the bubbles for the close-ups.) It’s a recurring image, whether it’s a wide vista that stretches out in front of a street performer’s lonely guitar playing (another recurrence) or the focal point of Matsunaga’s depressed final thoughts.
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.