DRUNKEN ANGEL. First Collaboration of Kurosawa And Mifune

Drunken Angel is not the best film in Akira Kurosawa’s oeuvre. However…

Marcin Kempisty

19 June 2024

DRUNKEN ANGEL. First Collaboration of Kurosawa And Mifune

…, for many reasons, this title can be considered a turning point in the great director’s biography, a milestone heralding a series of subsequent artistic successes. It is with this production that Kurosawa begins to develop his unique cinematic language and to select the key themes that he would explore with even better results in the following years.

It all began in June 1946 during screen tests at the Toho studio. Toshirō Mifune, then twenty-six years old and lacking means of livelihood, decided to try his luck in the film industry. He had no artistic experience to speak of; all he could offer was himself. Initially, he supposedly applied for the position of a camera assistant, as he had helped his father in his photography studio before World War II. In 1939, he was drafted into the Japanese army, after which, as he stated in an interview, he was left with big, worker’s hands as unwanted mementos of those times. However, due to a misunderstanding, his application ended up in a different department looking for “new faces” for upcoming productions. His first meeting with the committee did not end successfully for Mifune. The man was reportedly irritated, unaware that he was at a different casting, and was thus deemed too arrogant. If it weren’t for one of the jury members, Toshirō would not have been invited for another audition and would have been immediately crossed off the list of candidates. Meanwhile, during the break between his “performances,” actress Hideko Takamine, also on the committee, found Kurosawa in the canteen and invited him to watch the performance of the unknown candidate, claiming the director might enjoy the show. Drunken Angel

Drunken Angel Yoidore tenshi Toshirô Mifune Noriko Sengoku

Here’s what the author of Seven Samurai wrote in his autobiography about that event: I entered and was stunned with amazement. The young man was circling the room in a cruel frenzy. It was terrifying, like watching a wounded or trapped wild beast trying to break free. I stood paralyzed. It turned out that the young man wasn’t angry at all; he was told to pretend anger, and he did. He was acting. And when he finished, exhausted, he returned to his chair and started glaring menacingly at his judges. I knew that this behavior was meant to mask shyness, but the jury evidently saw it as disrespect. It was thanks to Kurosawa’s intervention that this “wild beast” got cast in two films, later appearing, as Akira himself stated, in his first fully personal production.

Drunken Angel Yoidore tenshi Toshirô Mifune Takashi Shimura

Initially, Drunken Angel was to be a more than two-hour story about the alcohol-addicted Dr. Sanada (Takashi Shimura), who spread kindness and healed sick bodies in the ruins of post-war Tokyo. However, the arrival of Mifune on set, playing the gangster Matsunaga, completely changed those plans. Kurosawa was known for his meticulous preparation for his productions; his later nickname The Emperor also stemmed from his despotic disposition and huge demands on the rest of the crew. Yet, he decided to give in to the unrestrained temperament of the young actor. He allowed him to improvise, to have powerful outbursts of aggression, to oscillate between stagnation and an unprecedented expressiveness on the big screen. Toshirō didn’t need to familiarize himself with Stanislavski’s method to effortlessly embody the role of the clownish thug whose tuberculosis drove him into the arms of death. The director was fascinated by Mifune’s attitude, thus making significant changes to the script that allowed Matsunaga to become as important a character as the titular drunken angel – the doctor bringing help to those most in need.

Drunken Angel Yoidore tenshi Toshirô Mifune Reizaburô Yamamoto

The story in Drunken Angel unfolds just after the end of World War II, most likely in the suburbs of Tokyo. There, in cramped houses surrounded by street filth, next to a stinking swamp, unfolds the tragedy of people forced to live in undignified conditions. With a neorealist zeal, Kurosawa directs the camera’s eye to the ubiquitous dirt, both in the crowded, often-visited places (shops, bars) and on the faces of children or small, bullied shopkeepers dependent on gangs. The Japanese director spares no one, presenting the poverty that befell Japanese society after the lost conflict. He doesn’t look at the shabby houses only from an economic perspective; the depicted misery also has a metaphorical dimension, representing devastated souls and rotten consciences.

Drunken Angel Yoidore tenshi Toshirô Mifune

The plot of Drunken Angel begins with Matsunaga visiting Sanada, asking to have a bullet removed from his bleeding hand. The gangster doesn’t want to admit how the injury occurred, but the doctor rightly suspects it was related to street gang fights. He also notices the first signs of lung disease in his visitor and recommends treatment. It is at this moment that the almost entire film-long struggle for Matsunaga’s soul begins. This psychomachia unfolds on many levels, at the intersection of the desire for life and the sense of overpowering stagnation, inner goodness, and addictions leading astray, finally the need for love and the conviction that everyone around is rotten and unworthy of trust. For in Kurosawa’s film, it is not the case that the men’s meeting is like a divine revelation sent to a sinful Saul. The doctor does not don the robes of a moral authority, preaching to the little ones from the pulpit to convert. While he has a good heart and wants to help, he himself likes to drink and wasted his chance for a prosperous life in his youth.

Drunken Angel Yoidore tenshi Takashi Shimura Michiyo Kogure

The director juxtaposes the protagonists’ personalities like two sides of the same coin. Both have experienced a wild life, didn’t shy away from the company of shady women, and abandoned ambitions in favor of a perversely understood “carpe diem” principle. However, while Sanada has crossed his “shadow line” and tries to correct his mistakes, Matsunaga still stands at the threshold of hell, not yet having experienced ultimate humiliation. The doctor tries to save the young man from what he himself went through, despite continuously encountering aggression and reluctance from the patient to undergo treatment. And since the doctor is often drunk during these conversations, his fight can be considered doomed from the start.

Drunken Angel seems to be one of Kurosawa’s most pessimistic titles. The constant focus of the camera on the swamp, the continuous reminder that regardless of human desires or virtues, the dirty reality can effectively pull a dreamy Icarus to the bottom, attest to this. The symbolic scene where Matsunaga, standing by the reservoir, holds a beautiful flower and then throws it into the bubbling mire conveys an obvious message: the fate of people trapped in Tokyo slums was written and planned before they even appeared on this earth. Despite the underlying desire to conquer merciless fate, the gangster knows well that a slight gust is enough to steer him back onto the path of unrighteousness.

Drunken Angel Yoidore tenshi Toshirô Mifune Takashi Shimura

The power of fate is emphasized by the director through discussions of the past even of secondary characters. The creator allows them to tell their own stories, which, when contrasted with the present, create a picture of enslavement by indelible traumas. The alcohol-addicted Sanada and his nurse Miyo, whom he rescued from the clutches of the abusive Okada, lead the way in this. The woman was a victim of the gangster when their romance turned into toxic dependence and life at the mercy of her “master.” Although she freed herself and started a new chapter, the mere signal of Okada’s release from prison makes her want to return to him. The ex-prisoner himself shows no desire for change. He barely gets out and already returns to criminal activities, carving out a territory for himself. He is, after all, the devil tempting Matsunaga, as they knew each other before and were close acquaintances. When they meet again, the character played by Mifune cannot be assertive and once again lets himself be crushed by his mentor, returning to a wild lifestyle despite the doctor’s recommendations.

Alongside the emotional-existential turmoil, in Drunken Angel Kurosawa sketches a grim picture of Japanese reality founded on rotten, sometimes absurd principles. Many problems wouldn’t even appear on the screen if people weren’t still mentally stuck in feudal dependencies and patriarchal conditions. The director condemns blind obedience, a sick understanding of “honor,” and women’s material dependence on their partners. Whether it’s the humble Miyo or the femme fatale Nanae, the entire system based on “masters and slaves,” where social position is determined not by virtues and achievements but merely by gender and the ability to cross moral boundaries, is fully revealed.

Drunken Angel Yoidore tenshi Takashi Shimura

Thanks to the collaboration between Kurosawa and Mifune, from the very first minutes of Drunken Angel, one can observe the nascent new style of expression that would be successfully developed in Kurosawa’s subsequent works. This style features a seamless transition between lyrical layers and bursts of violence. The actor fills the frame with his entire being, whether he is silently brooding or throwing punches at another opponent. From his character, woven from a series of destructive atavisms, emerges the filmic language of the director. Just as Matsunaga freezes like a statue, so the camera focuses on an anonymous bard playing nightly concerts by the swamp. When Matsunaga attacks Okada, foaming at the mouth like an animal, the editing becomes faster, and the camera starts to react nervously to the events it observes. Formal perfection would be achieved just four years later with the release of Rashōmon.

Drunken Angel is a memorable ballad of lost chances and the impossibility of escaping a web of sins. It serves as a reminder that one needs a lot of luck at the start because, when living in inhumane conditions, every choice can be marked by catastrophe. Despite the fatalism pervading each frame, Kurosawa manages to show a glimmer of hope personified by one of the young girls being treated by Sanada. Without his recommendations and requests to lead a healthy, rational life, the patient’s body would soon be laid in a grave. Therefore, most people might be doomed to an early death because they succumb to the whims of the heart and impure desires, but if even one person heeds the voice of conscience, there is still a chance for a better life. With his early film, Kurosawa firmly confirms that when reason sleeps, demons awaken.

Marcin Kempisty

Marcin Kempisty

Addicted to TV shows, looking for truth in culture. He values courage, uncompromising attitude, but also openness to other people's views. If it wasn't for Michelangelo Antonioni's films, he wouldn't be here.

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