Drunken Angel (Yoidore Tenshi) Akira Kurosawa (1948; Japan)

Drunken Angel (Yoidore Tenshi) Akira Kurosawa (1948; Japan)

Drunken Angel (Yoidore Tenshi) Akira Kurosawa (1948; Japan) Takashi Shimura; Toshiro Mifune; Michiyo Koguro

viewed: BFI streaming; 3rd May 2021

Drunken Angel (Yoidore Tenshi) Akira Kurosawa (1948; Japan) Takashi Shimura; Toshiro Mifune; Michiyo Koguro

viewed: BFI streaming; 3rd May 2021

Call for the Doctor

In deciding to view this early film of Kurosawa’s I was interested to see how and in what ways ‘Drunken Angel’ might represent Japan’s situation in 1948. A country that had experienced total war and total defeat; that had been ruled and led to war by a hereditary military caste but was now occupied by the Americans who were intent on imposing upon this particular society some of the norms that characterised their democracy and culture. How would these reflect on the surface of the film, how would the script register the overwhelming contradictions of post conflict Japanese society?

‘Drunken Angel’ is sometimes described as a ‘Noir’ movie. It’s not. It looks nothing like a ‘Noir’ product, nor does it evidence a ‘Noir’ sensibility.   Kurasawa’s cinematic design makes little use of shadow or chiascuro interplay, rather it is transparent, giving us things we can see, augmented by a panning shots that direct us to the relevant image. Likewise his Yakuza protagonist, has few elements that make up a ‘Noir’ character:he is simply doomed from the start. ‘Drunken Angel’ falls into a genre type not entirely absent from Hollywood out put, but an unusual one; it is forensic. Given the main character is a doctor ‘Drunken Angel’ is in its own fashion a diagnostic movie, using the crime and criminal activity as an allegorical artifice for considering Japan’s situation and predicament. The allegorical features of Kurosawa’s script are not over larded, rather they underlie the situations realised in the scenario.

From the start Kurosawa depicts the reality of things as they are in 1948: a Tokyo that has been firebombed razed and puddled by the US Air force. In his opening shot we see a huge fetid squalid pool of water, mosquito infected stagnant, but with people still drinking from it. This is the great city of Tokyo. And the stagnet pool is the recurring image in the film, returned to time and again. Hybrid Japanese-American music overlays the opening puddle shot: Japanese scales meshed with jazz rhythm, music indicating Japan’s new schizo cultural accommodation. This is perhaps the situation as Kurosawa sees it; a smashed people living in a schizo culture.   In ‘Drunken Angel’ his solution is: call for the doctor. We need to understand what’s going on.

The play out of the script revolves round Sanada’s (the Doctor) relationship with Matsunaga the gangster, which relationship hinges on Sanada’s diagnosis of Matsunaga’s TB. TB is the hidden disease.   From the outside there is nothing to see, everything looks OK.   But within the cavity of the body, the lungs waste away.   Sanada makes his diagnosis from a physical examination, which then needs to be confirmed by an Xray, the photographic eye that can penetrate the flesh.  The problem is not so much that Matsunaga doesn’t recognise that he has the disease but that he needs to deny it. He denies it because it is an insult to his self image as a Yakuza; to even suggest that he may have a weakness is a threat to which he responds by attacking the messenger, Sanada. When the Xray confirms his condition, when he is spitting coughing up blood and can no longer deny having TB, he adopts the belief that he can somehow overcome the disease by carrying on his life as usual, by aggressively and assertively ignoring the Doctor’s advice. When finally almost completely incapacitated he ceases to claim he can defy TB with his own will, rather he boasts to the Sanada that the Yakuza brotherhood will take care of him: it is Yakuza honour and their loyalty to each other that will save him. His last self deception, delusion.

Sanada observes Matsunaga’s inevitable decline as each stage of the illness takes its course.   Sanada stance towards his patient is of a quasi-Bhuddist compassion: he is detached, he has no emotional involvement. But Sanada’s compassion, his desire to minister to his truculent patient, accepts no bounds. Matsunaga assaults him, rejects him, abuses him, ignores him, but Sanada remains his doctor and will do all that can be done for him, even though Matsunaga knows ultimately only one law: the law of self destruction.

As an allegorical rendering of Japan’s condition, this is bleak. But Kurosawa’s humanistic design directs the film in a positive direction. The script’s central character is the doctor.  Sanada is the pivot of the movie: the one who sees. Kurosawa’s ‘seer’ is quite different from the ‘priest’ type in Hollywood gangster movies. In these the gangster is always at the centre of the script. In movies such as ‘Public Enemy’, ‘the priest’ acts as an externalised (societal or religious) voice of individual conscience, and as such often determines the outcome of plot. As ‘seer’ Sanada is unable to influence Matsunaga’s behaviour. But the point is his seeing: the seeing that there is a problem, that the people (ie Japanese society/culture) once they understand there is a problem can harness their own resources to come to terms with their past and take responsibility and control of their future. The essence of Sanada’s course of treatment for TB is discipline through time: understand the nature of the disease and the effect it has on the body; instigate life style changes to maximise the chances of the medication working; and understand that the healing process takes time, nothing will happen quickly. If all this is well understood, the cure will be slow but sure. And the film ends with one of his patients, who has followed Sanada’s recovery regime, presenting him with her X-rays that show she is clear of TB: a perfect set of lungs with which to live and breath. Hope.

Kurosawa’s movie is centred in the compassion of Sanada, but as a figure this doctor is no insufferable perfect being, a guy on a pedestal. No! Sanada is deeply flawed, an alcoholic bum, prisoner to his own resentments and insecurities which only the bottle can deaden. Mired in his own course of self destructive behaviour, his compassion is of a particularly human order. It flows into the world out of the realisation of his own problems. We are not listening to or trying to understand a saint, but an imperfect human being.

The feeling from Drunken Angel is not that it is anti-American. The gangster world has adopted Americanisation of life with its jazz, clothes and stylistic statements. But Kurasawa depicts these for what they are: diversions that people take up because they are enjoyable. But the Americanisation of life is a distraction, not even a quick fix. The rebuilding of Japan as a psychic entity will need a deeper more substantive shift, perhaps through a generation. But first the problems of Japan need to be seen and understood. And ‘Drunken Angel’ is Kurasawa’s means of stepping forward into the ruins and thinking about how new foundations might be built. Later his Sumurai movies would affirm again his belief that Japan contains within her own culture, the resources to develop its own form of modernism that had moved beyond its past.

adrin neatrour   adrinuk@yahoo.co.uk

Call for the Doctor

In deciding to view this early film of Kurosawa’s I was interested to see how and in what ways ‘Drunken Angel’ might represent Japan’s situation in 1948. A country that had experienced total war and total defeat; that had been ruled and led to war by a hereditary military caste but was now occupied by the Americans who were intent on imposing upon this particular society some of the norms that characterised their democracy and culture. How would these reflect on the surface of the film, how would the script register the overwhelming contradictions of post conflict Japanese society?

‘Drunken Angel’ is sometimes described as a ‘Noir’ movie. It’s not. It looks nothing like a ‘Noir’ product, nor does it evidence a ‘Noir’ sensibility.   Kurasawa’s cinematic design makes little use of shadow or chiascuro interplay, rather it is transparent, giving us things we can see, augmented by a panning shots that direct us to the relevant image. Likewise his Yakuza protagonist, has few elements that make up a ‘Noir’ character:he is simply doomed from the start. ‘Drunken Angel’ falls into a genre type not entirely absent from Hollywood out put, but an unusual one; it is forensic. Given the main character is a doctor ‘Drunken Angel’ is in its own fashion a diagnostic movie, using the crime and criminal activity as an allegorical artifice for considering Japan’s situation and predicament. The allegorical features of Kurosawa’s script are not over larded, rather they underlie the situations realised in the scenario.

From the start Kurosawa depicts the reality of things as they are in 1948: a Tokyo that has been firebombed razed and puddled by the US Air force. In his opening shot we see a huge fetid squalid pool of water, mosquito infected stagnant, but with people still drinking from it. This is the great city of Tokyo. Hybrid Japanese-American music overlays the puddle shot: Japanese scales meshed with jazz rhythm, music indicating Japan’s new schizo cultural accommodation. This is perhaps the situation as Kurosawa sees it; a smashed people living in a schizo culture.   In ‘Drunken Angel’ his solution is: call for the doctor. We need to understand what’s going on.

The play out of the script revolves round Sanada’s (the Doctor) relationship with Matsunaga the gangster, which relationship hinges on Sanada’s diagnosis of Matsunaga’s TB. TB is the hidden disease.   From the outside there is nothing to see, everything looks OK.   But within the cavity of the body, the lungs waste away.   Sanada makes his diagnosis from a physical examination, which then needs to be confirmed by an Xray, the photographic eye that can penetrate the flesh.  The problem is not so much that Matsunaga doesn’t recognise that he has the disease but that he needs to deny it. He denies it because it is an insult to his self image as a Yakuza; to even suggest that he may have a weakness is a threat to which he responds by attacking the messenger, Sanada. When the Xray confirms his condition, when he is spitting coughing up blood and can no longer deny having TB, he adopts the belief that he can somehow overcome the disease by carrying on his life as usual, by aggressively and assertively ignoring the Doctor’s advice. When finally almost completely incapacitated he ceases to claim he can defy TB with his own will, rather he boasts to the Sanada that the Yakuza brotherhood will take care of him: it is Yakuza honour and their loyalty to each other that will save him. His last self deception, delusion.

Sanada observes Matsunaga’s inevitable decline as each stage of the illness takes its course.   Sanada stance towards his patient is of a quasi-Bhuddist compassion: he is detached, he has no emotional involvement. But Sanada’s compassion, his desire to minister to his truculent patient, accepts no bounds. Matsunaga assaults him, rejects him, abuses him, ignores him, but Sanada remains his doctor and will do all that can be done for him, even though Matsunaga knows ultimately only one law: the law of self destruction.

As an allegorical rendering of Japan’s condition, this is bleak. But Kurosawa’s humanistic design directs the film in a positive direction. The script’s central character is the doctor.  Sanada is the pivot of the movie: the one who sees. Kurosawa’s ‘seer’ is quite different from the ‘priest’ type in Hollywood gangster movies. In these the gangster is always at the centre of the script. In movies such as ‘Public Enemy’, ‘the priest’ acts as an externalised (societal or religious) voice of individual conscience, and as such often determines the outcome of plot. As ‘seer’ Sanada is unable to influence Matsunaga’s behaviour. But the point is his seeing: the seeing that there is a problem, that the people (ie Japanese society/culture) once they understand there is a problem can harness their own resources to come to terms with their past and take responsibility and control of their future. The essence of Sanada’s course of treatment for TB is discipline through time: understand the nature of the disease and the effect it has on the body; instigate life style changes to maximise the chances of the medication working; and understand that the healing process takes time, nothing will happen quickly. If all this is well understood, the cure will be slow but sure. And the film ends with one of his patients, who has followed Sanada’s recovery regime, presenting him with her X-rays that show she is clear of TB: a perfect set of lungs with which to live and breath. Hope.

Kurosawa’s movie is centred in the compassion of Sanada, but as a figure this doctor is no insufferable perfect being, a guy on a pedestal. No! Sanada is deeply flawed, an alcoholic bum, prisoner to his own resentments and insecurities which only the bottle can deaden. Mired in his own course of self destructive behaviour, his compassion is of a particularly human order. It flows into the world out of the realisation of his own problems. We are not listening to or trying to understand a saint, but an imperfect human being.

The feeling from Drunken Angel is not that it is anti-American. The gangster world has adopted Americanisation of life with its jazz, clothes and stylistic statements. But Kurasawa depicts these for what they are: diversions that people take up because they are enjoyable. But the Americanisation of life is a distraction, not even a quick fix. The rebuilding of Japan as a psychic entity will need a deeper more substantive shift, perhaps through a generation. But first the problems of Japan need to be seen and understood. And ‘Drunken Angel’ is Kurasawa’s means of stepping forward into the ruins and thinking about how new foundations might be built. Later his Sumurai movies would affirm again his belief that Japan contains within her own culture, the resources to develop its own form of modernism that had moved beyond its past.

adrin neatrour   adrinuk@yahoo.co.uk

Author: Star & Shadow

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.