This one, we know, is a tough sell. Drunken Angel is a 60-plus-year-old, black-and-white, subtitled Japanese movie with virtually no action and not a single gun shot. It focuses on the mercurial relationship between a cranky, alcoholic doctor and a brazen young yakuza dying of tuberculosis.
Your instinct here is probably to turn the page. Not exactly GoodFellas.
But if you give it a chance (the movie, actually, not this essay), you’ll be rewarded with a moody look into the seamy society that was post-World War II Japan. You’ll enjoy a close-up view of the psychology of a young gangster struggling with his choices. And you’ll see one of the first important works of Akira Kurosawa, the legendary Japanese filmmaker whose style impacted nearly every other director on our list.
But don’t believe us:
“His influence on me and other filmmakers throughout the entire world is so profound as to be almost incomparable,” said Martin Scorsese.
“One thing that distinguishes Akira Kurosawa is that he didn’t make one or two masterpieces,” said Francis Ford Coppola. “He made, you know, eight masterpieces.”
Drunken Angel falls short of being one of those masterpieces (if you’re looking for the best of them, we’d recommend The Seven Samurai). But it was Kurosawa’s first critical success, as well as the first movie in which the director says he really found his way. It works as a portrait, a period piece, a gangster film and—in a weird way—as a buddy movie.
It focuses on a disillusioned doctor named Sanada (Takashi Shimura), who runs a clinic in a crime-ridden Tokyo slum. When a thug named Matsunaga (Toshiro Mifune) visits him late one night after being shot in the hand, the doctor notices the young man’s cough and diagnoses him with tuberculosis. Sanada tries to convince the gangster to undergo treatment, especially after an X-ray shows a hole in his lung. But the callow Matsunaga refuses, joking that the hole “is good for ventilation” and snapping that, “Yakuza are not afraid of death.”
Thus begins a push-pull between the two men, in which their relationship veers between tender and violent. Like any young gangster, Matsunaga tries to mask his fears and weaknesses. The doctor, meanwhile, believes that if he can heal this one man’s body and soul, he can recover a bit of his own humanity.
“I was like him once,” he tells a nurse. “In medical school I would pawn my own clothes to pay for brothels. But his heart isn’t yet frozen over with evil.”
The good doctor’s office is not exactly the Mayo Clinic. He sucks on bottles of medicinal alcohol, smokes while standing over a patient and spits on the floor to punctuate a point. He’s constantly got a three-day growth of stubble and his hair and clothes are a mess. Nothing pretty here.
Still, in this slum—bordered by a huge black-market plaza on one side and an oozing, noxious pool of garbage on the other—he shows compassion to the pan-pan girls and hustlers.
“You think angels all come looking like your dance hall girls,” the doctor tells the reluctant Matsunaga in one of their volatile meetings. “But I’m your angel. Your drunken angel.”
The young tough aims to reform. But things devolve when his gang’s former boss returns from prison and begins to bully his ill underling into smoking, drinking and shoving around the local citizenry. And just to show who’s in charge, the boss steals Matsunaga’s girlfriend. The ailing young man is eventually tossed from the gang.
This is not going to help his recovery.
The movie builds up to a three-sided tug of war among the doctor, the yakuza boss and the terminally ill, now-ostracized gangster. And it culminates with Dr. Sanada’s moral lesson, which was really Kurosawa’s message to his audience:
“Yakuza will always do the wrong thing at the end. That’s why they are so pointless and senseless.”
HIT: Drunken Angel was the first of 16 collaborations between Kurosawa and Mifune, Japan’s version of Scorsese and De Niro. You can see the early chemistry between director and actor, but you should know that it matures like a great wine in their future films.
Kurosawa loved Mifune’s cat-like movement on-screen and his animal grunts and intensity. He encouraged Mifune to “act like a panther,” even showing him films of the big cats to help him mimic their actions.
MISS: There’s a hokey dream sequence (in which Matsunaga is chased by his own ghost) clumsily stuck into the movie. It wouldn’t get a passing grade in a freshman film class. Kurosawa later called that hackneyed scene “part of my learning process.”
WHAT THEY WROTE AT THE TIME: “Kurosawa creates . . . a world of more than healer and hoodlum, girls and gangsters. His is an environment of disease, where the fateful bacilli of corruption lurk in every dancehall and gambling dive—puddles of social consumption—to be battled by the weak power of man’s will.”—Bosley Crowther, New York Times
BODY COUNT: Just one.
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: The screenplay was originally written with the doctor as a young idealist, to counter the hardened gangster. Kurosawa didn’t like the character, but wasn’t sure how to change him. Later, while scouting filming sites in Yokohama with writer Keinosuke Uekusa, he met an older physician.
“This man fascinated us with his arrogant manner, and we took him with us to three or four bars to listen to his stories while we drank,” Kurosawa said in his memoir, Something Like an Autobiography. “He operated without a physician’s license, and his patients were the streetwalkers of the slums. His talk about his illegal gynecology practice was so vulgar it nearly made us sick, but every so often he said something bitterly sarcastic about human nature that gleamed with aptness.
“Uekusa and I looked at each other and simultaneously felt, ‘This is it!’ “
PIVOTAL SCENE: The first few meetings between doctor and gangster end in confrontation because of both men’s tempers and Matsunaga’s refusal to accept his own illness. Late in the movie, the gangster—drunk himself—begins to cough up blood. He stumbles to the doctor’s home in the middle of the night. At first, Sanada refuses to see him, saying he is done wasting his time. Eventually, the doctor relents, and comforts the seriously ill man.
“Go to sleep,” Sanada says, putting a blanket over his pained patient. “Dream about your childhood.”
Their battling is now over.
DON’T FAIL TO NOTICE: The film was shot during the post-World War II occupation of Japan, when all movies had to be cleared by American censors. Kurosawa still managed to slip several anti-Western images into Drunken Angel. The pinstriped gangsters and their girlfriends all dress and wear their hair like Westerners (the so-called “big boss” resembles George Raft, down to the detail of him flipping a coin). And the nightclub scene designed to show their decadence features a lampoon of American jazz, called Jungle Boogie, (no, not that version), for which the director himself wrote the mocking lyrics.
VIOLENCE LEVEL: Very low and very unrealistic. The highlight is a fight between two mobsters who, for tough guys, sure don’t know how to duke it out. They end up tripping over an open can of paint and slapping each other around like the Three Stooges.
REPEATED WATCHING QUOTIENT: Watch it once and move on. But really, you ought to watch it once.
BEST LINE: A drunken Dr. Sanada to a disinterested dancehall girl: “Don’t fall for him, fall for me. I may be kind of scruffy, but you’ll get free medical care.”
Given how things are, that pickup effort might stand a better chance these days.
IF YOU LIKE THIS, YOU’LL LIKE: Any of the great collaborations between Kurosawa and Mifune. You may actually want to start by checking out Stuart Galbraith IV’s book The Emperor and the Wolf, which documents the actor and filmmaker’s long relationship.
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[Reprinted from The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies by George Anastasia and Glen Macnow. Available from Running Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.]