Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Director Spotlight #16.3: Akira Kurosawa's Drunken Angel

Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is the incalculably influential Akira Kurosawa.

NOTE: Because I try to go in-depth in these entries, there’s likely to be spoilers in this thing. If it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

Grade: 84/A-

Most cinephiles acknowledge Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 film Rashomon as the film that opened the floodgates, allowing Asian cinema to find a wider audience in the western world than ever before. But that doesn’t mean that Kurosawa hadn’t made notable films before, or that Rashomon was his first brush with greatness. Two years earlier, Kurosawa made Drunken Angel, a terrific crime drama that showed that the already thoughtful filmmaker was turning into a true master of the form.

Sanada (Takashi Shimura) is an alcoholic doctor in postwar Japan who uses cynicism as a shield from the horrors of the world. One night he treats Matsunaga (Toshiro Mifune), a small-time yakuza wounded in a gunfight. Sanada sees that Matsunaga is suffering from tuberculosis and tries to bring the man away from drinking and womanizing and back towards health, but his patient’s bullheadedness frequently gets in the way. Things are exacerbated with the release of Matsunaga’s boss, the vicious gangster Okada (Reisaburo Yamamoto), who is also the former abusive boyfriend to Sanada’s assistant.

Many of Kurosawa’s best films feature the clash between the young and the old, between controlled and uncontrolled anger, and Drunken Angel is one of the first clear examples. Shimura plays Sanada as a man who’s given up on engaging with the world in any meaningful way. Bitter over his poor choices and his lack of a respectable practice, he’s fallen into boozy self-pity, and he regards most of what’s around him with cynicism and contempt. Whenever someone tries to engage him, he retreats.

Shimura’s grounded performance has a perfect counterpoint in Mifune’s, the kind of explosive work that recalls James Cagney. As the youthful Matsunaga, Mifune exudes devil-may-care recklessness, but he acts almost entirely out of insecurity. His braggadocio doesn’t fool Sanada, who sees a man projecting fearlessness as a way to cover up his terror of dying. His bullheadedness only leads him to more trouble as he ignores the doctor’s orders and drinks more heavily. Kurosawa posits the yakuza as a pitiable figure, one that cuts off his humanity and vulnerability as a way to stay alive, and who’s bound for tragedy because of it.

But Kurosawa’s skills as a filmmaker extend far beyond his gifts with actors, of course. Drunken Angel shows the young director growing more lyrical and expressive. He uses deep focus to contrast the taciturn Shimura with the more tempestuous Mifune, but there’s also moments of pure poetry, like the use of a bog to symbolize the cesspool of a crime-ridden postwar Japan, or a dream sequence in which Matsunaga finds a casket of himself on a beach as the film goes in slow motion and the music sounds like it’s being played in reverse. And while American censors prevented Kurosawa from saying anything overt about the problems of western influences, he’s able to encode certain clues: the presence of pan pan girls (prostitutes) and villains in western clothes, or a raucous but absurd jazz song.

Kurosawa’s use of music becomes more purposeful in Drunken Angel as well. A melancholy diegetic guitar soundtrack plays throughout, but when Okada first shows up, he takes the guitar from the musician and plays his own theme, a killer’s anthem of sorts, almost as if he’s announcing to the whole world that trouble has arrived. Better yet: the use “The Cuckoo Waltz,” a song Kurosawa heard shortly after his father died, its upbeat tone further enhancing his sadness. Kurosawa then felt the song would be perfect when Matsunaga learned that his fellow yakuza cared nothing for him, and that they were planning to divide his territory as soon as they realized he was dying.

That’s part of Kurosawa’s complicated view of duty: the doctor regards the world with cynicism, but nevertheless feels it’s his duty to save his patients. Yet he finds himself torn when his latest patient turns out to be a dangerous yakuza, and he wonders whether or not he can or should save a man he believes to be sick beyond his health, “sick to the core” (Kurosawa does get a bit too didactic here when Sanada goes on about Matsunaga reminding him of himself when he was young). Meanwhile, the doctor views his assistant’s duty to Okada as an absurdity, given the gangster’s abusiveness and abandonment of her (not to mention his giving her VD). As for Matsunaga, he views the yakuza life as a way not just for personal gain, but as a kind of army, filled with the same code of honor. When he realizes he’s only a pawn, his world comes crashing down.

That leads to a vengeful battle between Mastunaga and Okada, one of Kurosawa’s best-staged fights. Kurosawa uses low shots and rapid-fire cutting as a way to make us uneasy. The house is coated with two kinds of paint: the wet paint the two stumble into, and the blood that Matsunaga vomits. It’s a viscerally upsetting moment that grows more powerful as the music swells  after Matsunaga is stabbed, and he stumbles out the door, a crane shot lifting overhead as he falls into a sprawled out pose, like a man asking for forgiveness for his deeds.

It’s a final moment of pity for a man who reconsidered his lifestyle just as it was too late, a possible spiritual cleanse for a man who otherwise couldn’t be cured. Sanada regards his death with more cynicism at first as a woman who loved Matsunaga comes to him with his ashes, but when he throws a rock into the bog in frustration, his veil of “I care for nobody” falls down. He’s just as affected by the man’s death as anyone, no matter how much he might deny it later. He’s had his own redemption – an emotional redemption – and when another, younger TB patient arrives, cured, saying that he owes her a sweet, the man is visibly moved. Kurosawa’s film is ultimately a call for empathy, for humanity, and for goodness. It’s only a few years removed from Rashomon, and a sign that a master filmmaker had arrived.

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