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Nov 6, 2014

Noirvember: Akira Kurosawa's DRUNKEN ANGEL [Yoidore tenshi] (1948)


Film Noir pictures often reflect the attitudes of a postwar America with cynical crime melodramas dripping in downbeat themes with scarred, often morally corrupt - or about to be corrupted - characters.

Here we have a Noir from the other side of the spectrum, the viewpoint of the Japanese, one of the 'losing' World War II nations. American G.I.s may have been coming back to a society that has moved on without them making it difficult for them to rejoin smoothly, but here is a country that has been beaten, demoralized and now has an invading foreign army watching over them.

While the U.S. forces stationed in Japan are nowhere to be found in Drunken Angel (there was a censorship board established to make sure that sort of content never made it on screen) this picture definitely reflects the effects of the physical, emotional and mental toll of a country trying to rebuild itself under the 'enemy's' watchful eye.

The view outside the Doctor's home/office
Takashi Shimura is a doctor living in postwar Tokyo. Right outside of his office/home door is a pool of toxic, disease-ridden sludge that he has to drive children away from so they won't get sick. You know things are bad when children have to play in sludge rather than a park. We often see shots of people dumping their refuse into it, and close-ups of floating abandoned toys and sandals.

Doctor Takashi Shimura removes a bullet from gangster Toshiro Mifune's hand - without anesthesia
Shimura treats small-time gangster Toshiro Mifune, here in his first of many collaborations with director Akira Kurosawa. Mifune is part of the Yakuza and has just been involved in a gunfight with a rival, but Shimura discovers there is more ailing Mifune than just a bullet. Mifune shows signs of having Tuberculosis, and Shimura - after pulling a bullet out of his hand without administering anesthesia (intentionally putting him through immense pain) - tells him he should get an X-Ray done. Mifune is wild and prone to violence while Shimura is a cynical drunk. Mifune beats up the Doctor and storms out of the office while Shimura goes back about his business barely caring about the encounter and drinking his life away. The picture has just told us that these two were made for each other.

Toshiro Mifune
Mifune looks and acts the part of a gangster, snappily dressed with a confident swagger that says he's bad news from all appearances. Shimura is drunk and tired yet still looks after his patients with a world-weary eye. It can't help to have to virtually step into a river of sludge every time you walk out out your front door. No wonder these people are so cynical.

Takashi Shimura's Doctor and Toshiro Mifune's Gangster share a mutual dislike of one another
Right from the moment they start arguing (which is pretty much the only way they communicate with each other), you know these two will connect on some strange level. Shimura is also looking after a ruthless gangster's moll. Shimura reminds her that her former boyfriend beat and humiliated her constantly as well as saddled her a venereal disease - not the best boyfriend. That gangster has recently been released from prison and threatens to come looking for the woman. Although Mifune has started to take the doctor's advice and look after himself, it isn't long until this now free negative influence pulls him back into his bad habits.

Tuberculosis takes a toll on the gangster
While the menace to Mifune may appear to be his (usually) fatal disease, the real threat is his former life that he can't let go of. The return of the other gangster does not bode well for Mifune's position within the Yakuza, especially now that he is on his last legs. As the disease takes its toll on him he looks gaunt and ghostly, a shell of his former self. He might as well be a ghost to his colleagues who are already making plans to sacrifice and replace him even as he defends them and plans to until his death. I guess their "iron-clad" code of honor doesn't include betraying one of your own when they get sick.

You can try to take the man out of the Yakuza, but can you take the Yakuza out of the man?
The constant shots of the cesspool outside of Shimura's office really enhance the downer tone of this picture. We don't really care much for Shiumura at all given his crusty world view and even crustier bedside manner, but we respect him for caring for patients even with this negative attitude, and for protecting the young woman who could easily fall back into the same trap that Mifune does with his lifestyle choice. The same goes for Mifune. We want him to listen to the Doctor and stop killing himself, but also don't care for him much once it becomes apparent he is so set on doing just the opposite.

A fight for power, or for redemption?
This picture features many of the elements we recognize from Film Noir - gangsters, a nightclub, a jazz song-and-dance number (which is one of the more uncomfortable moments in the picture), yet it is a world we have not seen before. With surroundings of run-down buildings, piled up rubble and of course the river of sludge it is not hard to imagine how rough these characters have it and why they are so messed up. Thankfully this is Kurosawa and there is a glimmer of hope at the end of Drunken Angel regardless of the tragedy that occurs that makes you think that eventually even these people can escape the swamp - literal and otherwise - that they are currently stuck in.