Film: Drunken Angel (1948)

aka: 酔いどれ天使 (Yoidore tenshi)
language: Japanese
director: Akira Kurosawa
length: 94 minutes

film still

I’m working myself up to Seven Samurai at the moment (it’s three hours long!) – I’m going through somewhat of a Japanese phase at the moment given that I’m trying to apply for JET and all that, and I want to know as much as I can about Japanese films and culture so that I can impress the interviewers… well, that, and I put down Kurosawa as one of my influences for liking Japan and wanting to go there to teach English, so I’d better reacquaint myself with his œuvre… My book on the go is by Haruki Murakami, incidentally, but I’ll post about that when I’m finished it. I also started a Japanese course today, for pretty much the same goal.

Anyway, I have seen Seven Samurai before, but not this, which is an earlier feature of Kurosawa’s. According to the blurb on the back of the DVD, it was his 8th feature and the first that was commercially successful. Fair enough. I’m always quite interested when I read that kind of phraseology what came before the first successful film (if I’m allowed to rant about Tintin again briefly, Hergé’s first two albums were so unsuccessful that they’ve only been published in the UK recently as collectors’ items… I find that quite funny. And Murakami apparently has two books that have only been published in English in Japan itself – but again, I’ll come back to him in a later post. It’s comments like this that make me wonder how bad they could have been). It’s also Kurosawa’s first collaboration with the actor Toshiro Mifune, who went on to be, if I remember correctly, the comic relief character in Seven Samurai. But I digress…

This film is a post-war flick about the slums of Tokyo, disease, alcoholism and gangsters. Fun. Fortunately, it also delves heartily into the liquorice jar that is black comedy… well, either that, or I find it unnaturally easy to laugh at people in horrible situations. Sometimes you just can’t quite tell, you know? That said, one of the later scenes involves two men, one terminally ill, having to fight and getting covered in white paint, suddenly slipping around unable to get a foothold on anything, so maybe I’m not so off in that judgement.

Kurosawa really lays on the social commentary thick; inamongst the bits like the above that are obviously comedic, there were bits that you really couldn’t find funny unless you’re some sort of psychopath. Now, this isn’t bad, of course, and I felt that 90% of the time in this film, it worked, but sometimes I find that blatant style a bit crass.

As with many other Japanese films that I’ve seen – many of them, indeed, by Kurosawa – the rest of the film was basically filled with Japanese men barking at each other. It’s like they can’t control their emotions or something…. You know, I’m sure they’re not like that, but you can hardly blame me for building that impression of them when that’s the only way they’re ever portrayed. But perhaps it’s as much to do with the era as anything else.

The characters are quite a delight, too; while a lot of the extra characters are a bit one-dimensional, the two main characters – the doctor and his gangster patient – are both fundamentally flawed, mainly with alcoholism. The doctor – the drunken angel of the title – can’t leave drink alone, which leads to several comic moments, but also to some of the film’s central conflicts, since at the same time he’s trying to tell the gangster not to drink. Watching Mifune’s character descend into madness as his TB develops and the world around him, until now unquestioningly under his thumb, starts to reject him out of hand is rather enthralling. And it also makes for good viewing when the two blow up at each other whenever they come into contact because neither of them can accept the other’s flaws and the patient can’t accept that he’s got this disease.

All in all, it was a good film, but I know I’ve seen better from Kurosawa. And now I’m going to have to find out what came before this and discover what made it the first successful film…

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