I can think of few filmmakers whose very name holds the same promise of a great time like Akira Kurosawa’s. I can sit down to watch virtually any of Kurosawa’s films, whatever niggling individual flaws each might possess, and feel confident that I’m about to be treated to all the fundamental things that make movie-watching rewarding, to be entertained in the highest yet broadest sense of that troublesome term.
Yet with every Kurosawa film, no matter how ingeniously crafted, there’s always at least one moment that seems to have wriggled away from the dictates of sheer craft, something that breathes, that betrays ostensible perfection, that has funk. These more spontaneous moments make the films better, setting the obvious gems of technical precision and good taste in striking relief, pushing them up from the ranks of the very good to the singularly great. In Rashomon (1950), there’s the inordinate amount of time spent hiking through the woods with the woodcutter, as though the sheer pleasure of those woods deserves its own little movie. In Yojimbo (61) there’s that image of the dramatic mountain offset by Toshiro Mifune’s ronin protagonist ambling into frame not to strike a heroic pose but to yawn and scratch the back of his head –and that’s the opening of the movie!
Newly released on DVD by Criterion, Drunken Angel (48) was the first film Kurosawa felt he could truly call his own. It also happened to be his first collaboration with Mifune, the actor that will forever be associated with Kurosawa’s cinema. Though Drunken Angel is keenly focused on the uneasy friendship between a tippling doctor and a dying gangster, the sort of narrative detours mentioned above are already finding their home in the eager-to-impress young director’s palate. The film trades in brawling, in crime, in seedy ghettos, mafia-rule, drinking and prostitution, and pays off with every one of these elements. But many of the things that makes this more than just a taut, well-made populist film are its playful insertions of incidental moments most other directors would likely cut out, such as when the doctor makes repeated attempts to do nothing more than prop open a door, or when the restless gangster ostentatiously wiggles his ass to a rousing song (with lyrics by Kurosawa!) performed in a dance hall.
Central to Drunken Angel is a sprawling sump into which locals toss their refuse, a toxic bog crawling with disease and clearly representing the morass of post-war Tokyo, a city in search of some new sense of self but mired in chaos and cynicism. The titular doctor –played with caustic appeal the other actor most associated with Kurosawa, Takashi Shimura– lives and works around this sump, battling all the filth rising from it. Though his drinking and bitter mood convey his unhappiness with the state of things, his deep-seated optimism can be located in his desire to cure even the most resistant patients, such as the arrogant young yakuza, played by Mifune, who the doctor discovers has tuberculosis. Their relationship is fraught with conflict –and the guys literally fist fight all the time– yet perhaps because of these conflicts, their attempts to understand each other is that much more profound, and fun.
Though Kurosawa had yet to distinguish all the elements of his formal style, the film features numerous inspired set-pieces, such as that dance hall scene and a tremendous climatic fight involving white paint, a device that imbues the action with layers of meaning even as it thrills us, finally resolving in a traveling shot that moves elegantly from Mifune’s collapsed figure and back out into the neighbourhood swamp. These scenes are further enriched when you later listen to Donald Richie’s enormously interesting audio commentary, which benefits not only from Richie’s position as the West’s foremost representative of Japanese cinema but from the fact that he was actually on set during the film’s making.
The book accompanying Drunken Angel, handsomely illustrated with inky impressions of the film’s imagery by somebody called Jock, features a short essay by cultural historian Ian Buruma that helps flesh out the dramatic polarities of post-war Japanese life, placing special emphasis on the idea of the nation’s inability to find an individual or institution upon which to place blame for its defeat, shame and humiliation, and, especially intriguingly, on the lineage between soldiers and yakuza.
Buruma’s essay is followed by two superb excerpts from Kurosawa’s Something Like an Autobiography, in which he describes the varied elements that fed into the development of the film and more generally on the phenomena of Mifune. But anyone even slightly interested in Kurosawa should do themselves a huge favour and just go out and get the whole book, which, with its breezy, humble, anecdotal tone, is among the best memoirs on life in the film industry ever written.