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Drunken Angel - Yoidore Tenshi (Kurosawa Akira 1948)


Drunken Angel [Yoidore Tenshi]

Genre: Quasi-historical Yakuza Drama [Post-war Japan: 1948]

review in one breath

Quote: "Will power can cure all human ailments."

Here is the first time Toshiro Mifune appears in a movie by Akira Kurosawa!

This very early post-war film is set in a squalor, yakuza-ridden slum of 1948 Tokyo. In the heart of this neighborhood is a large, bubbling cess pool into which residents have heaped garbage and waste. This cess pool, as our main character, Dr Sanada, warns, is brimming with typhus. The pool is intended by Director Akira Kurosawa as a symbol for the moral decay and corruption permeating post-war Tokyo. In this new world, traditional social values and honor have not survived the war. In their stead have emerged selfish opportunism, greed, and the yakuza, flamboyantly embodied in Matsunaga (Mifune), the suave yet unruly young and upcoming mob leader. While his boss Okada has sat in prison for four years due to a brutal knifing, Matsunaga has risen in power and control. Now, however, with Okada's release from prison, Matsunaga finds himself in a desperate and violent power struggle. And yet Matsunaga's ultimate opponent is not Okada, but the tuberculosis which has gradually eaten away at him through years of unrestrained living.


Don't miss your chance to watch Mifune swing dance!

Kurosawa originally intended Doctor Sanada to be an ideally humanitarian doctor caring for the wretched souls populating this poor, disease-ridden neighborhood. However, after considerable difficulty in developing such a character, Kurosawa recalled a meeting with a real-life doctor in similar circumstances. The stories of the arrogant and crude doctor (who apparently practiced surgery and gynecology without a license) struck Kurosawa as almost sickening, but, as Kurosawa puts it, "every so often he said something bitterly sarcastic about human nature that gleamed with aptness. He also interspersed his talk with peals of loud laughter, and in that raucous wide-open mouth there was a strange feeling of raw humanity".* Based on this encounter, the notion of the ideally good doctor was scrapped for that of a Drunken Angel who, while aiding pitiful common folk, endlessly struggles with his own demons of moral shortcoming.

Matsunaga and Sanada are linked after Sanada removes a bullet from Matsunaga's hand. While there, Matsunaga's hacking cough betrays advanced tuberculosis which Saneda quickly identifies and warns of. Despite the warnings Matsunaga heads straight back to the "Social Center of Tokyo" for pricey whiskey and beautiful women. Though feigning courage on the outside, Matsunaga is troubled by his condition, which allows Sanada to conclude "He hasn't sunk too low, since he's still afraid". Sanada's perpetual search for liquor, and Matsunaga's increasing concern over the extent of his disease result in several meetings between the two where their clash of personalities generally ends with Matsunaga attacking the Doc and the Doc throwing something at Matsunaga yelling "BAKA!". The ensuing respect/repulsion relation they build becomes the primary tension of the movie and provides the context through which we see the frailties and strengths of both men.

The story itself is quite interesting and complex, involving several important characters whose roles gradually unfold. The inner conflicts among the yakuza and scenes of the raucous nightlife are impressive. The film also contains a couple complete musical numbers and an entertaining drunken swing dance by Mifune. Matsunaga's short-lived yet earnest attempt to walk the straight and narrow is compelling as is the impact of his peer's influence over him. The yakuza, the squalor of poverty, and the glimpses of a brighter future, as seen in the schoolgirl demeanour of Sanada's other young TB patient and the healthy bustle of the merchant district, provide what seems a clear snapshot of post-war Tokyo's first steps toward self-redefinition.

The movie's title, Drunken Angel refers to Sanada, implying he is the focal point. But it was soon very clear, to Kurosawa himself, that Mifune's fierce presence would become the real center of the movie. Kurosawa was so enthralled with Mifune, and this is their first work together, that Kurosawa could not help but let Mifune act as he would. This freedom results in a very gripping Matsunaga character whose behavior and attitude dominate the film. After watching this very early work, it is no wonder that Mifune became one of Kurosawa's lead actors in many of his later films.

* (Quote from Something Like An Autobiography by Akira Kurosawa, translated by Audie E. Bock, copyright 1982 by Akira Kurosawa.)

cultural interest violence sex strangeness
Kurosawa and Mifune's first work together. Compelling window into the struggle and evolution of early post-war Tokyo. Young Mifune makes an EXCELLENT drunken yakuza doing the swing dance! Not much violence. Matsunaga and the Doc are always wrestling or being thrown to the ground. Two perfectly good glasses of whiskey are cruelly brutalized! One desparate knife fight ending with a stabbing (not seen by audience). No sex. But Matsunaga's girlfriend Nanae is so HOT that I nearly peeled my kimono! More historical than strange, in that strange historical kinda way.

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