(1948) director Akira Kurosawa
viewed: 12/30/10 at the Viz Cinema, SF, CA
To celebrate the centennial of the birth of Akira Kurosawa, one of the great film directors of the 20th century, I was expecting to see a lot of his films playing at local repertory houses. Outside of catching Ran (1985) at the Embarcadero earlier in the year, I didn’t get a chance to see any other of his films on the big screen in 2010. It turns out that the films primarily played at the not so heavily advertised Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley and the small Japantown movie theater Viz Cinema in San Francisco. On randomly checking around, I saw that Viz was showing a series of six films to close out the year.
I’d never seen Drunken Angel before. It’s the first of sixteen cinematic collaborations between Kurosawa and star Toshirō Mifune, who is young and slim and clean-shaven as a suave tough in this film. The “drunken angel” of the title is Takashi Shimura, another Kurosawa regular, as an often besotted doctor, whose drunkenness and outspoken attitude has kept him in the poorer reaches of Tokyo, servicing the working class and also the criminal element, rather than having achieved a larger, more successful practice.
The film is considered a social critique of post-war Japan in the years immediately following WWII and the humbling occupation by American troops. The film is set around a festering mire, laden with trash and oozing with disease. If anything, it is the film’s central image, a stagnation that stands in for perhaps the Japanese psyche at the time. The mire is surrounded by the young toughs, the prostitutes, and the destitute. And whether suffering from alcoholism, tuberculosis, venereal disease, or depression and malaise, it’s a bleak place. But Shimura, as the doctor, still seeks humanity and hope amidst the garbage.
The film opens with Shimura treating Mifune, who has been shot in the hand in a skirmish. The scene is the best in the film, deftly sketching the characters, the brooding yakuza and Shimura telling it like it is to him. He diagnoses Mifune with TB and gruffly tells him to clean up his life. There is much colorful detail played out, from a door that won’t stay open to Shimura’s handling of his instruments.
The film is a melodrama primarily, with touches of humor. And while I’ve seen it referred to as film noir as well, I would think that perhaps portions of it could be seen in that light but I don’t know if it fits neatly into that category. It’s an excellent film however its sorted, and it shows Kurosawa’s masterful hand throughout. I’ve come to appreciate Kurosawa immensely in recent years, joining the chorus, perhaps in that regard. But I am eager to see more of his films and when I can, see them on the big screen.