Thursday, April 19, 2012

Akira Kurosawa | Drunken Angel

tough love
by Douglas Messerli

Akira Kurosawa and Keinosuke Uegusa (screenplay), Akira Kurosawa (director) Yoidore tenshi (Drunken Angel) / 1948, USA 1959

Set beside an evil looking, clearly polluted bog in a Tokyo black-market slum, Drunken Angel is one of the darkest of Kurosawa’s early films, often described as a kind of film noir. But here little of the gangster (yakuza) world is mysterious or shrouded in the confusions and twists of plot so apparent in American film noirs such as The Big Sleep or Out of the Past. Kurosawa’s hoodlums are known by everyone, their activities quite-openly portrayed. The locals bow before their yakuza leaders, allowing them permission as well free flowers, drinks, and other tokens of their admiration. The only question for Kurosawa is why? Why this absurd obeisance is permitted? Why the yakuza remain so loyal to the organization even when their lives are on the line, or as Kurosawa himself put it: “Exactly what sort of people are they? What is the obligation that supports their organization? What is the individual psychological makeup of the gang members, and what is the violence of which they are so proud?”

      The particular focus of The Drunken Angel is Matsunaga, the new head of this polluted locale, brilliantly played by the always ready-to-spring angry young man, Toshirō Mifune. So stunning is Mifune’s performance that, as Kurosawa describes it, he transformed the entire film, unbalancing the original focus of the alcoholic doctor who was to be the moral center of the work. Whether just sitting, dancing, violently reacting, or fighting, Mifune dominates the screen in way that only Brando can. But unlike Brando’s earthly, slightly feminine sexuality, Mifune is a kind a haggard, skeleton version of male sexuality, a man, even the angry doctor admits, who has the attention of all the women—and his male lackeys. Even the doctor seems attracted to Matsunaga, discovering that his new patient—having come to him to have a bullet removed from his hand—is also suffering from tuberculosis, clearly a common disease in this mosquito-ridden hellhole. Although Matsunago may outwardly seem diffident to his possible disease and eventual death, Doctor Sanada (Takashi Shimura) recognizes in him aspects of his own youth, the mistaken decisions of a young man who secretly is afraid of death and still has not completely hardened his heart.

     For Sanada there is no appeasing of his patients, no quiet assurances, only outright statements of Matsunaga’s stupidity and bluff. Sanada knows his territory, and has no sufferance for the half-lies and appeasements of more successful doctors, which he also knows will have no effect on the rough-hewn toughs he must face. Time and again throughout The Drunken Angel, Sanada and Matsunaga go at it with fists and flying objects. Their disgust with one another is as palpable as their eventual love. In this world of masculine (and one might add, feminine) stereotypes Sanada demands impossible absolutes: “no alcohol, no women,” while he himself visits nearly every bar in the territory, flirting with the accessible women: “Fall in love for someone like me,” he consuls a woman behind the bar who later tries to lure Matsunaga into the country, “I may be scrubby but you get free medical care.” Sanada is also hiding a young woman in his office-home who serves him as a kind of mistress, Miyo (Chieko Nakakita), the former lover of the now-imprisoned former gang boss, Okada (Reizaburo Yamamoto). Miyo, who has suffered abuse and VD from her former lover, is terrified of his release, but is also still drawn to the yakuza, a fact that equally angers Sanada, who mutters (in one of his numerous cynical asides) “Martyrdom is out of style.” Later he puts it more bluntly: “He tormented you, made you sick, and then deserted you like a puppy. And you still wag your tail and follow him.”

     After confirming Matsunaga’s diagnosis, the doctor goes out of his way, even endangering his life, to convince Matsunaga to reform, to follow his medical regimens so that he might survive. And for a brief time, it appears he might be almost be succeeding in changing the surly young tough—that is until Okada returns. Forced to match wits with the former gang head, Matsunaga returns drunken to his dancehall hang-out, introducing his own girlfriend to Okada, and attempting to match the former abandonment of his dances—this time to the incredible satire of a US Harlem-like jazz piece, “Jungle Boogie” sung and brilliantly danced by Shizuko Kasagi, lyrics by Kurosawa himself—which ends with Matsunaga hemorrhaging and spitting up blood. As he is taken away, and the doctor is called, it is clear that Okada, perceiving the sickness of his rival, is about to return to power.

     The intimate scene that follows, in which Sanada visits his patient in the apartment where Matsunaga has lived with his fickle mistress, is one of the most touching in the movie, as the gangster, lying in a fever upon the bed, is watched over by his “angel,” who in clumsy curiosity opens the woman’s jewel box, smells her perfume, and plays with her shadow-puppets, as the director reveals this gruff and forbidding lector as still a very human man.

     Later, the same music box is opened by Nanae, as she attempts to collect her jewels, along with her dresses, shoes, and other attire in her escape from her love-nest with Matsunaga—who is now an outcast both from the society (for his contractible disease) and from his gangland world. Like Miyo before him, Matsunaga now has nowhere to go but to the doctor’s house.

     Yet that very move further ostracizes him from his Yakuza crime associates and further endangers Miyo’s life as Matsunaga’s former lackeys recognize her as Okada’s former lover. When Okada and his men finally arrive to claim her, the doctor once again fearlessly stands his ground, refusing to allow them access. But when Matsunaga hears that he intends, the next day, to call for the police, he is determined, despite his illness, to warn the head boss, with whom he feels he still has some personal influence.

     As he arrives at the gangster compound, however, he accidently overhears the gangland boss explaining why he has not yet abandoned him: he is planning to use Matsunaga as a pawn if gang-war erupts. The news sends Matsunaga into a further spin, now recognizing that he is not only an outsider to life, but an outsider to the outsiders. He has no longer any connections of the living, and determines to murder Okada.

     Kurosawa intentionally plays out that attempted murder in a long series of melodramatic fight scenes as each corners his enemy ready for the final plunge of the knife, before beginning again and again, and finally ending in a kind of comic pratfall of the two as they slip upon a can of paint in the hallway, one by one attempting to grasp their way to safety through the slippery substance. It is almost as if the director were exploring all the conventions of Hollywood murders in a few clips. But just as one is ready to begin laughing, Okado puts the knife in Matsunaga’s back, ending his life.

     In a sense the entire film is a sort exploration of how the US has effected this culture. Although censors refused to let him use any English-language signage that may have connected this polluted slum world with the Hiroshima bombing and the American occupation, Kurosawa dresses all his gangster’s, women and men, in Western dress, the signs in the dense bazaar of backstreet shops containing a mix of Japanese and English words. The film itself is almost a testament to Hollywood film techniques. Yes, we must recognize, we have helped to create this bleak and inescapable spot.

     At film’s end, Sanada has no patience with sentiment or excuses, however. The world is what it is, and he is determined, despite the stupidity of groups like the Yakuza to destroy the vermin that plague these Tokyo citizens, whether they be bacterial or human filth. His youngest patient comes to tell him that he owes her a “sweet,” her newest x-ray revealing that she is now free of TB. If he has lost Matsunaga, his tough love has saved yet another life.

Los Angeles, April 16, 2012

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