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The Criterion Collection presents
Drunken Angel (1948)

"You better be grateful, or God will punish you."
- Sanada (Takashi Shimura)

Review By: Jon Danziger  
Published: November 26, 2007

Stars: Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura
Director: Akira Kurosawa

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 01h:38m:16s
Release Date: November 27, 2007
UPC: 715515026826
Genre: foreign

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

For the Western world, Rashomon was the grand, indelible debut of Akira Kurosawa, but by the time of that film's production, the director had already started to assemble a significant body of work—Stray Dog was perhaps the most accomplished of the Kurosawa pictures of that period, a moody, noir-inflected cop story, but many of the same elements are on display in Drunken Angel. And here you can already see some of the director's fierce moralism at work—though it's got noir elements in it as well, this is fundamentally a story of a doctor/patient relationship, and the notions of wisdom and of healing would be ones that the director would elaborate on more extensively in Ikiru and especially Red Beard. But it's also worth resisting the temptation to watch this movie simply as the working out of ideas that would recur more fully formed in later Kurosawa pictures, for on its own merits, it's a taut little urban fable.

Takashi Shimura stars as Sanada, a gruff, world-weary doctor in a bad neighborhood with a taste for the sauce and a feeling of benevolence for his patients, many of whom are quite rough around the edges—he wheedles and charms, trying to cadge some rationed liquor, and it's clear that he's the title character. The movie is principally about his relationship with a patient from the other end of the moral spectrum—in his first Kurosawa picture, Toshiro Mifune plays Matsunaga, an organized-crime tough guy who has contracted tuberculosis, and the story charts the gangster's reluctant acceptance of his diagnosis, followed by the dogged pursuit by his doctor to get him to stick to the prescribed course of treatment. Seeing whether or not a yakuza will follow doctor's orders isn't really enough for our dramatic interest, though, and Kurosawa knows this—it becomes a moral quest for them both, and though the movie doesn't make its points quite this explicitly, it's clearly about the attempted redemption of both of their souls. Matsunaga is a hell of a patient, that's for sure—when his doctor delivers news that's less than rosy, Matsunaga simply attacks him, with fists, glass beakers, whatever is on hand.

There's not a lot of moral gray area in the film, and like a lot of Kurosawa, it can be more than a little didactic—when you've established that one of your principal characters is an angel, there's no use arguing with him. But already here, the relationship between urban life and the natural world is at the heart of the matter—Kurosawa was of course the most meteorological of all filmmakers, so it's no surprise that the first thing we hear are complaints about the heat, and the sweltering Tokyo sun persists throughout the story. It's not a movie about the evils of civilization, though—the central metaphor, returned to repeatedly, is of a still pool of water that grows increasingly fetid, the natural world as a cesspool of disease, something that must be combated with unending vigilance. And as with so many Japanese films of the period, it's a remarkable little window into Japan in the immediate aftermath of World War II—the curious juxtaposition of East and West, of kimonos and zoot suits. You can't help but start to see some metaphorical significance to tuberculosis, even if the disease is redolent of the nineteenth century; and some of the images about the fear of contagion are simply brutal. At one point, for instance, Matsunaga's girlfriend attempts to skulk away under the cover of night—he catches her at it, and savagely pulls her down onto his sickbed, in an obvious attempt to infect her, a sequence that's as horrible as any rape could be in a film of the period.

Kurosawa hadn't yet quite worked out his signature formal style, and what's especially striking here is the latitude he gives to his actors—Mifune is an explosively charismatic screen presence, for instance, and the director shows extraordinary patience with him, lingering on his face for silent, meditative reaction shots that aren't part of the presentational, Noh-inflected style we've become used to from later movies like Throne of Blood. The actor is at his most vulnerable here, not the iconic image of Japanese machismo that Kurosawa would later sculpt for him. Issues of obligation and service are reinforced by the film's subplot, in which the doctor's assistant contemplates whether or not she should return to her gangster boyfriend, who's just out of the stir—clearly she hates him and harbors a love for her boss, but the man of healing makes a point of keeping his distance. Sanada drops out for much of the last portion of the film's running time, as the gangsters do increasingly treacherous things to one another—getting into a gun fight with a dying man with nothing to lose is never a good idea, and the violence is kinetic and electric. It's a sharp early picture from one of the great masters.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The source material looks particularly degraded, full of scratches, fading, and discoloration—it's marked how much poorer this looks than Kurosawa pictures of even just a year or two later. The transfer, then, tries to make a silk purse out of the proverbial sow's ear, and does well enough, but there's only so much you can do when you've been dealt a relatively bad hand.

Image Transfer Grade: B


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: Some hiss and pop on the mono track; but like most Region 1 viewers of this DVD, I was reading along with the subtitles and not attending to the dialogue, so it didn't seem quite as intrusive as the video quality.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 17 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
2 Documentaries
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Donald Richie
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL

Extra Extras:
  1. accompanying booklet
  2. color bars
Extras Review: Donald Richie, one of the grand men of Kurosawa studies in English, provides a typically excellent commentary track—as a much younger man, he actually visited the set of Drunken Angel, so he's especially charming relating first-hand experience, as well as situating the movie in the director's career. He goes over the paradigms established here by Kurosawa for many later pictures, and discusses the particular influence of John Ford, both on Kurosawa's visual style, and on the Kurosawa/Mifune collaboration and its obvious parallels to Ford's with John Wayne.

The newly retranslated subtitles don't spare on the salty language, and they're full of period jargon ("After that long stretch in the cooler, every girl is a dish"), but they also have a couple of typographical errors—e.g., ""Who's crew are you with, bro?" As with many previous Criterion Kurosawa releases, this one features the relevant episode of the Toho Masterworks series Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create (31m:16s), on the making of the film, emphasizing the emergence of the director's style, and the beginning of the assembly of his stock company, including not just Mifune and Shimura, but production designer Takashi Matsuyama and music director Fumio Hayasaka. Lars-Martin Sorensen contributes a thoughtful video essay (25m:03s), Kurosawa and the Censors, which provides context about the Japanese film industry at the time and the pervasive American influence in the country; to get the film made, Kurosawa had to promote the project as a denunciation of gangsterism. And the accompanying booklet features an essay on the film by Ian Buruma, and the relevant excerpt from the director's memoir, Something Like an Autobiography.

Extras Grade: B


Final Comments

An energetic, noir-inflected tale that stands up perfectly well on its own merits, but one that you can't help but view as a harbinger of the still greater things to come from Kurosawa, Mifune and their frequent collaborators.


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