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  Drunken Angel Consult Your Local PhysicianBuy this film here.
Year: 1948
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Stars: Takashi Shimura, Toshirô Mifune, Reisaburô Yamamoto, Michiyo Kugure, Chieko Nakakita, Shizuko Kasagi, Eitarô Shindô, Masao Shimizu, Taiji Tonoyama, Yoshiko Kuga, Chôko Iida, Ko Ubukata, Akira Tani, Sachio Sakai
Genre: Drama, Thriller
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: Post-war Japan, and the nation is in a bad way, with the cities reduced to bomb sites from which the population do their best to rise up, but are at risk of being preyed on by the burgeoning criminal class who exploit the black market. Is there no hope now that the humanity there has had all sense of a better future drummed out of them since their crushing defeat? There are a few who refuse to be beaten down and give in to their worst impulses, among them Doctor Sanada (Takashi Shimura), who may be heavily dependent on the bottle but doesn't let that stop him from attending to his patients - no matter who they may be.

Even if one of them is a gangster bringing misery to the community? Since the big boss has been put away in jail, there's a major new player on the scene, and he's Matsunaga, a young buck who is out to get as much as he can, prepared to face any consequences of violence, and not allow anyone to stand in his way. In the original version of Drunken Angel, or Yoidore tenshi as it was called, the director wanted to make a morality fable about the Dr Sanada character, but something about the aspiring gangster proved too alluring to ignore, and a lot of that was down to the actor playing him, an unknown at the time. When you know that director was Akira Kurosawa and the actor was Toshirô Mifune, you understand the interest.

This was the first film, after over five years of toiling in the industry throughout the catastrophic Second World War, that Kurosawa finally felt conveyed something approaching his true authorial voice, and it's nice to think that a large degree of that was thanks to finding a performer who could embody his themes of masculinity, a code of honour, and the deep-seated emotions that lay beneath that surface. Mifune was ready to admit he was guided to his greatest readings by Kurosawa, and while Shimura threatens to steal the movie here, it was he who made the biggest impression, some way away from his more identifiable Samurai characters, for those in the West at any rate.

In this case Mifune was playing an arrogant young man afflicted by the tuberculosis plaguing the city, and the reality of that is illustrated by the continual returning to shots of the infested swamp which doubles as a rubbish dump lying just outside the doctor's home and surgery. For every time we see the medical man make progress, Kurosawa is careful to remind us that the problems have not gone away, so in spite of a note of optimism struck throughout, including at the end, he was not so naive to think the issues were going to be cured with a magic wand, and so it is that is not what happens as Sanada attempts to both save the life and more obliquely the soul of Matsunaga.

When the gangster goes to the doctor seeking treatment for a bullet wound in his hand, it's the start of an uneasy relationship and one which often ends up with both men wrestling to the ground as they lose their tempers, which verges on the comical, especially when you see how each actor is trying to out-gruff the other. Mifune, looking sleek and surprisingly handsome with his slicked-back hair and zoot suits, just about wins that contest, but mainly because he is more convincing as a man in the throes of a debilitating illness, whereas Shimura necks as much booze as he can get his hands on and it doesn't appear to have any effect on him whatsoever, unless his short fuse is the result. He does persuade Matsunaga to seek treatment, but this is a bad time because Okada (Reisaburô Yamamoto), the old, even less friendly gangster, has just been released which sends the younger criminal into a downward spiral that culminates memorably in a paint-drenched brawl. Some call this Japanese film noir, but Kurosawa, as he observed, had found something more fitting to his personality. Music by Fumio Hayasaka.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark


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Akira Kurosawa  (1910 - 1998)

Japanese director and writer, and one of the most important figures in 20th century cinema. Kurosawa was greatly influenced by Hollywood - John Ford being his idol - but more than any other film-maker was responsible for introducing Japanese films to West. He originally trained as an artist and worked as a studio scriptwriter, before directing his first film in 1943, the martial arts drama Judo Saga. Kurosawa's next few films were made during World War II and had to adhere to strict state guidelines; it was 1948's gangster movie Drunken Angel that first saw the director's emerging personal vision, and was his first film to star regular leading man Toshirô Mifune.

Rashomon was the film that brought Kurosawa acclaim in the West, winning top prize at the Venice Film Festival in 1951, and a string of classics followed - Throne of Blood, The Hidden Fortress, Yojimbo, Seven Samurai - all set in Feudal Japan and combining incredible cinematography and thrilling action with humour, sadness and deep insights into human behaviour. The director also turned in some superb non-period film around this time too, such as the thrillers The Bad Sleep Well and High and Low.

The following decade proved a frustrating one for Kurosawa, as he struggled to get projects off the ground, culminating with the box office failure of Dodesukaden and a suicide attempt in 1970. The director's fortunes turned when 1975's Russian epic Dersu Uzala won the Best Foreign Language Oscar, while his next two films were among his very best - the beautifully shot Kagemusha and 1985's spectacular, hugely successful King Lear adaptation, Ran. Kurosawa's final films were smaller and more personal - Dreams, Rhapsody in August and Not Yet. He died of a stroke in 1998, aged 88.

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