Thursday, 4 September 2008

YOIDORI TENSHI/Drunken Angel (1948)

In the post war slums of Tokyo a young gangster (Toshiro Mifune) visits an alcoholic doctor (Takashi Shimura) to have a bullet removed from his hand. The doctor also diagnoses tuberculosis and the gangster reacts violently and leaves. The doctor goes to see the gangster and tries to persuade him to get an X-Ray but again the meeting ends in an assault on the doctor. This is the basic premise for Kurosawa's film and as this brief outline suggests it is mainly a two-hander for the two great Japanese actors. The vivid depiction of the slums (we are in the world of IKIRU here) with children drinking from lakes of rotting water where the city's waste has been tipped and disease and crime running rampant is the perfect setting for this tale of redemption. From Western eyes conditioned by Hollywood cliche viewers tend to expect that the main focus of this tale is Mifune's young gangster and we are, perhaps, deliberately led down that path by Kurosawa. The doctor is living with the girlfriend of a gang leader who is due to be released from jail. Will Mifune protect them ? Well the action takes all the expected turns but the motivations and results are not at all what we would expect. Mifune's character is a selfish son-of-a-bitch who can see no further than his own reputation and there is no softening of his personality. In Hollywood he would have discovered gratitude and humility and gone out in a redeeming blaze of glory but for Kurosawa the man is a waste of human potential and his end is ineffectual, squalid and motivated not by any noble sacrifice but by pride. Kurosawa compares him to a young school girl who suffers from the same disease and who listens to the doctor. While Kurosawa never hits us over the head with the "message" the characters would seem to me to stand for the attitudes of post-war Japan, with Mifune as the old self destructive ways and the schoolgirl (who we only see twice) as the way forward. The polluted slum is post-Hiroshima Japan. On the more personal level the redemption that we first expect to be Mifune's is actually that of the doctor - Kurosawa tells us this in the title. The final seen has a feeling of optimism that reminded me strongly of Sjoberg's TORMENT. Rating ****

Curiously, I watched this on the same day as I viewed WHISTLE AND I'LL COME TO YOU in which a man is pursued along a beach by a strange ghostly figure. In DRUNKEN ANGEL, Mifune dreams that he finds his own coffin on a beach and is pursued along the beach by his own corpse. I think they call it synchronicity!

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