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Saturday, 5 December 2009

Drunken Angel (1948)

Director: Akira Kurosawa
Stars: Takashi Shimura and Toshiro Mifune
While it pairs Japanese director Akira Kurosawa with both his regular leading men, Takashi Shimura and Toshiro Mifune, Drunken Angel is not a samurai drama. Instead both play complex modern characters gradually drawn together through a case of tuberculosis. One is a doctor and one his patient, but it's not quite as simple as that might seem, even with the added depth that the patient doesn't want the help and the doctor provides it anyway because he sees a lot of his younger and wilder self in him and whether he realises it or not has found a sort of salvation redemption by proxy.

Shimura is the doctor, Sanada by name, highly capable but rather fond of the bottle, which is one reason why he works out of a poor part of town while Takahama, one of his fellow students at college, now runs his own hospital. He's a volatile character, shouting at everyone but always with their own good in mind, whether they be children drinking from a polluted stream that is likely to give them typhoid or his assistant Miyo who has escaped an abusive husband called Okada only to talk about seeing him again when he gets out of prison. He simply cares about his patients too much to make any real money off them.

Mifune is the patient, a violent gangster called Matsunaga who comes to see him because he's caught his hand in a door, though naturally that's a lie as Sanada quickly discovers when he pulls the bullet out of it. He walks through the town as if he owns it, which in a way he does, of course. When he takes a flower from a stall the owners bow to him. When he walks into a bar everyone else leaves so he can have privacy. As a man stalking his territory he reminds of Christopher Lee and as a dancer he's more like the wolf from the Looney Tunes cartoons. Sanada is the only one willing to even remotely speak his mind to him and he doesn't hold back in the slightest, giving him the brutal truth, even when he only gets brutal treatment in return.

There are complicating factors, of course, most obviously Okada. He's the abusive husband of Miyo, who Dr Sanada has taken in, but he's also a gangster, Matsunaga's colleague. Less overt but just as obvious are things like the yakuza code of honour and the willingness of man to find salvation through sacrifice, something that applies to both of the lead characters. The story is well written by Kurosawa and Keinosuke Uekusa and capably shot by Takeo Ito, who was rewarded for his work by a win at the Mainichi Film Awards. It's really brought to life by the two actors though, who are superb, not that that's particularly surprising for anyone who's seen either of them act.
Takashi Shimura was well established in 1948, having made over forty movies in the preceding decade or so, including five for Kurosawa, beginning with Sanshiro Sugata in 1943. They'd go on to make 22 films together, the last being Kagemusha in 1980, though he was very frail by then and his small part was cut from the initial American release. With so many films to his credit, over two hundred of them, it's nigh on impossible to be sure about the highlights, but films like The Seven Samurai, Gojira and Ikiru spring quickly to mind. In a uniquely Japanese way, Shimura alternated between what we in the west would see as serious art films and monster movies. It's fascinating to watch an actor like Takashi Shimura make films like Kwaidan in the same year as Ghidrah, the Three-Headed Monster or Red Beard the same year as Frankenstein Conquers the World.

Toshiro Mifune only made 16 films for Kurosawa even though he's the first actor that comes to most people's minds when they think of Kurosawa movies, possibly because the era in which he was the focal point of them came after the era in which Shimura was. This was the first of their films together, so early in his career that he doesn't even look like the Toshiro Mifune we know from later films, even ones so close to the time as Rashomon in 1950. Yet here in only his fourth film he's already a major presence, up to challenge of going toe to toe with Shimura. It's always strange to see him in modern day clothing, even the modern day clothing of sixty years ago but he wasn't always a feudal lord or a samurai. This was his real beginning. Another year and he'd be back with Shimura and Kurosawa for the stunning Stray Dog, a year after that and the trio would make Rashomon. The rest is cinematic history.

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