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DRUNKEN ANGEL (Yoidore tenshi) (director/writer: Akira Kurosawa; screenwriter: Keinosuke Uegusa; cinematographer: Takeo Ito; editor: Akira Kurosawa; music: Fumio Hayasaka; cast: Toshiro Mifune (Matsunaga), Takashi Shimura (Dr. Sanada), Reizaburo Yamamoto (Okada), Michiyo Kogure (Nanae), Eitarô Shindô (Dr.Takahama), Chieko Nakakita (Miyo), Choko Iida (Maidservant), Noriko Sengoku (Gin), Masao Shimizu (Big Boss); Runtime: 102; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Sojiro Motoki; Criterion Collection; 1948-Japan-in Japanese with English subtitles)
“Nothing that hasn’t been done before in Hollywood, and in many cases better.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Akira Kurosawa (“Throne of Blood”/”Red Beard”/”Stray Dog”) directs this minor noir film, set during the pessimistic swamplike postwar WWII period of Tokyo. Its claim to fame other than its moody noirish atmospheric photography is the sharp performance by the unknown 28-year-old Toshiro Mifune, which was the first of their 16 collaborations. It was Kurosawa’s first important film (he said he found his style) and borrowed heavily from the Italian neo-realists and the American gangster films of James Cagney.

Matsunaga (Toshiro Mifune), a nasty young hoodlum with a big mouth and a swagger, has a bullet removed from his left hand without anesthetics by the gruff alcoholic Dr. Sanada (Takashi Shimura); the doctor, who is located in a Tokyo dockside slum neighborhood that is controlled by gangs, guesses correctly from the thug’s cough that he has tuberculosis. The doctor, the film’s drunken angel, whose rough exterior hides a gentle heart, takes an interest in treating the thug even though he’s treated by him with contempt (a surrogate father and a young punk bonding develops). But things become complicated when Matsunaga’s boss Okada (Reizaburo Yamamoto) gets out of jail after serving three years and reclaims the market territory run by Matsunaga and tries to reclaim the girlfriend he abused, Miyo (Cheiko Nakakita), who happens to be Sanada’s nurse; and, also takes away Matsunaga’s unfaithful girlfriend, the dancehall hostess Nanae (Michiyo Kogure).

The climactic scene has a weakened Matsunaga begging Okada to leave Miyo alone. But Matsunaga is expendable now that he’s dying, and when he hears his boss say this to another thug who is promised his territory as soon as he dies–Matsunaga in a rage goes after Okada with a knife. But he drops his knife when he coughs up blood and Okada is able to stab him to death in a paint-filled corridor, in one of the weaker knife fights put on celluloid (it looked like a fight between two sissies).

The film is crudely shot and is filled with the usual American gangster clichés. Its aim is all about the moral struggle between the two opposites–the doctor, who remained in the slum while his schoolmates have gone on to prestigious positions in more affluent areas, wants earnestly to clean up both the crime and sickness (such as getting rid of a malaria-ridden pond where children play, educating the community of the venereal disease epidemic, and to impress on his patients that it takes “will power” to overcome TB) and the gangster who can’t change his ways (representing the Old Japan of the emperor that made its people make foolish sacrifices) and tries to carry out his ruthless and corrupt gangster lifestyle even when dying (but who nevertheless still shows he hasn’t lost all his humanity by trying to help the nurse). Nothing that hasn’t been done before in Hollywood, and in many cases better.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”