(Second in a series of articles on early Akira Kurosawa)
Kurosawa’s Drunken Angel, made in 1948 just a year before Stray Dog, shares the latter film’s unblinking gaze at the social, psychological and economic misery of Japan immediately after WWII.
It is also the first movie that allowed Kurosawa full creative control, not having to deal with Japanese wartime censorship or that of the Allied occupying power. It is also the first movie to feature two actors who would become part of the director’s ongoing company, just as much as Max Von Sydow became associated with Ingmar Bergman. Toshiro Mifune is cast as Matsunaga, a Yakuza who comes to the drunken angel of the film’s title, a doctor in the slum neighborhood controlled by Matsunaga’s gang. Doctor Sanada is played by Takashi Shimura, who would appear opposite Mifune in Stray Dog and star in Ikiru, one of Kurosawa’s greatest masterpieces. In Drunken Angel and Stray Dog, the two actors share a father-son relationship with Mifune’s character given to youthful impetuousness. Doctor Sanada has a big job on his hands dealing with the snarling yakuza, who despite suffering from TB, insists on continuing his wastrel ways: drinking and fighting.
Sanada’s office abuts a fetid pond, almost a cesspool, where local children play despite his warnings that they can catch typhoid. This is not the Japan of later years. Like the postwar Italian neorealist movies, it is a landscape of poverty and disease with a Tokyo as ruined as Rome. Ironically, Kurosawa finds ways to turn this meager setting into something almost beautiful, as a local street musician plays a haunting tune not far from the pond late at night as the moon is reflected in the dank water.
Sanada is a drunken angel because he is an alcoholic and because he goes out of his way to keep Matsunaga alive, even turning away gangsters from his door out to punish his ward. He sees the humanity of the yakuza beneath the truculent surface, even continuing to care for him after Matsunaga beats and curses him after learning about his illness from the doctor. In the Homeric tales, the messenger of bad news is killed while in Drunken Angel, he is merely beaten and cursed.
Mifune’s performance is something to behold. As the dying man, he is determined to live each day as if it his last, which in his world means doing everything he can to undermine his health and hasten death’s arrival. In this scene from a yakuza nightclub hang-out, you get a sense of his desperate clutching at life. It is also a startling view of the Japanese embrace of American swing era customs that would appear in a similar scene in Stray Dog. Mifune is as exciting to watch as any scene in his samurai classics. Look at the crazed expression on his face!
Made in 1951, The Idiot, I’m afraid, can only be recommended to Kurosawa fans. It is an adaptation of the Dostoevsky novel that had an original length of 265 minutes, to be shown in two parts. The studio bosses cut 80 minutes from the film and the director was forced to use clumsy voice-over exposition to fill in for the deleted scenes.
I am not sure if seeing the uncut version would make much difference since the original material constrained what Kurosawa could do. The “idiot” in question is Kinji Kameda (Masayuki Mori), a World War Two veteran who came to within a whisker’s width of being shot by a firing squad for war crimes he did not commit. The trauma led to epilepsy (an unlikely medical outcome) and a lengthy stay in a mental hospital. Kamada is not really lacking in the IQ department. He is an “idiot” only because he approaches people in a childlike manner, often committing social gaffes that would expect from a young child.
As such he is a passive and somewhat unknowable character. As I have pointed out in the past, the director is taking a calculated risk by making the lead character a victim of mental illness. When you cannot identify with a character whose experience is so at odds with everyday behavior, you put a wall between him or her and the audience just as was the case in Mussolini’s demented lover in Vincere. Not having read Dostoyevsky’s novel, I cannot say how this plays out in the original version but Kurosawa’s does not work for me.
The most interesting character in The Idiot is Akama, a crude and swaggering young man who has befriended Kamada mostly out of pity. Played by Mifune, this Akama manages to steal every scene he is in.
The movie is shot on location on Hokkaido Island, the northernmost part of Japan whose close proximity to Russia was meant to convey the atmosphere of Dostoyevsky’s novel. Snow falls throughout the movie. As evidenced below, the movie is often very lovely to look at even if it insists on keeping you at arm’s length.