Thursday, December 20, 2007

Drunken Angel

Akira Kurosawa has stated, in somewhat more modest terms, that this was his first great film. I haven’t seen any of his prior films (I’m eagerly awaiting the upcoming box set of his postwar work, due out next month), but I do have to agree this is quality work.

Set shortly after the end of World War 2, this film shows us a Japan that’s been completely broken by its military crimes and failures, and whose slums have been taken over by yakuza men looking to achieve power here that they didn’t get in the army. Out of this world we get a struggle between two men, Takashi Shimura as a beaten down doctor who drinks all of his bitterness and cynicism away, and his new patient, Toshiro Mifune (in his first role of many with Kurosawa, and completely unrecognizable), a young yakuza with tuberculosis. Both men squabble with each other from the instant they first meet, but both also see possible redemption in the other; for Shimura, if he can save the worst possible patient he can, it would validate all his feelings about working in the hellish slum around them. For Mifune, the doctor seems to come from another world entirely, one that promises the chance to turn his entire life around and help him find the peace he has never known. Standing in the way of their joint healing is another man, Okada, Mifune’s former boss who is fresh out of prison and is determined to make life hell for both of them.

The film was intended to be an attack on the Japanese way of life that had led to such a disastrous war, and it mostly succeeds. However, there are two problems that weren’t adequately dealt with. One is that, when you’re trying to show the yakuza as a negative, corrupt influence on society, you shouldn’t make the main yakuza representative in the film so much more charismatic than the doctor that’s supposed to represent the “good” part of society, though since it was his first time working with Mifune I guess Kurosawa may not have known better until it was too late. The other problem comes in the form of the doctor’s young nurse. Before she worked with the doctor, she had fallen under the influence of Okada, who now wants to take her back against her will. One of the themes in the film is that men and women are now supposed to be equal, unlike how they were a scant four years prior when Okada was first thrown in jail. However, she’s never really given her own voice in the film, still relying on Shimura and Mifune to protect her. I have to place the blame for this on Kurosawa himself, as he’s mentioned in several interviews that he has a hard time writing female characters because he doesn’t understand women at all. It weakens what should be one of the main cruxes of the film.

That said, this is still an impressive film, made by someone who, if not yet making the string of masterpieces he was later known for, was still head and shoulders above most all of his peers. If you have not yet seen any of Kurosawa’s films (and frankly, what the hell’s wrong with you?), this may not be the best possible place to start, but it’s certainly not bad either.

Rating: *** ½

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