One of the pastimes of film enthusiasts is to rewind and look back at the origins of their favorite filmmakers. Take Kubrick’s first feature film, Fear and Desire. It isn’t very good, but that’s almost beside the point. Look to how shots are composed, how the action is choreographed, or, in a word, how the film is directed. Kubrick is finding his voice in the faded black and white images, and it’s thrilling to experience his slow self-discovery. Interesting also is looking back to Christopher Nolan’s debut film, Following, which follows an unlikely team of two young guys, one slimy and one slick. They break into people’s homes and philosophize on the consequences. You hear retroactive echoes of The Joker in some of these monologues, and how similar the texture and tone is to Nolan’s later films is uncanny. Plus, we can laugh at the ironic coincidence of a Batman symbol on one of the doors. Akira Kurosawa had been making films for five years before finding his footing as a filmmaker and artist, and it took all seven of his first films to make his breakthrough, his eighth film, Drunken Angel. The construction of the plot seems innocuous enough, with a story right out of a Hollywood melodrama (his reputation of using the tools of Hollywood rather than the tools of Japanese film increased over time). However, the goal of Drunken Angel and the goal of the Hollywood melodrama couldn’t be further apart with Kurosawa’s self-realizing script and direction.
The surface story is just that, the surface, and dramatic though it may be, a deep and twisted soul sits beneath. This was a film released in 1948, only a few years after the United States military dropped two atomic bombs in Japan. It was one of the first films ever made to confront the social, institutional, and moral collapse of Japan in its post-war years. The plot follows a worse for wear physician, Doctor Senada (played by Takashi Shimura, most famous for the party leader in Seven Samurai and the subject of Ikiru), that works in a crummy ramshackle office, who, like everyone else in town, has fallen on hard times. That is, everyone that isn’t a gangster. A small time crook, played by Kurosawa first timer Toshiro Mifune who went on to star in 16 of Kurosawa films following this one (many think it is the greatest actor-director partnership ever, I’m prone to agree), shows up at the physician’s office with a bullet in his hand and a thick cough. The doctor quickly realizes his cough might mean tuberculosis. It is there the plot begins, as danger befalls each major character.
The narrative unfolds in obvious melodramatic fashion, and even for audiences in 1948 the film’s finale would have been unambiguous from the mid-point. But Kurosawa stirs life into the story by the lyricism through which the story is told. For starters, despite being a film without a crime or much violence, Kurosawa spins it as a noir. Actors and sets are painted with deep shadow and high contrast, each shot meticulously framed. Like in a number of his later films, the images speak to the story with profound poetry. Sharp lines, either using elements of the set or with beams of light, frequently penetrate and cut through the characters. This is seen best during a visually dazzling satiric dance number at a night club. He also finds clever ways to accentuate depth, such as the classic noir use of deep focus photography, and saves most 3D-like effects for when characters are at their most desperate and full of despair. Close-ups are rare for this reason, but when they are used, it is to spectacular effect. Few use the close up better than Kurosawa, turning a mundane shot like the close up into a startling moment of visceral intensity and emotion.
By devoting so much of the mise-en-scene and cinematography to exploiting the character’s suffering, a suffocating air of tension falls over every moment of the film. Admittedly, it takes about a half an hour to get there, almost a third of the movie. This is a far cry from his other noir pictures that establish the conflict early, such as his masterpiece High and Low. Or look to two of his samurai epics, Seven Samurai and Ran, which open in medias res. It’s clear Drunken Angel is crude in concept and in execution and struggles to find the balance between narrative hyperbole and thematic depth. Kurosawa’s intentions run deeper than the story or the characters, and that he abuses them for the sake of symbolism is both Drunken Angel’s greatest success and worst shortcoming. Was it worth it? Yes.
Although crafted as a noir by way of melodrama, Drunken Angel is terrifying. If I was feeling pretentious, I might dare to call it a horror film. Yes, the characters lack naturalism and act too extreme, and the plot consists of a flimsy turn of compounding coincidences and contrivance. Melodrama. That’s fine. These are ciphers for arguably one of the most violent acts of war ever committed by one country to another—the dropping of the atom bomb. The town like the one in Drunken Angel wouldn’t have been an uncommon sight near Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and resting in the center of town is a radioactive swamp the camera frequently emphasizes with long-held shots. Doctor Senada, ever socially conscious, warns the town’s children from approaching the water, “You fool! Get out of there!” Shocking scenes like this one weren’t uncommon in Japan in the first post-war years, and every layer of the film manifests the ability, or inability, of the Japanese people to deal with the nuclear fallout. Every character represents a different reaction, from the doctor’s alcoholism to another character’s desires a fresh start in the country.
Mifune’s gangster represents this theme most of all. He refuses to acknowledge his risk for disease, reacting bitterly and angrily whenever forced to face the reality. He lashes out and often projects his anger onto those around him. Doctor Senada’s accusation to him is Kurosawa’s accusation to the Japanese people: he mistakes acting cowardly for acting courageous. He tries to submerge his emotions into a forest of rage of which he cannot escape. With only the slightest sliver of hope to be found in the brisk running time, Drunken Angel sees Kurosawa challenging himself as an artist and as an auteur, embracing techniques and themes that dictated his work as a filmmaker for decades.