Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Kurosawa Centennial: Drunken Angel

Dr. Sanada will never be confused with Dr. Kildare. A borderline drunk with a terrible bedside manner and a shady past, he is not exactly your stereotypical kindly movie doctor. However, for those that contract tuberculosis in the post-war Tokyo slums, he is the man to see in Akira Kurosawa’s gangster morality play Drunken Angel, which screens this Saturday during Film Forum’s twenty-eight film retrospective celebration of the Kurosawa centennial.

Sanada’s practice might not be much, but at least he has the opportunity to gauge yakuza seeking emergency treatment in the dead of night. As Angel opens he is digging a bullet out of the arm of Matsunaga, the yakuza’s interim honcho for the neighborhood, sans anesthesia. Sanada also offers a bonus diagnosis to the chronically hacking gangster: he has TB.

Matsunaga initially prefers denial to treatment, but Sanada is a persistent quack. He also appreciates the yakuza’s ready access to real booze. Just as the young tough acquiesces to Sanada’s treatment, Okada, his yakuza senior, is released from prison. Looking to reassert himself over his old territory and Miyo, his frightened former mistress now working as Sanada’s nurse, Okada is definitely bad news, but Matsunaga believes himself honor bound to the sinister gangster. With his career deteriorating faster than his body, violence seems inevitable for Matsunaga, and Kurosawa does not disappoint.

Angel is particularly notable for two things. It offers an opportunity to see Toshirō Mifune shake his tail-feather to popular Japanese swing vocalist Shizuko Kasagi’s “Jungle Boogie” and it was the first of many celebrated collaborations between the actor and director. It also features Takashi Shimura, who was already something of a Kurosawa regular. They were indeed perfectly cast as the dissipated but still deadly Matsunaga and the cynical healer, respectively. Mifune’s smoldering heat and Shimura’s shrewdly restrained cool obviously proved to be a great pairing, which Kurosawa would quickly recombine in classics like Stray Dog.

If one can set aside expectations for another Kurosawa masterpiece like Seven Samurai or Throne of Blood, Angel is actually a nifty little gangster drama, featuring a tense climatic struggle between two of the gauntest looking gangsters you are ever likely to see on film. Though Angel is also famous for the veiled anti-American references Kurosawa slipped past the occupation censors, they are largely lost on viewers not cued to look for them. More importantly, he creates a powerful sense of the dank, disease infested slums and uses a mournful guitar theme to create an eerie noir vibe.

Explicitly likening bacterial disease to the yakuza’s moral corruption, Angel alternates between wildly feverish and grimly naturalistic vibes. Overall, it is a socially pointed but still quite entertaining excursion into film noir territory. It screens Saturday (1/23) at Film Forum.