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The set for Akira Kurosawa’s Drunken Angel (1948) consisted of a filthy sump surrounded by ruined buildings, shabby wooden houses, and the facade of a sleazy nightclub. It was a setting that could have been found almost anywhere in Tokyo in 1948, or any other bombed-out Japanese city where postwar life revolved around the teeming black markets. One of the wonders of the early postwar Japanese cinema was the public appetite for realism, and the pestilential sump, filled with toxic garbage, stood as a symbol for all that was rotten about life in the wake of a catastrophic wartime defeat. The cheap hookers lurking in the shadows, the young thugs fighting over territory, loot, and “face.” To have “face” in a particular district meant that you had the run of the place, taking what you needed for nothing and making huge profits off the backs of Japanese citizens who struggled to survive. Many of these petty (and not so petty) gangsters had been soldiers in a holy war to expand the glory of the Japanese Empire. Kamikaze pilots whose sacred suicide missions were aborted when surrender intervened became criminals exploiting the people for whose honor they had just months before sworn to sacrifice their lives. But some, in a perverse way, transformed their military code of honor into a gangland code that was just as deadly.
It is this criminal machismo that Kurosawa set out to explore and dramatize in Drunken Angel, his seventh film and, he felt, his official breakthrough in Japanese cinema. As he put it in his memoir, Something Like an Autobiography: “I wanted to take a scalpel and dissect the yakuza.” The yakuza in question is Matsunaga (Toshiro Mifune), a handsome thug who never has trouble finding women to love him, despite, or perhaps because of, his rude, domineering ways.
Kurosawa has sometimes been accused of being didactic, of pitting good against bad too obviously. But the two main characters in Drunken Angel are in fact complex: Dr. Sanada (Takashi Shimura), an alcoholic doctor who boozes from his own medical supplies, is redeemed by his desire to cure even the most unredeemable patients; Matsunaga is a violent hoodlum humanized by his fear of death, which lies just underneath the swaggering surface. He is suffering from tuberculosis, a common disease in the squalor of postwar Japan. Facing up to his illness means that he has to confront his own weakness, which in Sanada’s view (and Kurosawa’s too) takes more courage than beating up fellow hoods in a nightclub.
Sanada has to fight a different battle, against a different kind of weakness: his feeling of despair and cynicism, another by-product of national defeat. Undone by his drinking, he sees how friends from his student days have flourished, running hospitals and the like, while he lives in a slum, taking care of poor people around the aforementioned sump. He has almost lost confidence in his own profession; in a world of crime, disease, and human degradation, he has almost lost confidence in life itself.
Because he is a good man underneath the drunken, cynical bluster, he still tries hard to save the lives of obviously good people, such as an optimistic schoolgirl (Yoshiko Kuga). But this is not enough. A harder adversary has to be overcome. Matsunaga needs the doctor to cure him, but the doctor needs the gangster to feel that not all is in vain, that some battles are worth winning, that even a bad man’s life ought to be saved. In a way, the film is about two men wrestling with their angels; each is the adversarial angel of the other.
Although Drunken Angel is about postwar Japan, the historical echoes are strong. The macho codes to which Kurosawa took his analytical scalpel were also part of Japan’s wartime story. Indeed, it was believed at the time that these codes helped explain, at least partly, why Japan went to war in the first place. In contrast to Germany, blame for the Japanese war could not be pinned on the Nazi Party or a murderous dictator. The war was fought in the name of the Japanese emperor, to be sure, but Hirohito was no Hitler. Instead the war was blamed on the “militarists,” but also on something usually described as “feudalism,” the warrior tradition, the culture of male domination, of self-sacrifice for the sake of samurai honor. This was the culture that Japanese liberals and Americans working for the Allied occupation of Japan sought to eradicate from the Japanese psyche. Democracy, equality between men and women, and an end to “feudal” warrior ethics were the stated goals of postwar education. Sword-fight movies, and even some Kabuki plays that extolled samurai virtues, were banned for a time. Japan had to be transformed into a pacific, democratic nation.
Although Kurosawa himself said he was inspired by Dostoyevsky when he wrote the script for Drunken Angel, he brings a decidedly anti-feudal message to the film as well. There is a subplot about another gangster, named Okada (Reizaburo Yamamoto), who is tougher and more unscrupulous than Matsunaga. While Okada is in prison, Miyo (Chieko Nakakita), his much-abused ex--mistress, finds refuge with Sanada as a nurse. After his release, Okada wants to claim her back. It becomes a point of honor for Matsunaga to stop him.
If the doctor and his young yakuza patient are complex characters, Okada is nothing of the sort. He is a figure of pure evil. Okada talks about codes of honor but only as a way to exploit the likes of Matsunaga, who really believe in them. Money and power are what he wants. The implication would not have been lost on Japanese audiences in 1948: Okada represents the warmongers, the generals and profiteers who abused the idealism of ordinary Japanese people for their own ends. It is not, however, just the bad guys who were held responsible for the destruction of millions but also the bellicose culture that nurtured them.
This is also the underlying theme of Drunken Angel. Matsunaga owes a debt of honor to the doctor who is trying to cure him. When Okada threatens to use violence to reclaim his mistress from the doctor’s care, Sanada protests that men and women now have equal rights. He tells Matsunaga to stay put, get rest. The police will help. But Matsunaga cannot forget his yakuza honor. Deathly pale, coughing blood, he rises from his bed to go after Okada himself. Sanada says: “Human sacrifice has gone out of style.” Again the implication of this would have been clear.
The one element missing from the postwar Tokyo scene in Kurosawa’s film is the presence of foreigners, of GIs dispensing chewing gum from their jeeps, of MPs arresting brawling Americans, of Allied soldiers engaged in black-market business, of “panpan girls” selling themselves to the foreign occupiers for a little cash and a pair of silk stockings. The reason we don’t see such typical scenes of postwar occupation might be a simple matter of censorship. Until the end of the occupation in 1952, Americans were not to be portrayed in a bad light, if at all: exposing the presence of the occupying army was not allowed.
The more important reason, however, is that foreigners are irrelevant to Kurosawa’s story. Overcoming the culture of war is a Japanese business. The yakuza are a Japanese phenomenon. The Americans provided much of the propaganda about democracy and equal rights, but they played no part in the kind of relationships dramatized in this film. And relationships interested Kurosawa more than political messages, let alone American propaganda.
Despite the accusations from some Japanese critics that he was too “Westernized,” Kurosawa was deeply immersed in the culture and politics of his own country. But not in a provincial way. In matters of style, he was influenced by such directors as John Ford. He was also an avid reader of Russian literature. The story of Matsunaga and Dr. Sanada is local but also, like all good stories—especially those like Rashomon (1950) and Seven Samurai (1954), which would soon make Kurosawa an international sensation—universal. He made films about the Japanese for the Japanese. But they are loved by people everywhere. That is what made Kurosawa a great artist.
Ian Buruma is the Henry R. Luce Professor at Bard College. He is the author of God’s Dust, Behind the Mask, The Missionary and the Libertine, Playing the Game, The Wages of Guilt, Anglomania, and Murder in Amsterdam.