In his DVD Verdict debut, Judge Eric Andis ends up under the table trying to do justice to this seldom-seen classic from one of cinema's finest directors.
"A rational approach is the best medicine for life."
This Criterion release is the North American debut of this early Akira Kurosawa film, previously only available overseas. While he is best known in this country for his groundbreaking samurai films such as The Seven Samurai and Rashomon, this is a contemporary tale with all the ingredients of a gangster film. In the hands of this master, though, you might end up with something much more satisfying.
Facts of the Case
Set in the ruins of a post-World War II Tokyo slum, Dr. Sanada (Takashi Shimura, The Seven Samurai) is keenly interested in keeping his poor neighbors as healthy as possible. It's an uphill battle, since food and medical supplies are scarce, and the neighborhood is around an open sewer. Knowing his task is futile, the noble doctor medicates himself with black market whiskey and sake.
When Matsunaga (Toshiro Mifune, Throne of Blood), a young Yakuza with a violent temper, seeks Sanada's help to remove a bullet from his hand, a cough catches the doctor's attention. He soon discovers that the Yakuza is suffering from a treatable case of tuberculosis, but Matsunaga refuses to acknowledge his illness and disregards the doctor's repeated advice to change his lifestyle and get treatment.
Things become even more complicated when Matsunaga's boss is released from prison, intending to reclaim his rightful position in the criminal underworld at any cost. At a time when he cannot afford to appear weak, Matsunaga begins to feel the disease take its toll.
This film marks the first collaboration between Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune, a partnership that would continue for almost twenty years and sixteen amazing films. Although Kurosawa had directed five movies before Drunken Angel, this is his first film that can be called a masterpiece, due in no small part to the electricity and vibrant performance of Mifune, who may appear to be under control, but will unleash his fury at the first provocation. It's no wonder that the denizens of his neighborhood bow to his wishes, giving way to him on crowded sidewalks, and allowing him to take their food and wares at a time of extreme poverty. Years before Brando and James Dean, this is where Mifune lays the cornerstone for the school of primal performance, under the careful eye of Kurosawa.
It is that power that defines Takashi Shimura's performance of the doctor, who refuses to submit to Mifune's gangster attitude. With a bottle in his hand and his devil-may-care attitude, Shimura confidently mocks the very acting style that Mifune is inventing before our eyes. He knows that this animal force of nature is still only human and that even this giant will fall, maybe sooner rather than later if he doesn't wise up. Although Mifune is the showboat, it's with good reason that the film is named after Shimura's wise and valiant physician.
Using a standing set on Toho's back lot as his inspiration, Kurosawa's screenplay draws us completely into defeated Japan and its people, trying to put their lives and country back together. This was a world that Kurosawa was actually living in, and his film has a documentary-like approach, using simple camera setups and sparse set design to allow us to focus all of our attention on his characters, the choices they make, and the consequences that they will live with.
And yet, this is not a depressing film. Despite the crime and violence, Kurosawa shows us that life goes on: children are still playing and going to school, young lovers quarrel and get back together, popsicles are still delicious on a hot day, there is always music, and even a criminal can become a hero.
Criterion continues to set the bar high with a tremendous package for Drunken Angel's first official release on these shores. Sporting a new high-definition digital transfer, the video quality is very good, with light vertical streaking occasionally and a few sequences that may have been derived from a different source and look a tad softer. The sound quality is also sharp and clear, and the optional English subtitles are easily readable. Chaptering is more than adequate
Two featurettes are included as extras: a 31-minute excerpt from a longer Toho Masterworks documentary dealing specifically with the production of Drunken Angel, as well as "Kurosawa and the Censors," a 25-minute piece examining the changes that the director made to the film to appease U.S. military censors (as well as a few things that he did anyway). Both are extremely interesting, and well worth watching.
There is also an audio commentary track with Japanese film historian Donald Richie, who takes us on a lively tour through this great film. Richie was actually present during the production of Drunken Angel, so his recollections and insight are especially valuable. Finally, there is a 28-page booklet containing an essay on the film, and two chapters from Kurosawa's remarkable book Something Like an Autobiography.
In total, the extras accomplish exactly what they are intended to: they make you want to watch the movie again immediately, and then after that, to seek out another Kurosawa film.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Although this is an excellent film, it must be stated that it might not be the easiest point of approach into Kurosawa's work. Newcomers might be advised to seek out The Hidden Fortress (a major inspiration for Star Wars) or Yojimbo (which "inspired" A Fistful of Dollars) to get their feet wet, and then return to Drunken Angel.
While the bonus materials are strong, some points are made repeatedly in the commentary and the documentaries, and then once again in the booklet. A viewer who has already taken in a couple of the bonus features might be tempted to not dig any deeper, feeling that the ground has already been well covered. You should fight this temptation and keep going.
Also, it must be mentioned that Criterion's packaging is very striking, but the cover image gives the distinct impression that this is Japanese animation. Whether this is intended to extend the movie's target audience or was completely unintentional, it reminds one of Hollywood's tendency to misrepresent its product when the initial marketing campaign fails. Considering the importance of this film, it just doesn't seem appropriate.
Drunken Angel, while a lesser-known film, is an excellent example of Kurosawa's humanization of a genre film, in this case taking a seemingly simple story of a gangster and turning it into a deeply moving tale of hope and redemption. Criterion is to be commended for taking such good care of this great movie.
Despite his inebriation, this Drunken Angel is completely exonerated of all charges, and is free to take its rightful place on the shelves of film lovers everywhere.
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