Drunken Angel [Yoidore Tenshi] (1948)

Drain The Swamp

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Drunken Angel marks the beginning of Akira Kurosawa’s golden age in the first of the 16 film collaboration with Toshiro Mifune (6th out of a whopping 21 films with Takashi Shimura). Drunken Angel is a movie thick with atmosphere, set in a slum with worn out buildings in which a lone guitar player comes out at night overlooking a toxic bog (possibly created from a bomb crater) laden with prostitutes next to a medical practice – a metaphor for all that was rotten about life in the wake of Japan’s catastrophic wartime defeat. You can almost feel the heat and humidity come off the screen while during the film’s daytime scenes the city comes alive with the diegetic music echoing in the background. No city is mentioned by name but a sign in the background of one scene reads in English “Social Center Of Tokyo”.

The chemistry between Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura is electric – The chemistry between Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura is electric – watching the two interact in the film’s opening scene they could easily carry the entire picture by themselves. A very youthful, handsome and suave Mifune is Matsunaga, a big shot member of the Yakuza (although the word is never mentioned in the film). With athletic agility, cat-like moves and his fashion choices of striped shirts and zoot suits, I do get some George Raft vibes from his performance. He shares a fascinating relationship with the brash, ill-tempered but dedicated Dr Sanada (Shimura) as he attempts to cure him of tuberculosis. The two hesitantly develop mutual respect for each other (Matsunaga reminds Sanada of himself during his youth as he states at one point) despite their highly tumultuous, sometimes violent interactions. In Drunken Angel Kurosawa doesn’t want to glamorize the Yakuza, but rather expose them as a blight on Japanese society. 

Drunken Angel is a classic story of addiction, in which “just one more drink” turns into a night of binging as Matsunaga drinks himself to death. The fantasy dream sequence involving Matsunaga opening a coffin on the beach only to find himself inside feels like something from a silent horror movie and is even quite Bergman-esque. It also feels reminiscent of the scene in The Empire Strikes Back in which Luke Skywalker finds his own face within Darth Vader’s helmet. The climax of Drunken Angel on the other hand features the type of cinematic images that you never forget as a weak and ill Matsunaga tries to fight his boss Okada as the two are covered in paint and scrambling on the ground before Mutsunga is stabbed and collapses by a balcony – it feels reminiscent of the iconic endings in various Warner Bros gangster films. Had this been a Hollywood production I can easily see it being a vehicle for James Cagney and Pat O’Brien, with perhaps Bogart as Okada?

It’s fascinating to see how much western trends are embraced in Japan, something which is often surprise to newcomers of Japanese film (I do love the interior of the dance hall with the giant playing cards on the walls as well as the Bolero Club with its Iberian ascetics and music). Yet at its heart Drunken Angel remains a story of post-war Japan with its characters and setting being an allegory using illness and contamination as a metaphor for the state of the nation. Matsunaga can be seen as a symbol of the Japan of yesteryear, struggling to find relevance in this new world while Sanada is a broken Japan trying to forge ahead. Sanda’s assistant Miyo (Chieko Nakakita) refuses to let go of her gangster, ex-boyfriend who ruined her life – a Japan which is pinning for what has been lost. However it is the young schoolgirl (Yoshiko Kuga) of whom Dr Sanda cures of tuberculosis provides the film with an optimistic, wholesome ending -a sign of Japan yet to come.

The Yakuza (1974)

Perhaps You’ve Heard of the Yakuza, the Poison Fists of the Pacific Rim. The Japanese Mafia!

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

At the heart of The Yakuza’s theme of the clash between eastern and western cultures, is that of the two’s opposing views on forgiveness. In Japanese culture, forgiveness is something you must earn. In western culture as preached though Christianity, any action can be forgiven regardless of how heinous; go to a confession box at a church and your sins will be wiped away. The Japanese don’t understand this; as a westerner don’t understand it either. Only towards the end of the film does Harry Kilmer (Robert Mitchum) become fully assimilated into another culture, and truly realise so much pain he has caused to Ken Tanaka (Ken Takakura), and performs the Yakuza ritual of Yubitsume, cutting off his little finger.

I can’t imagine a better choice for the role of Harry Kilmer than Robert Mitchum. I believe his acting experience and background is what brings a great level of sincerity to the role. Throughout his career, he appeared in a number of World War II films, including those about the war in the Pacific and featuring the use of the racial slur “Jap”. It can be an interesting experience seeing classic era actors in roles after the 1960’s that weren’t ensemble disaster movies; movies which contrast the attitudes of their ’golden age’ work. I’ve read Robert Redford was considered for the role but I believe the role was suited for an older, world-weary actor like Mitchum; plus it’s an apt choice casting one of the icons of film noir in this neo-noir. What I also love about the film is the touching love story between Harry and his Japanese love Eiko Tanaka (Keiko Kishi), a love of two people from different worlds made forbidden due to family ties, made all the more poignant with Mitchum being superb at portraying characters who are tough yet also tender.

Hollywood has had a long fascination with the Far East, producing movies which aren’t entirely very thoughtful or sensitive; The Yakuza is the more well-researched effort, to say the least. Yet I could still see the modern day PC patrol will still find something to the uproar about. Cultural appropriation is apparent throughout the film. Westerners Harry Kilmer and his friend Wheat (Herb Edelman) are so engaged with Japanese culture and customs to the point that it is second nature to them; while the Japanese display westernised trends such as the wearing of western clothes, or take the scene in the nightclub in which My Darling Clementine being sung.

The appropriation just doesn’t extend to the characters; the 1970’s Hollywood aesthetic and music is combined with Japanese iconography. Dave Grusin’s score is superb, creating a world alien to westerners and also contributing to one of the classiest films of the 1970’s. The violence is portrayed in a classy, arty tone and not coming of gratuitous with an effective combination of gunfire and katana duels. Also, can a gun still remain in a person’s hand and fire after their arm has been chopped off? Either way, it looks cool.

The Yakuza acts like a time capsule of 1970’s urban Japan, just take the scene in which Harry walks through the streets of Tokyo at night to meet his old love after 20 years. The filmmakers clearly took full advantage of the Japanese locations at their disposal; the Kyoto International Conference Centre in which Harry meets ken’s brother is an incredible piece of architecture and that public bathing room, dam, I want to go there!