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Bravery and Innocence: Kurosawa's Drunken AngelDrunken Angel (1948, 98 minutes) is the first of four films with the same three actors - Takashi Shimura, Toshiro Mifune, and Noriko Sengoku - in major roles. We have already looked at one of these, Scandal. Drunken Angel is Kurosawa's first film with Toshiro Mifune and one of Takashi Shimura's finest performances.
A hot midsummer night. A black-market area in Tokyo verges on a stinking, fetid, mosquito-infested sump. A monotonous tune is played on a guitar, the same every night. On the other side of the sump two toughs lounge in front of the Sanada Clinic.
The alcoholic Dr. Sanada 1 (Takashi Shimura) leads in Matsunaga (Toshiro Mifune), a young gangster, who says he has a nail in his hand. Sanada removes the bullet. He opens a window, plays with the door, then sings a couple of verses of the guitar tune:
The port can be seen from the hill,
The hill where we went together.
In sharp contrast to the stinking sump. Then he stitches up the wound:
S: I'm warning you, I'm expensive. I always am for hoodlums. M: (in agony) No shot of anesthetic? S: Not for your kind. M (Afterwards, coughing): Can I have some cold medicine while you're at it? I can't shake this cough. S: You should watch out for TB the way you guys live. . . . It's dangerous because you don't realize it until the cough comes. (cough) Are you afraid? M: Afraid? (looks sharply, approaches menacingly) Me? (flicks lit cigarette at him) You mock me. That's why I hate doctors. They always exaggerate to make money. S: Sure. With five TB patients, a doctor is set. M: (cough; bears his chest as if on a dare) Examine me. See if it's TB or not. S: If I find anything, it will be too late. (Hears something with his stethoscope.) M: Well? S: Go have an x-ray taken. M: (angrily) Why? S: I won't know till I see an x-ray but there seems to be a hole this big. If you leave it, you won't live much longer. (M assaults him)
Nurse Miyo walks in, and Matsunaga leaves. Sanada tells Miyo: "Animals like him are the first to disregard TB. But he's better off because he's worried. There's still some humanity left in him." The toughs outside think Miyo looked familiar.
Day. Jazz music coming from tinny loudspeakers in the black market. Sanada chases off some kids who are playing in the sump. One shouts, "I'm not afraid of typhoid!" A little one comes back for his hat. Sanada pushes it on his head and can't help smiling.
He goes to one of his regular hangouts, The Gourd, for a drink. Gin (Noriko Sengoku), the barmaid, who loves Matsunaga, is eating nuts with a distracted air.3 He asks after Matsunaga, and she says he'll be at the dance hall, "Cabaret No.1":
S: Do you love him too? G: No way. S: If you're going to fall, fall for someone like me. I don't look great but when you're sick, you get free treatment. (She laughs.)
Sanada finds Matsunaga and asks him to buy him a drink. As Matsunaga leads him through the market, everyone makes way for the big shot. (This is his territory, assigned by the Boss, whom we don't meet till much later.) They enter the Bolero, an upscale establishment, and the other guests obligingly clear out:
S: It's suicide to drink with that hole in your lung. But don't worry too much. I exaggerated a bit the other day. If you listen to me-- M: (strikes glass from S's hand) Shut up! Who'd believe a fraud like you? S: If you don't believe me, take an x-ray (S tries to take bottle away). M: Get out! S: Don't be a fool. It's your health. M: It's my business if I die or not. It's not your concern. S: Right, I don't care. Who cares about you? But your TB is my business. I want to get rid of it. If you die now and they cremate you, that would be best. M: Damn! (assaults him)
Back at the clinic, Miyo helps treat his cut:
S: Damn fool. Doesn't even appreciate my concern. He's better off dead, like a horse with a broken leg. Forget him. Mi: But that's impossible, doctor. S: What do you mean? Mi: Because you worry about all your patients more than yourself. It's almost silly at times. S: Being a doctor is silly business in the first place. Doctors need sick people around to make a living. But they continue to work hard to cure them all. Mi: No, only you do. S: All doctors believe it. Mi: Other doctors don't take it so seriously. S: (getting worked up) They're not doctors. They're ass-kissers! Mi: (mothering, unfazed by his shouting) But you're too honest sometimes. Not to say that you should lie but there are other ways of saying the truth. I first thought you were such a grouch, always shouting. S: Leave me alone. I'm too old for lectures. Mi: Don't I know it. . . . S: (agitated, pacing) That Matsunaga reminds me of my youth. I feel sorry for him. It's not just his lungs. He's hurting from the core. He acts tough, but I bet he's empty and lonely inside. He can't kill his conscience completely. His gangster ways haven't taken him over yet. Which reminds me, any news of Okada?
Miyo had been unfortunately attached to this hardened criminal before he went to prison four years ago and the Boss promoted Matsunaga. But now Okada is due for release. Day. Rain. Sanada and a pretty young TB patient. She has made wonderful progress. She teases him for coaching her in animal illustrations, pointing out she is seventeen - then bets him candy (sweet beans and honey)2 that her x-ray will be still better at her next x-ray in winter. Such a person keeps Sanada young at heart.
He is singing that song "The port can be seen from the hill" and having a drink from his medical alcohol mixed with a little tea when Matsunaga comes in. We later learn that he had an x-ray and has brought the film, but he chickens out and pretends he just stopped by:
S: What are you doing here? M: It's raining and gloomy outside, so I came to entertain myself. S: Stop it. Why can't you be honest? M: What? S: You're afraid of being sick [M starts]. Idiot! I'm not laughing at you for that. To fear scary things is human nature. What's wrong is that you're embarrassed. You guys think that's courage. But you're the biggest cowards I know. Otherwise, why the tattoos, the tough talk, and the strutting around? Because you don't believe in yourselves. You can't fool me. The girl who just left has more guts than you. She's facing her disease head-on. That's more than I can say for you. You close your eyes [and make a mad dash] through the dark. Right?
At this Matsunaga becomes violent again, Miyo breaks it up, and Sanada throws things after him, shouting, "You animal [mad dog]!" Sanada growls, "Why the hell did he come?" - then in a changed tone, as they watch him disappearing in the rain, "He has a fever and no umbrella. Foolish." Sweet, lyrical music swells up, conveying a feeling of hope.
Some time later, Sanada is waiting for Matsunaga at the door to Cabaret No. 1. In a chance encounter with an old colleague, Sanada has learned about Matsunaga's x-rays:
M: You're a nuisance. S: Don't say that. You should be grateful. I'm worrying about a complete stranger. Sometimes I think I'm an angel. M: Dirty angel. S: You probably imagine bar hostess angels, but they're actually like me. M: You're a pain in the ass. S: Let's have a nice, quiet chat. M: I have nothing to say to you. S: [shouts] You still don't get it, you ingrate. Shut up and show me your x-rays, idiot.
Matsunaga is taken by surprise. Sanada tells him to bring them to the clinic that night.
The clinic that night. Matsunaga arrives falling-down drunk. They cover him up and find the x-rays. The diagnosis is confirmed. Matsunaga with effort raises his face to Sanada's and mumbles:
M: Can you fix it? S: Yes. M: Even now? S: Yes. M: Don't mess with my head. S: We'll fix it, but you have to do as I say.
Matsunaga tries to stand up and falls unconscious.
The guitar player close up. Suddenly a sinister figure is beside him. He relinquishes his instrument, and the stranger begins to play a vigorous tune. To Miyo, in the clinic, it is sickeningly familiar - Okada!
Next morning, a bright, sunny day. Matsunaga dressed and clean, embarking on his new life. Miyo has even washed his handkerchief and polished his shoes. No drinking! He is to come back next day for a letter of introduction to the hospital [TB Consultation Center], where they will help him map out a battle-plan for his disease. Music filled with hope.
Matsunaga is thoughtful, in his own world. He stops by his girl Nanae's place but declines to play kissy-kissy. He meanders into The Gourd and meanders out, leaving a bottle untouched. Takes his daily flower at the flower shop (always free) and ends up at the sump. Its filth is like his past life, which he is discerning for the first time. The hopeful music continues.
Then suddenly another man's shadow falls on the water, and the music becomes strangled. It is Okada, and we witness a horrible transformation - Matsunaga grovels. He tosses the flower in the sump as they go off together, and it becomes a wild night on the town. Next morning he comes for the letter, but Sanada can tell he's been drinking and throws him out. Sanada slowly tears up the letter, gazing out the window at the sump.
The sump again, with a sharp North Wind troubling its surface. Several months have passed. At Cabaret No. 1 everyone is in black winter attire. Matsunaga looks a wreck, as obviously on the way down as Okada is obviously on the way back up. Nanae selects her dance partner accordingly. Later that night, Matsunaga collapses, vomiting blood.
Sanada is summoned to Nanae's, where Matsunaga lies alone and helpless. Sanada comforts him: "Don't worry. This will do you good. It will teach you a lesson. [M opens his mouth.] Don't talk [mops M's brow]. Sleep. Sleep and dream like a baby." Matsunaga's expression is completely open and trusting now, as if he were a little boy and Sanada his father.
Next day, Nanae coldly throws the invalid out. Sanada finds him staring at the sump, where a doll floats face down:
S: Your lungs are like this swamp. [A cart dumps refuse in.] Just cleaning it out won't do. There are a lot of rotten people around you. There's no hope for you unless you make a clean break from them.
Dream. A coffin in the breakers. Matsunaga, dressed to the nines, chops it open with an axe. Inside is Matsunaga the corpse. The corpse chases the living Matsunaga along the shore, gaining on him, waves crashing in the background. He wakes up in bed at the clinic.
Okada and his entourage come looking for Miyo. Sanada stands up to them, even defies a threat against his life, till Matsunaga crawls out of bed to ask Okada in the name of the brotherhood to leave his friends alone. Okada leaves for now. Matsunaga says he will "lose face" if Sanada goes to the police: a big shot like him shouldn't need police to protect his friends in his own territory. Instead, he will go over Okada's head to the Boss, the godfather, who he thinks will discipline Okada.
Next day, Sanada heads for the police station to report Okada's threats, while Matsunaga escapes and goes to the Boss. However, his faith is shattered when he overhears the Boss planning to sacrifice him in the next gang war. He bursts in on the Boss, Okada, and Nanae, then suddenly runs out.
By the time he reaches The Gourd, word has gone out that he is persona non grata. Gin is miserable:
It's so hard to see a guy like you down on his luck. I've always felt that you didn't fit into this world. This is a good chance for you to quit. You should go to the country to get better. I intend to go home too, I'm sick of this place. [Impulsively downs a glass, rounds the bar to his side, speaks vehemently.] Come with me. It's a small town, but there's a beautiful stream . . . I'm serious. Come. I'll take care of you. My uncle has a farm there. You would get well there. You must leave this place.
The proprietor interrupts them, but she learns he's staying at the doctor's and says she'll come see him tonight. Passing by the flower shop, Matsunaga takes his daily flower, only to have the girl run after him: "30 yen, please!" It's Okada's territory again, and Matsunaga is Nobody.
Gin has just offered him a way out, but Matsunaga can't rest till Okada is dead. He comes armed. They struggle in the room and in the hallway, spilling white paint everywhere, till Matsunaga is fatally stabbed. He staggers out onto the porch and dies, white from head to toe. Clothes flap on the line in the winter wind. At that very moment, Sanada was buying Matsunaga some eggs (considered good for consumptives) out of his own pocket at the market.
A few weeks pass. Sanada encounters Gin at the sump, packed for her train trip. She has with her, instead of Matsunaga, his ashes. Throughout the following dialogue we hear the rushing, whistling wind:
S: If you want to jump in, find cleaner water. G: Your usual sarcastic self. S: I have to cheer myself up. Nothing makes sense anymore. It's disgusting. It's all his fault, that bum. G: Don't insult the dead. S: That's right. You loved him. G: It's not that. These are his remains, so . . . S: I heard you had a funeral for him. [Involuntarily reaches to touch the parcel, then recovers himself.] Was it expensive? G: Yes. A little over 6,000 yen. S: A lot of money. G: I felt sorry for him. That heartless boss called Matsunaga an ingrate and refused to take his body. . . [S suddenly grabs a rock and hurls it angrily into the sump.] I can't stand it another day. I made up my mind. Goodbye, Doctor. S: Going home? G: I want to bury him in my hometown. [Breaking down] We talked about it once, just before all this happened. I tried to persuade him to go with me. S: It's no use. I thought he could [change] but there it is. You cannot turn an animal into a man. It's not that simple. G: You're wrong. He thought he could. S: Love is blind. G: Love opened my eyes. This wouldn't have happened if we had more time to talk. He was really listening to me. He looked like he was crying. But- S: But hoodlums always end up that way. It's stupid and foolish. [She breaks down completely.] Don't cry. I know how you feel. That's why I can't forgive him.
"Doctor!" The hopeful music swells again. The pretty girl patient comes running up.
S: Don't run! Girl: Candy [sweet-beans-and-honey] time! You owe me candy. S: Where do I get candy? Girl: Don't you know anything? At the candy store [sweet shop]!
Sanada invites Gin to join them but she declines and says goodbye. Sanada and the girl, enter the main street at the market, and she takes him by the arm.
Girl: Will-power can cure TB, can't it? S: Not just TB. It's the most important cure for humans! [realizes he is shouting, sings happily]
The port can be seen from the hill,
The hill where we went together.
She checks his loudness, smiling. Arm in arm, they go to the sweet shop. Hopeful music.
Man is destined to struggle between his true human, or angelic, nature and his animal nature. Sanada was once wild like Matsunaga, but now the angel is uppermost in him. His alcoholism remains as a legacy of the animal. So Sanada is a knight in dented armor -- an angel with wet wings -- whose own disease actually helps keep him humble and enables him to stay on a level with sinful men and so help them. His colleague from medical school got rich and respectable, while Sanada is down at the sump, slugging it out in the mud with evil. As in Redbeard, the doctor knows that the enemy is not merely bodily disease but social dysfunction and human tragedy. It is because he sees this struggle going on within Matsunaga's soul that he pursues him, trying to help the angel nature, while Okada pulls the other way. People like Okada are entirely lost to the animal, and for them Sanada wastes no pity.
An angel needs to rest and refresh his soul sometimes, and we see this in the scenes with the girl patient. She is innocence itself, and every moment spent with her does Sanada's soul good. Were it not for patients like her, he might give up hope and lose the will to fight. True bravery and innocence go together.
Matsunaga, on the other hand, represents false bravery. He probably started out like the little boy who yells, "I'm not afraid of typhoid!" The gang code and gang honor fill up a void of love in his life, and he enjoys the flattery, the money, the clothes, and the women that come with being a big shot. However, another force is at work in him, too, for he does let Sanada examine him, he does get an x-ray, and he does bring the x-ray and ask for help, even if he had to get drunk to do it. He is on an upward path, and things look promising; but that same day his tempter Okada comes, and Matsunaga reverts. Sanada sadly tears up the letter because he realizes Matsunaga is not ready. This is the end of the Summer half of the story.
As the Winter half begins, Matsunaga vomits blood. He has had no treatment and probably has not seen Sanada. It is not that Sanada has given up but that he knows there is nothing for him to do but wait for Matsunaga to hit rock bottom. When he does hit rock bottom, Sanada is there instantly. Whereas before, Sanada let his rough side show, now he speaks to him tenderly, like a father to a little boy. He says, "Dream like a baby."
Forsaken by his false friends, Matsunaga lets Sanada take him home, where he has a nightmare. In his dream Matsunaga clearly sees his animal self for what it is - death in the guise of life. He is running for his life.
We want to see Matsunaga turn at this point, but this does not happen. Sanada's mention of the police makes his pride kick in. This is his territory, and Sanada and Miyo should need no other protector. The best way for him to repay their kindness would be to be like a baby in their hands. Ironically, his desire to repay them more grandly is what undoes him.
When the Boss, too, deserts him, and his territory is taken away, it is as if he has become Nobody. (The flower seller says, "We're not to pay any attention to you any more.") He is Somebody in the eyes of Gin, who has just confessed her love and begged him to come with her to the country. So the door is open to a new life, a way out.
Matsunaga's tragedy is that when his illusions are finally, once and for all, destroyed, he is so consumed with hatred against those who deceived him that he can't just walk away. He can't bring himself to withdraw and leave Okada smiling, the seeming victor. He is not brave enough or innocent enough for that, he has to take vengeance. And so Matsunaga dies young, his noble battle not yet won. Does the last image of him covered in white paint mean that he would have won? Or does it mean that his goodness in the end was but a coat of paint?
But the film is not really about Matsunaga, it is about the doctor. Sanada's involuntarily reaching to touch the parcel of ashes shows the strength of his true feeling. It is like his child who has died. Gin grieves openly, but the angel does not. Is it that his nature shies away from it or that his job as an angel does not allow it? Maybe a little of both. Gin can take Matsunaga's ashes to the country and mourn. Sanada has to gird himself for the next battle, and a dose of salt is part of his armor. He rejuvenates himself not by grieving but by an injection of innocence from people like the girl patient, who comes on the scene at this moment for her winter checkup. Her optimism is enough to disperse all shadows, and the movie ends on a note of hope and new life.
The image of that song, "The port can be seen from the hill," suggests companionship, aspiration, and a way out, in contract to the doctor's actual situation, a run-down clinic on the shore of a dismal sump. It represents the angelic innocence and youth he carries inside of himself to strengthen him for his work. He is "in the sump but not of it."
1. To a Western ear, the name suggests healing.
2. Alternate translations in parentheses or square brackets are from Complete Works of Kurosawa (Tokyo: Kinema Jumposha, 1970).
3. This actress is fascinating to watch. She has so much presence that she is interesting doing nothing or just eating nuts.