DRUNKEN ANGEL (Akira Kurosawa, 1948, Japan) A doctor’s Hippocratic Oath must pass the test of hypocrisy, mired in the bog of feudalistic violence and disease where the body can be healed…while the spirit decays. Director Akira Kurosawa creates his first masterpiece of imperfect humanity, like swallowing medicine tainted by this mosquito-infested quagmire, where the Yakuza feed like carnivores upon the corpus delicti.
A gruff but honest doctor looks into the mirror where the ghost of a turbulent young man becomes his daunting mission: a man he must heal in order to save himself. Dr. Sanada’s conflict with the frightened and pugilistic Matsunaga begins with an obvious lie: the criminal says he injured his hand on a rusty nail while the Dr. removes a bullet without anesthesia, reveling in the physical suffering his patient deserves. But he soon diagnoses Matsunaga with TB, the deadly bacterium an allegory of the crime that strangles and scars the streets.
Kurosawa begins the film with a roiling bog, detritus of a stagnant society, a cancerous wound that dominates the entire narrative: the village is centered around this morass while children play in the sickly waters and Sanada’s home lurks upon its vaporous shores. Kurosawa connects Matsunaga with the viscous malady immediately when he throws a rock into its lower depths; later, the Crime Boss is seen making this same gesture…and Matsunaga almost throws away his last chance of salvation like dead petals upon dark waters.
The flawed doctor is driven to heal and he seems to rebel against his very nature, drowning his anger in pure alcohol laced with tea. Kurosawa contrasts this morality against Matsunaga who is driven to cause harm but also fights a feverish struggle against more than a physical contagion. Yet both are destined to never truly understand one another: they come to an epiphany where change is internal…and eternal. One masterful shot (of many) shows the fractured psyche of the criminal anti-hero, a man divided against his nature: an image that Kurosawa could have lifted from Orson Welles’ THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI, as Matsunaga is caught in a vanity of mirrors. He decides that dying honorably is more important than living dishonestly, and he fights his Boss to the death. Kurosawa films the duel in close-up and slick medium shots, with tension wound like clock springs, the frisson relying on inaction as each waits on the knife’s edge for the killing blow. Matsunaga falls, covered in white paint and arms spread like an angel, his reasons never revealed and maybe not totally understood to himself. Even Dr. Sanada believes he died just another gangster’s death and curses him, but for the first time feels love beat inside his heart, as he walks a young patient towards her sweet reward. Final Grade: (A+)