‘Drunken Angel’ (Kurosawa, Akira. 1948.)

This entry is part 4 of 5 in the series '25 Films by Akira Kurosawa'

Not the 1st Kurosawa film i’ve seen that involves a gruff, cranky mentor-type physician character: Dr. Shimura in “Drunken Angel” and Dr. Niide in “Red Beard.” Maybe i’ll persuade Andy to re-watch “Red Beard” next (we saw it years and years ago) out of our Kurosawa box set so i can better compare.  Are doctors always grumpy in Kurosawa?  If so, why?

Anyway.  I’m not going to talk about the depiction of doctors in Kurosawa in this “Drunken Angel” write-up.  I’m going to write about class issues.


But 1st, a few other general observations.  There are a lot of interesting aspects to “Drunken Angel” that are worth thinking about:

  • I’m interested in how almost the entire movie takes place in the confines of a small neighborhood crammed between a bubbling (no, literally — it bubbles ominously) pool of water and railroad tracks.  Pretty interesting that the setting is bounded by a huge symbol for poverty and stagnation and a symbol for escape.
  • The one time the film actually departs from the close-in setting — when Dr. Shimura gets a ride from one of his physician colleagues — is the turning point when we realize that Matsunaga has taken Shimura’s advice and gone to get x-rays of his lungs.  But then the story returns to the neighborhood and never leaves again, as Matsunaga also returns to his old gangster habits and never leaves the neighborhood again despite the real chance of escape with the shop-woman who’d offered to take him with her to her family’s farm in the country.
  • I’m simultaneously intrigued and disappointed that Miyo’s subplot is never fully resolved.  After learning that the yakuza boss had planned to use Matsunaga as a disposable pawn, did Matsunaga choose to use himself that way to free Miyo from Okada — or did it just turn out that way unintentionally?  How does Miyo feel about Matsunaga dying and Okada being sent to jail?  I just don’t feel it’s fair that she isn’t at all present at the end of the film.

Ultimately, however, what i found most interesting were (yes, i’m sorry) the class issues.  When we see Shimura in the car with his colleague, we realize how good a physician Shimura is and how he’s respected by his colleagues.  Yet his colleague seems to be somewhat affluent whereas Shimura works in a poor, squalid neighborhood in a dingy office and lives in small quarters that he shares with 2 women.  And yet it’s never explored:  Why does Shimura choose to live and work there?  Why is he so dedicated (in his gruff, drunken way) to treating tuberculosis and the poor local people?  During the car ride with his colleague, i got the impression that Shimura was skilled and respected enough to have worked anywhere, so i was left wondering and wondering — why this place? this disease? these people?

Series Navigation‘Stray Dog’ (Kurosawa, Akira. 1949.)‘High and Low’ (Kurosawa, Akira. 1963.)

4 thoughts on “‘Drunken Angel’ (Kurosawa, Akira. 1948.)”

  1. “And yet it’s never explored: Why does Shimura choose to live and work there?”

    I got the impression that it isn’t really a choice. Mainly it’s his alcoholism keeping him in poverty. He tells about spending all his money on geshia and booze while in med school. He has to borrow more rationed medicinal alcohol because he drank all his. I think this is a bit trite (plenty of alcoholic doctors in nice clinics), but that’s movies for you.

    Also, school girl patient aside, I recall he mentions his attitude with patients being something that keeps him from being in a better practice. He’s often a bit of an asshole.

    In the end I got the impression that he’s genuinely committed to helping the people he lives with, but unlike Dr. Niide isn’t entirely there voluntarily.

    1. I remember the comment about spending all his money on geisha and booze, but failed to slot that into a larger problem with chronic over-spending on alcohol.

      Completely missed a comment from him about being an asshole to his patients. Huh. He was very sweet to the school girl, and i didn’t blame him for being an asshole to Matsunaga. Possibly if he’d been shown with more patients then the comment would have made a sharper impression on me.

  2. Partial aside, but regarding potential interpretations of class, I’d be wary of reading too much into appearances during this period. IIRC, Tokyo was still recovering from WWII even into the late 50s, so things that would normally be shorthand in cinema, such as the condition of housing and neighborhood infrastructure, don’t always correlate with wealth or class clearly as they would otherwise. Plumbing and sanitation in particular were notorious problems almost everywhere.

    1. Thank you for making that point. It’s good to bear in mind.

      I just kept noticing how the movie forces us to look at the fetid pool so often, and even has characters remark upon it — i think both Shimura and the shop woman — which is why it felt like much more of a symbol to me.

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