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Drunken Angel: Criterion Collection (1948) – DVD Review

Drunken Angel Criterion Collection DVD cover art


Japanese Title: Yoidore tenshi

Written by: Akira Kurosawa & Keinosuke Uegusa
Directed by: Akira Kurosawa
Starring: Takashi Shimura, Toshirô Mifune, Reisaburo Yamamoto, Michiyo Kogure, Chieko Nakakita


  • Running audio commentary with Japanese film scholar Donald Richie
  • Making-of docu
  • “Kurosawa and the Censors” featurette
  • Essay by cultural historian Ian Buruma
  • Two chapters from Kurosawa’s 1983 book Something Like an Autobiography

Released by: Criterion Collection
Region: 1
Rating: The IMDB lists this as PG-13, which makes no sense as the film was released in 1959 in the U.S. and PG-13 wasn’t established as a rating by the MPAA until 1984. I’m thinking this is actually not rated at all, but regardless, be aware of some violence and language.
Anamorphic: N/A; appears in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio.

My Advice: Buy it for Kurosawa and for Criterion.

Toshirô Mifune and Takashi Shimura in Drunken Angel

Welcome to a post-World War II occupied Tokyo. It’s a land with a people trying to figure out what the hell they’re going to do now. Living conditions aren’t the best, considering there’s a giant sump in the midst of this market area of the city. Near this market lives Dr. Sanada (Shimura), a doctor who doesn’t get the best clientele. This might have something to do with the fact he’s a bit of an alcoholic, has a terrible temper, and has a shady past. So he feels an empathy for the young yakuza tough, Matsunaga (Mifune), who comes in to have a bullet extracted from his hand and gets more than the gangster bargained for: Matsunaga gets a diagnosis of tuberculosis. Can the yakuza punk get over himself enough to deal with his illness, or is the illness that goes beyond his lungs going to kill him first?

Drunken Angel is, we’re told, the first Kurosawa flick that he really felt was his. This is due to the restrictions placed upon him by both pre-occupation and occupation censors. More on that in a moment. It’s also the first time he worked with Mifune, and as everybody knows, they seemed to get along pretty well, considering how many films they went on to make together.

It’s pretty obvious we’re watching a film by a director who’s really coming into his own. The majority of the film is freaking gorgeous. You can watch the film just as the film (because it’s a very capable noir entry) or you can start to delve and dig under the surface about the symbolism and the cinematography and whatnot. So it bears multiple viewings.

The film has aged well, at least artistically, because very seldom are you taken out of the experience of watching the film by something that seems just, for lack of a better term, overly filmic. The final conflict in the film strays over the line just because I think it could have been handled with a bit more subtlety. That’s about the only time that the symbolism really starts to bludgeon you. And don’t get me wrong, it’s amazing to watch artistically, but I like to choose when and where I delve not have my head dunked under in a forced game of “Bobbing for Meaning.”

It doesn’t really help matters that Yamamoto uses this as an excuse to practice his Lon Chaney Sr. impersonation:

Reisaburo Yamamoto in Drunken Angel

But that’s only a medium-sized nit in an otherwise excellent film. Mifune is excellent as the troubled yakuza but for the me the standout is Shimura, whose titular character really wishes he could just care less. His patients, it seems to him, for the most part just don’t follow his instructions specifically to piss him off, and how he has any instruments or anything left after one of his tantrums, I have no idea. Just a great performance. And I don’t want to give Yamamoto too hard a time, he’s a worthy opponent for our heroes.

Also, I was a bit taken aback at how flickery the film can look. It certainly hasn’t aged as a physical film well. When I looked in the booklet that came with the DVD, I was told: “The original film materials for Drunken Angel survive in considerably degraded condition… Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, and scratches were removed using the MTI Digital Restoration System.” In other words, we cleaned it up as best we could, say thank you, fanboy. So, Criterion: thank you and well done. If you guys got it up to this level then it must have been some hard damn restoration to go through.

One last thing before we start slicing up the extras: I’d like to commend this film for having one of the freakiest dream sequences of the 40s. It’s freaky to the point where it’s completely and utterly obvious what’s going to happen, but it does and it creeps you out anyway.

Akira Kurosawa, director of Drunken Angel

There are only three real supplements on the DVD but all of them score. The first is a commentary with Donald Richie, a Japanese film scholar. How do you know you’ve got the right scholar for your commentary? Because he says things like “Yes, I was there when they shot this. If the camera had moved just a little bit to the left, you could see me standing there.” And “Kurosawa came by my place and I introduced him to these pieces by Bach…” Paraphrased, of course, but that’s the gist.

Richie gives the commentary you would want barring the director or the actors being involved: he discusses the film, he puts this film in the context of Kurosawa’s career, and he puts the film in the context of Japan at the time it was made. He dissects a lot of the imagery and really opens up the work; you’ll want to watch it again post-commentary so you can concentrate on the film using the insights he’s provided.

Next, there’s a making-of which clocks in at over a half-hour. It covers a lot of what you would want in an additional commentary because it goes behind the scenes to show you set plans, talk with designers and members of the crew, bring in archival footage of Kurosawa chatting about the film and more. I think the high point of this feature for me was Kurosawa relating how Mifune almost didn’t make the cut at Toho. And how the opinions of experts and amateurs differ on what would make the next star actor. Great stuff. And did you know that they turned the film into a stage play and toured with the original cast of the film on stage? I would have killed to see some stills or anything from that iteration of the story.

Lastly, there’s an absolutely fascinating twenty-five minute piece called “Kurosawa and the Censors.” Lars-Martin Sorensen is on hand to put the film in the context of post-World War II, American-occupied Japan and how Kurosawa had to contend with the censors. It’s not a story we hear much, partly, I think, because our school system here in America sucks the big cheese enchilada, but mostly because people just simply don’t know about it. But this featurette shows you actual notes from the censorship board on drafts of the Drunken Angel script, takes you through the film’s original ending, and talks in general about how Kurosawa had to contend with this sort of thing early in his career.

Now, these three bits are chocked full of goodness, so I don’t want to dissuade anybody about them by asking for more, but you know us: we’re never satisfied. I would have loved to have gotten a comparison of the pre- and post-censorship board drafts of the scripts. Maybe everything I would want to see is in the Sorensen piece, but I don’t know. I also would have loved to have gotten a look at the stage adaptation script of the movie. And are there any extant playbills or posters or…anything? Again, maybe this is already covered or maybe there’s nothing else to show, but it still would have been nice. Criterion is usually pretty completist on such things, so if it was available or worthwhile, they would have had it, normally.

So who needs this? Criterion completists like myself need it, naturally. Kurosawa fans are going to want to own it, because it’s his first film that he really claims and like I said, the bonus bits plus the film make it really worth owning. Fans of noir are going to want to at least rent it or Netflix it, one of the two, before buying. But completists in that genre will want to own it. It’s worth everyone seeing at least once, just to see how a master director really started to get his act together without the hindrances of government interference.