Sunday, January 3, 2010

SPOTLIGHT: Drunken Angel (1948)

Did I ever confess my love for Madmen?

No, no, not the Emmy and Golden Globe-winnning TV series - I haven't yet had the chance to see it over here in Japan, and anyway that's actually two words, "Mad Men", instead of one.

What I'm gushing about are the real-life people (plural) who helm Madman Entertainment back in my hometown (Melbourne). I call 'em Madmen just to keep myself amused. Stupid pun, I know.

They cover the Australian DVD market with the best in Asian cinema, particularly Japanese (they release something like 99% of all anime there) and I love their work.

Anyway, I'm currently working on a long-winded Akira Kurosawa article and they shot me through a swag of movies I hadn't seen along with others I hadn't watched in far too long, and the box arrived just in time for Christmas.

I know, I know - that sounds weird; living in Japan yet ordering Kurosawa films from Australia. But the fact is that most available Kurosawa DVDs in this country don't come with English subtitles, and my nihongo is nowhere near good enough to carry something as weighty as one of Akira's cinematic tomes.

Yoidore Tenshi (Drunken Angel, 1948) is the Kurosawa film that, rumour had it a little while back, Martin Scorsese wanted to remake around the same time that he re-baked Infernal Affairs.

Credited as the first yakuza gangster movie, Drunken Angel stars the great, somewhat underrated Takashi Shimura as the title character, a frequently sloshed, no-nonsense doctor (Sanada) with a heart buried beneath his gruff exterior.

This is also the first of 16 films that Kurosawa did with actor Toshiro Mifune.

With absolute aplomb, Mifune inhabits his downward-spiraling hoodlum (Matsunaga), a man suffering from tuberculosis and a penchant for the importance of honour - in an industry sorely lacking such values.

Over the course of 90-odd minutes, Mifune is at times charming and suave; at other points there's a scary vitality to his agitated, face-of-impending-doom performance - in particular his manic turn in a drunken dance hall scene (see clip below).

While the film stock may have dated, the style and performances here most certainly have not. There's a contemporary edge to both male leads, in their intriguing relationship, that continues to work 62 years later - and almost 100 years since Kurosawa was born (in March 1910).

The post World War 2 environment around them - this was, after all, just three years after the the cessation of hostilities - is reminiscent of the backdrops in Carol Reed's The Third Man, released the following year: dismembered, dangerous and far from picturesque.

Images © 1948 Toho Co., Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

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