Akira Kurosawa once said, "A truly good movie is interesting and easy to understand." His 1948 film Drunken Angel fits that description. Its plot is easy to understand: An old gangster gets out of jail and takes over a young gangster's turf. Violence ensues. People die. The plot would be cliche if Kurosawa didn't drag the center of the film to the outskirts of town, to a doctor's office situated mere steps from a bog. Here's the "interesting" half of Kurosawa's equation: most of the action unfolds in the meetings between the curmudgeonly alcoholic physician (Takashi Shimura) and his newest patient, the young gangster Matsunaga (Toshiro Mifune, in his first role for Kurosawa), who's also an alcoholic and is dying of tuberculosis. In fact, most of the violence takes place between these two, when Matsunaga beats up on the doctor from time to time for trying to make him change his ways.
The doctor utters the first words of the film, "These mosquitoes are killin' me." Whether real or metaphorical, there are constant references to mosquitoes, leeches, parasites, and disease (typhus, syphilis, and TB). As he attempts to get Matsunaga to leave gang life, the doctor describes mobsters as "rotten, maggot-infested bacteria." It's obvious these are dark times. The opening titles splay across a close-up of the bog, which in black and white looks like gurgling grey mud. (The set designer used straws to blow the bubbles for the close-ups.) It's a recurring image, whether it's a wide vista that stretches out in front of a street performer's lonely guitar playing (another recurrence) or the focal point of Matsunaga's depressed final thoughts.
Although shot during the U.S. occupation of Japan, the film shows no soldiers--due, most likely, to U.S. censorship. Kurosawa's subtle criticism of America unfolds in the moments when the film seems to exceed its genre, as if jeering at American moviemaking conventions. In a nightclub scene, a singer belts out a song about the jungle to
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