Modern Hollywood dramas suck. Whereas most genres seem to get more creative as time goes by, your typical Oscar-bait Hollywood drama can't seem to improve and can't even do anything better than what was already done seventy fucking years earlier.
Akira Kurosawa, my favorite director, is a master at subverting my expectations, even after I've seen hundreds and hundreds of films. I will never forget the first time I watched Seven Samurai, and was shocked to discover that not all of the seven samurai survive, the romantic subplot doesn't have a happy ending, and the whole thing has a melancholic feel to it. After seeing so many Hollywood dramas where the boy gets the girl, people have heroic, meaningful deaths, and the protagonists get rewarded for their good deeds, I was completely shocked by Seven Samurai. Just recently I saw another Kurosawa film, Drunken Angel, and even though I've been watching Kurosawa films for over ten years now and the bastard can still surprise me.
The central figure of Drunken Angel is Matsunaga (played by Toshiro motherfucking Mifune in his first-ever collaboration with Akira Kurosawa,) a young gangster who visits the ageing, alcoholic Doctor Sanada in the slums to get treated for a gunshot wound. Offhandedly, he asks for some cold medicine for a persistent cough and half-jokingly the doctor wonders aloud if he might have TB. After a quick check-up, the good doctor determines that yes, it is TB and yes, that shit gon kill you. Only with a drastic change in lifestyle will the hard-drinking, smoking, violent gangster have a shot at surviving, and the remainder of the film is dedicated to convincing Matsunaga to leave the world of crime and decadence that is slowly killing him.
As with all his films, Kurosawa not only fills the story with interesting and complex characters, but a full and complete world for them to interact in. Most of the principal characters live in the slums, and in the center of those slums, adjacent to the modern electric train shuffling people in and out of post-war Tokyo, is a giant cesspool of garbage and filth. It is present in almost all of the outdoor scenes at the doctor's office and at one point, the doctor comments that is a pit of waste that can never be drained or cleaned and infects everything that it touches. People in the movie refer to it as "Lake METAPHOR" with "metaphor" spelled in the unconventional style of all-caps. At one point, Dr. Sanada admits that he could have been a very successful private practitioner of medicine if he wasn't cursed with a love of the bottle and of the booty from a young age. Most characters in the film are carrying around similar stains that they will never wash off.
Early in the film, we're introduced to another one of the doctor's TB patients, a sweet-faced 17-year-old student, who is diligently following all of the good doctor's orders and showing signs of improvement. Like I said before, Kurosawa has a way of subverting my expectations, and after being force-fed a steady diet of Hollywood garbage, I thought I saw where this movie was going. I thought the doctor would strive to convince Masunaga to leave his gang, turn over a new leaf and after several dramatic scenes, would beat TB and go on to lead a happy life in the countryside with his true love. Despite her best efforts, the student would succumb to the disease, proving that some things in this life are just not fair, especially illnesses that kill children. The doctor, after saving one patient but losing another, would decide that now is the time to put the bottle down and change his life. Lake METAPHOR is cleaned up and replaced with fresh water during the end credits.
But of course, this is Kurosawa. He wants you to think about your life and how you're living it. Tuberculosis is not a death sentence. The student who follows the doctor's regime of a healthy lifestyle beats the disease and Matsunaga, unable to break away from his lifestyle, ends up dead. He doesn't even die from the disease itself, but instead from fighting his fellow gangster in an attempt to rise up in the ranks of the gang. Not only did he not leave his life of crime, he dove headfirst into it until it drowned him. It drowned him like one would be drowned swimming in a....something. Like, bigger than a pond but smaller than an ocean. More round that a river. Can't think of the word right now.
On one level, this is the story of addiction. Of course, the doctor is addicted to drinking and Matsunaga is addicted to drinking plus everything else, and they never change. There's another character in the film, Dr. Sanada's assistant, who was married to another gangster, but ran away and lives in hiding with the doctor. At several points during the movie, she wonders if she shouldn't return to her gangster ex-lover, despite the fact that he completely ruined her life. In what I initially thought was a huge oversight, this plotline doesn't go anywhere. There is never a scene where she tells him off or says, "I don't need you or anybody else. I'm my own woman." I thought, ok, well, maybe they just forgot about her in the script or her scenes had to get moved around to give more weight to the stars or something. But no, I realized that it was completely intentional that this plotline was left unresolved. Just life the doctor and Matsunaga are forever stained with their addictions, the assistant will always love the gangster, until it kills her.
On another level, this movie is absolutely a product of its time. Drunken Angel was released, in Japan, in 1948. 1948! Three years away from the war, still occupied by the US, and with a stagnant economy (hello again, cesspool metaphor,) Japan would be facing a ton of problems from its now unemployed former soldiers. This film is a direct response to those young men who were having trouble adjusting to a slower-paced, calmer civilian life and spoke to them directly. "Look, I know drinking and fighting and fucking is pretty cool, but if you stay in that world, you will die." A little on the nose, but not inaccurate. It's no accident that the only person to emerge from this movie unscathed is the 17-year-old student; Anybody any older would have been scarred and stained from the war, and as Kurosawa seems to argue, irreparably. He seems to be saying the younger generation, "We're all drowning this pit of filth and we're fucked. Save yourselves."