Doctor Soused

13 Nov 2013: Drunken Angel (DVD, 1948, Akira Kurosawa)

Not quite yet at the level of his masterworks of the fifties and sixties, at least as far as editing, pacing, moral exploration and overall scope is concerned – he’s probably still under greater time and aesthetic constraints from the studio at this stage of his career, as well as the American censors of the time (referring to the DVD features) – this strange “genre” piece stands well apart from other films that touch on similar subjects (yakuza, drink and self-destruction, pride, inescapable past etc.). Cinematographically he’s already at a distinct high level, with long dolly shots along a haggard cityscape reflected in a fetid bog, extreme long shots of desolate wastelands, and flamboyantly expressive camera movements and tilted compositions of nightclub dancers & musicians. Obviously aware of limitations as far as the actors’ combat training and lacking computer-generated imagery or other special effects materials, he instead goes for bizarre but effective low-angle close-ups of the two main gangsters in the midst of a messy – both tactically and environmentally – knife fight, as if their thrusts and parries were being executed by their grimacing and contorting countenances rather than their arms or torsos, echoing the panel-based scenecraft of classic comics and graphic novels. (Similar to how limitations on sexual content can lead to more inventive visual devices, this fight is made more intense and novel because of the restrictions imposed upon its depiction.) Also memorable is a dream sequence by the ocean employing slow-motion and dreamlike dissolve effects – evoking the later Kagemusha – to chart the main character’s self-annihilation, the tubercular progress of which is also marked by his increasingly eyeshadowed and corpselike face. This film is described as a noir yet it feels far removed from that genre’s tropes – detectives, intrigue and gynophobia are replaced with outspoken but unheeded physicians dealing with pathetically underwhelming criminals, transparent and death-driven motives and an all-too-masculine ignorance or overlooking of women who care about health and offer a way out of madness and entrapment. The ending’s a little forced and dopey – it’s not the one he wanted – but prior to that the bleakness and honesty on offer presage The Bad Sleep Well and High and Low.

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