Drunken Angel (酔いどれ天使, Akira Kurosawa, 1948)

A gruff yet well intentioned doctor does his best to cure the ills of post-war Japan in a rundown slum on the edge of a fetid swamp in Akira Kurosawa’s noir tragedy, Drunken Angel (酔いどれ天使, Yoidore Tenshi). The doctor is most obviously the drunken angel of the title though it could equally apply to the unhappy yakuza he tries so hard to redeem whom most agree is not suited to that kind of life and trapped by the feudalistic thinking of the pre-war past.

Matsunaga (Toshiro Mifune) is the big man around town, but jaded physician Sanada (Takashi Shimura) sees straight through him. “He acts tough and swaggers around but I know in his heart he’s incredibly lonely,” Sanada tells his assistant, Miyo (Chieko Nakakita), a young woman he took in to help her escape the clutches of the violent yakuza ex who left her with syphilis. Miyo bemoans Sanada’s terrible bedside manner and tendency to bully his patients but praises his dedication and remarks that few doctors go as far for those under their care as he does especially ones like these who don’t often have the money to pay. This is a little ironic given Matsunaga’s original objection that he doesn’t trust doctors because it’s not in their best interests to cure you, something which Sanada jokingly acknowledges while expressing the futility he feels in the face of the mass sickness that confronts him. 

When Matsunaga first comes into his office, Sanada remarks that’s its not just his lungs that are sick, he’s sick to the core. But still he seems to think that Matsunaga can be saved, not just physically but spiritually redeemed if only he can coax him away from the yakuza underworld. Matsunaga is suffering from tuberculosis, a common disease of the post-war era and closely linked to the squalid conditions in which he lives which are themselves symbolised by the swamp in the centre of town onto which Sanada’s clinic backs. Sanada tries to warn the local children not to play in it because of the risk of typhus not to mention the mosquitos it attracts but the kids don’t really listen to him and shout back that he’s “just a drunk”. Yet the swamp represents a world upside-down, the neon sign for the No. 1 cabaret bar constantly reflected in its bubbling waters while as the film opens we see a trio of sex workers preparing to head into the red light district and a pair of petty thugs fighting while a young man plays Spanish guitar on the ruins of a bomb damaged building. 

It’s as if it were this world that is slowly consuming Matsunaga, an old-school yakuza who insists “we still believe in things like honour and loyalty” certain that the big boss will side with him against the returned upstart Okada (Reizaburo Yamamoto), Miyo’s yakuza ex, even as Sanada tells him it’s money that matters and Matsunaga no longer makes any. Everyone tells him that he already looks like a ghost, his appearance increasingly gaunt in his parallel decline as the illness takes hold and he begins to lose his status to Okada only to overhear his boss call him an “amateur” that he was only keeping around as a potential sacrifice. In the end, Matsunaga is too good for this world. Naively believing in things like honour and loyalty which no longer mean anything in the dog-eat-dog post-war society he is left with nothing other than a nihilistic bid for vengeance and a desire to repay Sanada’s faith in him if only in the most ironic of ways. 

Like Matsunaga, Sanada sometimes says the opposite of what he means claiming that he doesn’t care what happens to Matsunaga but is determined to wipe out the TB inside him to stop it spreading it to others. He’s on a mission to “sterilise this contaminated town” by eradicating the twin threats of disease and the yakuza, calling Matsunaga a coward for failing to face his fear and loneliness succumbing to the quick fixes of his hedonistic yakuza lifestyle. He’s not perfect either, a doctor who drinks his medical ethanol supplies and berates his patients when he them catches out them out drinking when he told them not to, but is also very at home with who he is and doing his best with it. His disappointment in Matsunaga is mainly in his swagger, the false bravado that masks his human frailty and unwillingness to face his fear of death which manifests itself in a hauntingly expressionistic dream sequence. Using silent cinema composition and canted angles Kurosawa conjures a world of constant uncertainty amid the vagaries of the post-war society in which the only sign of salvation is a drunken doctor and his “rational approach” to the sickness of the age.


Drunken Angel screens at the BFI Southbank, London on 2nd & 10th February 2023 as part of the Kurosawa season.

No Regrets for Our Youth (わが青春に悔なし, Akira Kurosawa, 1946)

“Freedom is something you have to fight for” a young woman is ironically reminded by her progressively-minded father as she finds herself torn between the conservatism of her upbringing as an upper middle class daughter of an academic family and a bid for independence in the freedoms of the post-war society. In part a lament for a lost generation whose resistance towards rising militarism had been all but forgotten, No Regrets for Our Youth (わが青春に悔なし, Waga Seishun ni Kuinashi), is also the story of a post-war woman seeking new directions which in this case eventually send her back to the land.

Then again, there’s no denying that Yukie’s (Setsuko Hara) dilemma is framed as romantic, torn between a dynamic communist and a spineless conservative while otherwise in her youth fairly vacuous. As the film opens, she frolics with some of her father’s students at a local mountain that overlooks Kyoto University. Caught on a stepping stone she awaits help from either the charismatic Noge (Susumu Fujita) or the diffident Itokawa (Akitake Kono) before Noge boldly dashes forward and carries her to the bank. Seeing Itokawa looking sheepish and embarrassed, she tugs on his student cap as if she hasn’t quite yet made up her mind which path she will take. “If I married you, my life would be calm and peaceful,” Yukie later reveals to Itokawa, “but it would also be a bit boring”, whereas if she married Noge “my life would burn so brightly that I might be blinded.” 

Even so, her outlook as the professor’s daughter leans towards the conservative. During the picnic on the mountain, the students suddenly hear the sound of cadets training with firearms Yukie exclaiming that it makes her heart race before ominously discovering the body of a wounded solider in the overgrowth. She declares that she hates “leftists” and that her father is a “liberal” not a “red” but will any case eventually be vindicated. Though attracted to Noge’s passionate nature, she seems to find him dull company, “boring” in his constant conversation about the rise of fascism while visibly bristling when he all but calls her a vacuous socialite and says she needs a “slap in the face to grow up” which is in a sense what he’s just given her. Her life had been that of a privileged upperclass girl cosseted from the world, engaging with refined pursuits such as playing the piano and learning traditional flower arrangement. Her epiphany seems to come when she realises she’s been doing as she’s told, reminded that flower arrangement is a means of self-expression suddenly tearing the heads off chrysanthemums and crafting something truly avant-garde that is in its own way quietly shocking. Notably her flower arrangements while living with Noge are much more harmonious. 

Still she wavers, wondering if she should give in to the quiet life she’d have with a man like Itokawa, a man with no ideology who sides with the militarists and becomes a prosecutor because it is expedient to do so, or continue to wait for Noge who by this point has been in prison and ostensibly renounced his socialist beliefs to join the army. What she chooses independence, breaking with the conventional life her mother wanted for her to support herself with a job at a trading company in Tokyo. Running into Itokawa in the city, he strongly hints to her that Noge is, from his point of view, up to no good running a kind of think tank as an expert on China. 

When Yukie chooses Noge she implies it’s because she wants “something I can throw myself into body and soul”, hoping to join him in his new cause prepared as her father had warned her to make sacrifices in the struggle for freedom. In the one sense, it’s Yukie making up her own mind to abandon her privileged background to live her life with no regrets, but it’s also impossible to ignore that the cause she dedicates herself to is that of her husband. Committed to making Noge’s parents, both peasant farmers, understand that he was not an “ungrateful” son but a man who did his best to oppose the war and fight for peace and prosperity in Japan, she commits herself to the land and wins them over with the strength of her resolve. The hands that once played piano are now rough with work and it is in this she has found her purpose. Yet it’s difficult to say if the austerity of her new life represents ultimate freedom or only further constraint in the imperative of her continued suffering. Perhaps it doesn’t really matter, if as she says she has no regrets for her youth as she joins hands with the peasant farmers leaving her privileged upbringing behind her even as her mother remarks that with her father reinstated at the university it’s as if nothing had changed. There is then something quite poignant as she sits by the stream and sees the students file past her singing their song of protest that in the end went unheeded while she prepares to reject modernity in its entirety and return to the simplicity of the land.


No Regrets for Our Youth screens at the BFI Southbank, London on 2nd & 10th January 2023 as part of the Kurosawa season.

Madame White Snake (白夫人の妖恋, Shiro Toyoda, 1956)

A studio director at Toho, Shiro Toyoda was most closely associated with adaptations of well respected works of literature, often with an earthy, humanist touch. He might then be an odd fit for a tale of high romance co-produced with Hong Kong’s Shaw Brothers and inspired by a classic Chinese legend. Madame White Snake (白夫人の妖恋, Byaku Fujin no Yoren) effectively drops some of Toho’s top talent, including “pan-Asian” star Shirley (Yoshiko) Yamaguchi (AKA Li Xianglan / Ri Koran), into a contemporary Hong Kong ghost movie with Toyoda doing his best to mimic the house style. 

As in the classic legend, fate is set in motion when herbalist Xu-xian (Ryo Ikebe) allows “noblewoman” Bai-niang (Shirley Yamaguchi) and her maid Xiao-qing (Kaoru Yachigusa) to board a boat he is riding to escape a storm. The pair bond because they are both orphans out in the rain to pay their filial respects to their late parents on tomb sweeping day. Disembarking, Xu-xian lends the ladies his umbrella, vowing to visit their house the next day after his rounds to reclaim it. When he arrives, Xu-xian is greeted by a near hysterical and extremely romantic Bai-niang who has apparently fallen deeply in love with him because of his pure heart. She proposes marriage, but Xu-xian is wary. He is after all just a poor boy, a herbalist living with his older sister and her husband. He has no money to get married and Bai-niang is a noble woman from a good family, society simply wouldn’t allow it. Xu-xian tries to escape, but his gentle words of refusal only wound Bia-niang’s heart. 

Hoping to smooth the situation, Xiao-qing decides to give Xu-xian a small fortune in silver taels so the money issue will be solved. Strangely, the plan appears to work. Xu-xian quickly gets over his reluctance to accept money from a wealthy woman who wants to marry him and returns to being in love and excited, selling his newfound hope for the future to his sister by showing her the taels. It is, however, not quite that simple. The silver turns out to be stolen as evidenced by a mark of fire on its surface. Xu-xian falls under suspicion as a thief and comes to resent Bai-niang for placing him in such a difficult and embarrassing position. 

Nevertheless, despite all the strange goings on such as the suddenly “abandoned” house, the green smoke, and vanishing women, Xu-xian does not seem to suspect that Bai-niang is not fully human, and is only angry with her for misusing him. In a motif which will be repeated, however, he is eventually won over. After taking a job in his sleazy uncle’s inn, he re-encounters Bai-niang and realises she really is the one for him. But as they begin to build their life together, launched with an unwise loan from the sleazy uncle who can’t seem to keep his eyes (and occasionally hands) off Bai-niang, doubt begins to creep in. Those small cracks are deepened when Xu-xian is accosted by a man who announces himself as a Taoist from Mount Ji and tells him that he has an evil aura over his head, encouraging him to believe that an evil spirit is slowly capturing his heart which why he’s a little bit afraid to go home. The priest gives him some useful talismans, which are of course quite bad news for Bai-niang who now knows that her husband secretly doubts her. 

Meanwhile, prepared to do “anything” to make the man she loves happy, Bai-niang has come to the strange conclusion that Xu-xian’s moodiness is down to the fact that their medicine shop isn’t doing so well. Unfortunately, her big idea is poisoning the local well to make everyone think there’s a plague so they’ll have to buy more of her potions. It’s a fairly nefarious plan, but apparently all for love. As in the original tale, however, the real crisis once again comes with the randy uncle who uses the pretext of a local festival to try and get Bai-niang drunk on special wine that is known to unmask spirits. Realising that his wife is a little bit otherworldly sends Xu-xian into a coma, while Bai-niang goes to ask the gods for help, only to be undercut by the annoying Taoist priest who wakes Xu-xian up by convincing him his wife’s “evil”. 

If you don’t want people to think you’re “evil”, trying to drown the entire town might not be the best move. Bai-niang’s refusal to give up on Xu-xian even when he constantly tries to reject her places her at odds with loyal servant Xiao-qing who is equal parts enraged on her behalf and exasperated that she can’t see sense. Bai-niang tells the gods that the only witchcraft she used was the witchcraft of love even if that love caused her to try and poison the entire town, but now regards herself as nothing more than Xu-xian’s wife and is willing to renounce her powers in order to save him. Once again, Xu-xian has a sudden change of heart, avowing that there are human women with the heart of a snake, and Bai-niang is a woman to him even if she’s a snake spirit which is, apparently, the only thing that matters. Still, theirs is a love this world doesn’t understand, and so only in a better one can they ever be together.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Until We Meet Again (また逢う日まで, Tadashi Imai, 1950)

Til we meet again poster 1Despite later becoming a member of the Communist Party, Tadashi Imai had spent the war years making propaganda pictures for the militarist regime. He later described his role in the propagation of Japanese imperialism as “the worst mistake of my life”, and thereafter committed himself to socially conscious filmmaking. Imai was later identified most closely with a style that was the anthesis of many his contemporaries branded “realism without tears”. Nevertheless, in 1950 he found himself making a full on romantic melodrama with anti-war themes. Until We Meet Again (また逢う日まで, Mata Au Hi Made) was, unofficially, an adaptation of Romain Rolland’s 1920 novel Pierre et Luce in which war conspires against the pure hearted love between two innocent young people.

Relocated to the Tokyo of 1943, Until We Meet Again begins at its conclusion with anxious student Saburo (Eiji Okada) pacing the floor, prevented from meeting his one true love, Keiko (Yoshiko Kuga), because his sister-in-law has fallen dangerously ill. Having just received notice that his draft date has been moved up and he’s expected to report for duty that very night, he fears he may never see her again whereupon he flashes back to their early courtship, all adolescent innocence and filled with the pure joy of falling in love for the first time.

Yet, as much as the war is the destructive force which will always stand between them, it’s also the one which brings them together. Saburo makes nervous eye contact with a pretty girl sheltering in a subway during an air raid. They are both afraid, and he chivalrously comforts and shields her with his body. Most particularly in the Japan of 1943, such bodily contact with a stranger of the opposite sex would be considered extremely inappropriate. There would be no other opportunity to enter this mild kind of physical intimacy save for the external pressures of life in war. Saburo doesn’t yet know the name of the woman in the subway, but can seemingly think of little else, seeing her everywhere he goes and looking for her in every face he sees. When they finally “meet”, they both agree that they are already acquainted and the intimacy between them quickly deepens through unexpected and perhaps transgressive physicality – a hand taken and placed inside a jacket to fight the cold, an embrace taken to guard against one explosion but leading to another. This innocent diffidence eventually leads to the film’s most famous scene in which Saburo, lamenting he must leave Keiko’s home, returns briefly to look at her in the icy window through which they share a chaste kiss.

Saburo, a wealthy young man too sensitive for the times in which lives, is ill-equipped to understand the difficulties of Keiko’s life. A closeup on her ragged shoes and her hard-nosed practicality make plain her penury and her determination to escape it. If he allowed himself to dream seriously of a life with her after the war, he might have to consider the words of his hardline brother, once sensitive like him but now fully committed to the militarist cause, who reminds him that an idle romance may be irresponsible considering that it will only cause them both, and more particularly her, pain when he must leave perhaps never to return. Saburo knows his brother might be right, wrestling with his love for Keiko while she professes that she would rather be with him no matter what pain might come.

Saburo’s friends tell him that “love is taboo”, and his brother something similar when he berates him for wasting his time hanging around with girls rather than preparing for the military. The enemy is less “the war” than it is the persistent austerity of militarism which crushes individuality and emotion to make love itself an act of treason. Yet it’s the very presence of the looming threat of war that makes their race towards romance possible. Saburo will be shipping out. Everything is fraught and desperate. There may not be another time and so the only time is now. It’s no coincidence that each incremental step in the couple’s relationship is preceded by an explosion, or that alarms are constantly ringing, while clocks tick ominously counting down their time.

Having been seriously injured in a freak accident despite wielding his privilege to serve in Japan and not on the front line, Saburo’s brother reconsiders and tells him that he is leaving his share of life’s happiness to him and so he has a duty to be doubly happy. Keiko too just wants her little “slice of happiness”, but it’s something this world has seen fit to deny them. The couple daydream about furnishing a house filled with children, but it’s a fantasy that will never materialise because theirs are the unrealised hopes of the youth of Japan cruelly denied their rightful futures because of a foolish war waged by their fathers and their grandfathers. The poignant final scenes suggest the older generation too will collapse under the weight of the tragedy they provoked, but sympathy remains with men like Saburo who went to war unwillingly because they had no other choice, unable to protect the things they loved from the chaos they left behind.