Smitha Radhakrishnan gives us a sampling of Indian music over the years -- classical, film, and diasporic -- in Part Two of her series on artistic fusion.
What does Asian American art look like? One Way or Another: Asian American Art Now, an exhibition put on by Asia Society at UC Berkeley's Museum of Art, playfully and powerfully answers: "Anything we want it to be."
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The war is over, and that means filth, crime, sickness, prostitution, booze, heroism, sacrifice, Shimura, Mifune, and Kurosawa.
The recent Criterion DVD release of Kurosawa Akira's Drunken Angel (1948) takes us back to post-war, post-defeat Japan. The film takes place mainly in a lower-class region ruled by the yakuza and the black market. The film's setting is marked at every corner by filth, disease, everyday struggles for survival by prostitutes and mom-and-pop merchants, and small-time entertainment such as bars and dance-halls. But it's the sump located right smack in the middle of the film's setting that encapsulates all these marks of bombings and displacement -- in short, chaos. The sump is the witness of all that goes around: the black market, yakuza dealings, children's games, prostitutes in waiting. It's also witness to the life-and-death struggles of one yakuza diagnosed with tuberculosis, Matsunaga, and the area's ornery, seasoned alcoholic doctor Sanada. Their meeting and relationship with each other -- characterised by distrust and hostility but also the possibility of empathy and mentorship -- make up the film's emotional, turbulent core.
As the saying goes, out of the rubble emerges hope and rebirth, and Drunken Angel is just that in terms of postwar Japanese cinema for Kurosawa. Even though his first postwar production was No Regrets for our Youth (1946), Kurosawa himself says in his autobiography and in the making-of documentary included in the DVD that Drunken Angel was the film through which he found his "voice."
Crucial to this cinematic "voice" were without doubt the two actors who played Matsunaga the yakuza and Sanada the "drunken angel" of the title: Mifune Toshiro and Shimura Takashi, respectively. This is the first film in which all three worked together, and in some variation or other, the three will work together for the rest of the forties and throughout the fifties to create one of the most formidable filmographies in the post-war world.
In this first outing, I have to agree with Kurosawa and other critics that Mifune's performance here sustains the film's appeal and energy. He's literally bursting at the seams in his acting. It's a bit difficult to cut across the layers of writings about Mifune's hyperkinetic intensity and commitment to his characters, especially in Kurosawa's films, but the kind of acting he was performing was apparently quite unfamiliar to Japanese filmmaking and audiences alike. But it resonates with you, as it resonated with the rest of Japan. The excerpt from Kurosawa's autobiography in the DVD booklet and the making-of documentary both recount how Mifune brashly entered the film industry and left an unforgettable impression on Kurosawa.
So contrary to what one might think in comparing this contemporary film with Kurosawa's historical epics, there are similarities between them, especially the master-apprentice relationship, with its own set of heroics. For instance, there's the college-educated doctor Sanada who decides to service the lower classes instead of climbing the social ladder as his colleagues have done; Matsunaga's attempts to reconcile himself with his mortality as he tries to straighten things out with his rival yakuza and their boss; the former ex-yakuza mistress Miyo trying to carve out a more honest life by working for Sanada; and of course, the tangential plot line that involves a schoolgirl, also stricken with tuberculosis, but fighting it with all her youth and positivity. Thank goodness it's tangential since it's Kurosawa at his most heavy-handed -- even the ending of Rashomon (where a priest and woodcutter find an abandoned baby) comes off a little less didactic.
It should come as no surprise that the person who provides the audio commentary is none other than Donald Richie. Richie proves once again why other non-Japanese film scholars admire and resent him at the same time: his knowledge of the period and of the conditions of filmmaking is profound, partly because, well, he was there to experience them. As he introduces a panning shot of the sump and surroundings, he mentions that if the camera had panned further left, Richie himself would have been revealed on the set. Richie came to Japan along with the wave of federal and civilian personnel who helped to implement Allied occupation operations, and became involved in film. Most interestingly, he shares how he met Kurosawa through another first-time collaborator, composter Hayasaka Fumio. It wouldn't be a stretch to say that even Richie can be included as part of this Kurosawa stock company in the making.
Now that the dramatis personae have been introduced, there's nothing left than to watch the film again.
Date Posted: 12/14/2007