Drunken Angel (1948) dir. Akira Kurosawa
Starring: Toshiro Mifune, Takeshi Shimura
by Alan Bacchus
“Drunken Angel” was the beginning of the director’s influential collaboration with Toshiro Mifune. Set in post war Japan, Mifune plays a yakuza gangster who strikes an unusual friendship with his doctor played by Takeshi Shimura. The film is also considered Kurosawa’s first auteur film with a fully realized creative control. It doesn’t disappoint.
Two of the great Kurosawa players, Takeshi Shimura and Toshiro Mifune, play friends and adversaries in a small village in post war Japan. The opening shot establishes a toxic lake of post-war chemicals, which has caused much sickness, disease and squalor. The depressed area has also brought the Yakuza and their misanthropic brothels, booze and violence. Matsunaga (Mifune) is a handsome tuberculosis-afflicted gangster who is treated by a doctor Sanada (Takeshi Shimura). At the beginning Matsunaga is standoffish to Sanada’s vehement pestering to change his lifestyle for the sake of his disease. But when the ruthless yakuza boss Okada returns to the village to reclaim his power over the gang, Matsunaga finds himself at an impasse in his life. With death knocking at his door, he sees Sanada’s selfless gestures as a sign to change his life for the better. The film climaxes with one of Kurosawa’s most famous violent endings, a heroic fight between Matsunaga and Okada.
The time and place of “Drunken Angel” is as important as any of Kurosawa’s films. In 1948, much of Japan was war torn and in the midst of rebuilding. The conflict in every scene is born from the filthy swamp – a symbol for their violent defeat in WWII. Out of this setting Kurosawa builds two great complex characters: Matsunaga, the doomed Yakuza whose honour is crushed with the return of his ruthless comrade and Sanada the pathetic failed doctor who can only sustain his practice by treating gangsters and thugs and. The contradiction which brings the two together is Sanada’s instinctive need to care for his patients in and out of the office – specifically Matsunaga.
In addition to his two great characters Kurosawa builds a tight and suspense narrative when Okada, the ruthless Yakuza leader returns to the village. The subplot involving his search for his former girlfriend, who is now Sanada’s assistant, provides the stakes and jeopardy which results in Matsunaga’s heroism in the end. Though the final fight in the hallway, slipping around through spilled paint cans, has become famous I was disappointed with the climax. When Matsunaga decides in his weakened diseased state to confront Okada, suspense is built for a climatic David vs. Goliath match up. Although Okada is established as a ruthless killer, but we never see Okada demonstrate this power. And so I think their sloppy choreography reduces the power of that scene.
The Criterion Disc as usual out does itself with the special features and packaging of the material. We are treated to a wonderful 30 mins documentary on the making of film. It was made prior to Kurosawa’s death, and so we get a well-made and polished documentary with Kurosawa and his collaborators completely deconstructing the film. We get to learn not only about the technical aspects of the set construction, but also how Kurosawa and Mifune first met and collaborated.
“Drunken Angel” is special because Kurosawa wonderfully blends the Westernized genre elements of a complex noir, with the wholly Japanese themes of honour and self-sacrifice. These sensibilities would become more important and recognizable in his later films which brought his international success. Enjoy.