Akira Kurosawa may very well be the most well known and respected Japanese film makers to ever work in the industry. Throughout his entire life, all the way to the end, Kurosawa has been responsible for many, many excellent stories with wonderful technical work. The film that Kurosawa said to be his real breakthrough piece was his film from 1948 Drunken Angel. This is also the first time he collaborated with actor Toshiro Mifune and composer Fumio Hayasaka. While Drunken Angel doesn’t quite look as good as Kurosawa’s other films, it is a deeply powerful film that left me thinking about a lot of different things and trying to pick out all of the different messages about post-war Japan and self worth that I could find.
Dr. Sanada (Takashi Shimura) is an alcoholic physician working in a post-war Tokyo slum with a festering sump in the center. Matsunaga (Toshiro Mifune) is a small time yakuza gangster with an ego that’s much more inflated than his actual position in the organization. Matsunaga is a cocky, violence prone man who lashes out at Sanada when he is informed that he is suffering from a possibly mortal case of tuberculosis. At first Matsunaga doesn’t believe what the doctor is saying, but soon decides to be responsible and fight the disease. That is, until fellow yakuza member Okada (Reisaburo Yamamoto) gets out of prison and makes Matsunaga resume his old way of life which includes women, gambling, and alcohol. When Okada makes his motives truly known and threatens Sanada because of something that happened before he was even in prison, Matsunaga sees everything he has been doing wrong and fights his condition so he can get revenge on Okada and defend the doctor that cares for him so much.
Akira Kurosawa has an astute ability to take a story that may otherwise feel boring or like nothing’s really going on and turn it into a story that’s filled with many different layers, themes, messages, allegories and any other fancy word to describe how excellent this movie really is. It’s a quiet film, to say the least, but the imagery is as haunting as a movie as real as this gets. Kurosawa seems to take influence from the American noir films of this time period, but also from Italian neorealism that was around in the early to mid 20th century. This film does feel very real and very personal, not just to Kurosawa, but to the entire nation of Japan.
Drunken Angel is more than a story about the relationship between an alcoholic doctor and a violent yakuza gangster. It’s very clear throughout the movie that this has a lot to do with the mood and ideals of post-war Japan. The sump in the middle of the slum is a perfect image of what was left of the landscape and the Japanese spirit after the was and the devastating effects of the the nuclear bombs. The characters, being constantly intoxicated and violent, seem to bring to life the weakness and horror of the Japanese mind and body. But this movie isn’t just about the effects of war. On a much smaller level, there are themes of masculinity, weakness, and self worth. These, in my opinion, are the strongest elements of the movie. If someone was to ask me what Drunken Angel was about, I would simply reply with one word. Weakness.
Interestingly enough, Kurosawa originally planned for the story of this movie to focus mainly on Dr. Sanada with the character of Matsunaga being a minor side character. After seeing how well Toshiro Mifune acted in the role, Kurosawa then made Mifune’s character much more important. These two characters now work together as the main protagonists throughout the film. Takashi Shimura, who became a regular in Kurosawa’s movies just like Mifune, is excellent as Dr. Sanada and plays his complicated role to perfection. We want to hate him for being so irresponsible and weak, but he is so good hearted we can’t help but love the guy. Mifune is still the scene stealer here. His transformation from swaggering gangster to a man overcome by his disease is tragic to watch. Tragic only begins to describe his character, and Mifune focuses all his energy into making him more than he was ever supposed to be.
Drunken Angel is the movie that put Kurosawa on the map so that he could go on to do other classics like Seven Samurai and Yojimbo amongst others. This is a much more quiet film than those others, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less significant. This film succeeds at digging into real problems for Japan at the time, but also digging into the darkest corners of people to expose the weaknesses that threaten to bring them down. There are many reasons that make this movie so great, and even if it doesn’t quite fit your style, do yourself the honor of watching this film made by one of the greatest film makers to ever live.