“Drunken Angel” is a 1948 Japanese-gangster film, set in post-war Tokyo, directed by the legendary director Akira Kurosawa. The film’s biggest claim to fame is that it was the very first collaboration between Kurosawa and one of the lead actors, Toshiro Mifune. The two would go on to make movies that would define the golden age of Japanese cinema, and strongly influence some of the best known American films ever made.
In “Drunken Angel”, Mifune portrays Matsunaga, a young gangster, or “yakuza”, who, in the beginning of the film ventures into a doctor’s office to have a bullet removed from his palm. The doctor, a scruffy and blunt older man named Sanada (Takashi Shimura), stiches up Matsunaga and suggests that the young man may have tuberculosis. Though Matsunaga reacts violently to Sanada’s suggestion, and leaves the office abruptly, the two meet again shortly after the disease forces stronger symptoms. As Matsunaga comes to terms with his condition, Sanada does his best to care for various patients in a particularly filthy district of Tokyo, which has been ravaged by WWII. Rubble abounds, and Sanada spends his days roaming the streets advising children to stay out of a toxic bog that runs through the center of town, meanwhile caring for his spare patients and nursing an intense alcohol addiction.
The title of the film, “Drunken Angel” is referring to Sanada, whose addiction is perhaps a necessary aspect of his profession in such a dilapidated area. We get a sense of Sanada’s devotion early on, as his main nurse in the office is a woman named Miyo (Chieko Nakakita) whom he graciously took into his practice after her boyfriend viciously abused her and infected her with venereal disease. The boyfriend, an imprisoned yakuza named Okada (Reisaburo Yamamoto) ends up playing a major role in the film, as he is released from prison and returns to reclaim his turf, since taken by Matsunaga, and his woman.
Despite being his first appearance in a Kurosawa film, Mifune is in top form in “Drunken Angel”. His portrayal of Matsunaga, a spindly yakuza dying of tuberculosis is a far cry from his later iconic characters in “Rashomon”, “Seven Samurai”, and “Yojimbo”. Each of those movies has Mifune as a somewhat one-dimensional player. However, Matsunaga has a bit of everything from later Mifune characters: rage, spontaneity, but also a calm contemplativeness. That last facet is the most interesting, and proves to be the driving force behind the most powerful scenes in the movie. In one scene, Matsunaga is presented with a drink from a fellow yakuza, and despite being told to avoid alcohol by Sanada, he indulges in the toast. The hesitation and desire to abstain feels real, and it defies to fiery version of Matsunaga that we see earlier in the film.
The biggest issue with “Drunken Angel” is that Kurosawa splits the film into essentially two different storylines: one with Sanada and one with Matsunaga, and neither are allowed to gain enough momentum. Split storylines wouldn't be an issue in and of themselves, as many great films employ the same device. However, it is the fashion in which Kurosawa lingers on one of the characters for too long, to the point that we lose focus on the other. For example, the first half of “Drunken Angel” is dominated by Sanada, and his day-to-day activities. Inexplicably, the bulk of screen time shifts to Matsunaga for the rest of the movie, only briefly bringing Sanada back into the fold for the closing scenes. It is a frustrating element that I have seen before in Kurosawa’s 1963 film “High & Low”. Both Sanada and Matsunaga are compelling characters worth exploring, but their stories are cut apart in such a way that the end of the movie feels half-baked and you don't feel a sense of satisfaction with the film as a whole.
It is especially confounding because I feel that “Drunken Angel” could have been truly great, but it just wasn't put together in the right way. On the one hand we have this weathered old doctor, with flaws of his own, nevertheless pursuing an honorable practice in the rubble of an immediate post-war Tokyo. On the other, Matsunaga is a young yakuza that stands on the brink of losing his humanity to a toxic profession, only to be inflicted with tuberculosis and offered a path toward health a freedom by Sanada. By the end of the movie we are anticipating something dramatic to occur in the way Matsunaga confronts his situation, and what role Sanada will have in that scenario. However, this fantastic finish never occurs, and we wonder what exactly Kurosawa had in mind for the audience besides a very simple anti-yakuza propaganda message. All said, “Drunken Angel” is still a fascinating period study; depicting a very different Japan than most modern audiences would be expecting, and coupled with stellar performances from Shimura and Mifune, there is plenty to recommended in “Drunken Angel” despite its terminally fractured finish.