Ranking: #10/111

Director: Akira Kurosawa (Japan)

Genre: Film Noir Crime Drama

Drunken Angel is an intense, yet charming, story of a volatile friendship that develops between two “strays” of society, Dr Sanada, an alcoholic, down-and-out medical doctor with a struggling practice on the outskirts of a slum and a small-time yakuza (gangster), Matsunaga, who contracts tuberculosis. The movie is about fallen people and whether there can be any redemption for outcasts. You could say it’s a Film Noir crime drama with a humanist message and tone.

The film opens with the close-up of a fetid, poisonous cess pool in a slum in Tokyo. The summer humidity adds to the sense of oppression in the sequence. The cess pool, filled with garbage, becomes a visual symbol for the corruption and decay in crime-infested post-war Japan. At one point, the doctor warns some children playing around the contaminated pond that they are at risk of getting typhoid. Later in the film, we see the city skyline itself reflected in the bog, which is filled with methane gas bubbles . “It became the symbol of the disease that was eating away at the whole neighbourhood,” Kurosawa said of the cess pool.  Kurosawa presents a seedy picture of Tokyo,  struggling to pick itself up after the devastation of the war.

The director also explained that in post-war Japan black markets sprang up everywhere “like bamboo shoots after a rain” (Kurosawa, A, 1983. Something Like an Autobiography, p. 156). In his film, he wanted to dissect how the yakuza gangsters put down roots in this black-market underworld.

In the story, Matsunaga stumbles into Sanada’s clinic after a fight demanding he be treated for his injuries. While extracting a bullet, the doctor notices that the petty criminal has a cough and warns him about TB, urging him to get an X-ray. Kurosawa said in his autobiography that Mifune’s intense acting on set was terrifying even to the crew!

Something about the cocky, aggressive gangster reminds the doctor of himself when he was young. He, too, has led a wasteful and dissolute life. Deep down, though, he wants to serve the sick in his community and help them to get well. Later, when Sanada sees the gangster’s X-ray, it confirms his diagnosis. He tries to help the crook get well again. But the deeper problem is the corruption within a character. In addition, the lifestyle he leads is filled with risks. It’s a touching, nuanced portrait of a man who has some lingering goodness in him but whose odds seem stacked against him. Sanada finds that Matsunaga cannot change his life, with its drinking and whoring, even if it is killing him. To save himself, he would need to break ties with the rotten culture prevailing in their gangland.

Things change for the worse when a former crime boss, Okada, is released from prison. Actor Reisaburo Yamamoto projects an intimidating presence as the cold-hearted gang leader, who is driven by his love of money. Kurosawa himself said of the man: “I had never seen eyes as frightening as his.” ((Kurosawa, A, 1983. Something Like an Autobiography, p. 162) He was perfectly cast for the evil gang boss. By contrast, there’s still some humanity in Matsunaga.  There is fierce jealousy between the two men, firstly over Nanae, one of the yakuza girls in their circle, and, secondly, because Okada wants control back over his old territory, with all its markets still ripe for extortion.

Matsunaga gambles away all his money, while also losing his girl to the crime boss, deepening his personal crisis. And with Okada back in town, he finds he has lost his power and influence. Then, he has a haemorrhage and Sanada attends to him in the dead of night. We see the great depths of care still in the doctor’s rugged heart. One of the gangster’s lungs is like the cess pool.

Close to death, Matsunaga has a dream of a coffin washed up on a beach. He imagines his own death is chasing him.

The film has a powerful morality, with the key message being how to show humanity even to the outcasts of society.

The rivalry between Okada and Matsunaga leads to the inevitable climactic violent clash. Their fight is choreographed in a tragi-comic manner as they slip around in some spilt paint that gets knocked over during their tussle. It is a violent denouement to the story in which the petty criminal is killed. Sanada still wants to cure him, or “save” him, but finds he is already dead. “Nothing makes any sense,” he laments, referring to the life of the hoodlums in town.

At the end of the movie, however, there’s a glimmer of hope, as a young high school girl he was treating for tuberculosis comes to Sanada to tell him she is cured. “Will-power can cure all ailments!” he declares, still sore that he couldn’t save Matsunaga.

One of the highlights of this film is the energetic, expressive acting from Toshiro Mifune (1920-1997), an actor Kurosawa believed had fine sensibilities and brilliant timing. Mifune made fifteen movies with the Japanese director in a seventeen-year period. “Mifune had a kind of talent I had never encountered before in the Japanese film world,” Kurosawa stated. “It was, above all, the speed with which he expressed himself that was astounding.” (Kurosawa, A, 1983. Something Like an Autobiography, p. 161) The director based his character on a real gangster he’d met in the neighbourhood while he was doing the research for his script.

Counterbalancing Mifune’s explosive dynamism in the movie was Takashi Shimura (1905-1982) as the “drunken angel”. His more placid personality acted as a counterfoil to the overbearing and charismatic figure of Matsunaga. This created an excellent balance.  Interestingly, Kurosawa, who wrote or co-wrote most of his screenplays, confessed in his autobiography that he had periods of heavy drinking.  He projects a lot of himself into the character of the alcoholic doctor. He described himself as a man “who was always attracted by underdogs and the shadowy side of life” (Kurosawa, A, 1983. Something Like an Autobiography, p. 153)

In all Kurosawa movies, you always get immediacy, vivid imagery, vibrant acting, gritty dialogue, immaculate mise-en-scène, a good pairing of images and sounds, a strong narrative and a humanistic treatment of the themes and the main characters. Drunken Angel is no different. Before the scriptwriting had even begun, he had “script-scouted” many black-market areas in a slum area in the port city of Yokohama. He was looking to get a real feel for the type of world he would recreate in the film. It was in this district that he met an alcoholic doctor. “He was a man past his mid-fifties, an alcoholic doctor with his own clinic,” Kurosawa explained in his autobiography. “Turning his back on fame and fortune, he settled among the common people…behind his careless exterior he harboured an honest and superior heart.” (Kurosawa, A, 1983. Something Like an Autobiography, p. 158).

Deeply influenced by Westerns and the movies of John Ford, Kurosawa burst onto the world stage in the late 1940s and 50s with his brilliant, humanistic narratives which blended Japanese subject-matter and culture with Western filmic techniques. Here was an exquisite filmmaker who told universal stories about humanity.  The Oxford History of World Cinema has rightly praised his body of work for creating “dense fictional worlds”. (Kurosawa, A, 1983. Something Like an Autobiography, p.716).  It is these dense fictional worlds that live on in the imagination of viewers all over the world long, long after the final credits have rolled.