A fiery doctor and an ill gangster form a love-hate bond in Kurosawa’s striking first collab with Toshiro Mifune, a tale of changing times amid out-of-fashion masculine codes of honour.
Dir. Akira Kurosawa
1948 | Japan | Crime/Drama | 98 mins | 1.33:1 | Japanese
PG (passed clean) for some violence
Cast: Takashi Shimura, Toshiro Mifune, Reizaburo Yamamoto, Michiyo Kogure, Chieko Nakakita
Plot: A drunken doctor with a hot temper and a violence-prone gangster with tuberculosis form a quicksilver bond.
Subject Matter: Moderate
Narrative Style: Straightforward
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse
Viewed: The Projector
One of Akira Kurosawa’s great films from his early pre-Rashomon (1950) phase, Drunken Angel also features the legendary director’s first collab with Japanese acting royalty Toshiro Mifune.
A fresh-faced actor at the time, Mifune’s role as a pneumonia-stricken gangster operating in a town filled with vices—and a toxic swamp to boot—remains his breakthrough performance, even though it is a supporting one in relation to Takashi Shimura (one of Kurosawa’s most reliable character actors), who plays a fiery doctor with an alcohol problem.
Both hot-tempered characters frequently meet in the doctor’s clinic, which almost always ends up in a self-induced brawl. Most of these nights, a local would play the guitar nearby, whose music, according to the doctor, sends pesky mosquitoes his way.
“The Japanese love to sacrifice themselves for stupid things.”
A parable about Japan’s postwar future, Kurosawa takes his characters and the narrative to a symbolic level by its conclusion, suggesting that his country should put its best foot forward by discarding its past hooliganism for a progressive form of rationalism.
A tale of changing times amid out-of-fashion masculine codes of honour, Drunken Angel is striking in its simplicity of staging with flashes of Kurosawa’s brilliance with the camera and editing. One particular scene at the beach prefigures the nightmarish dream sequences in Kagemusha (1980).
Mifune is fantastic, but I think Shimura is even better, channelling a no-nonsense vibe of seriousness that somehow feels comical at times, providing the film with some levity. One might ascribe the term ‘noir’ to Drunken Angel, which along with Stray Dog (1949) sees Kurosawa flexing his crime-flick muscles with more verve than ever before.