Written by: Akira Kurosawa & Keinosuke Uegusa
Starring: Takashi Shimura, Toshiro Mifune, Reizaburo Yamamoto, Noriko Sengoku
No matter the amount of advice and guidance a doctor can provide their patients, they’ll never have a 100% success rate due to a variety of mitigating factors out of their control. Patients ultimately have the say of whether or not they take the counsel provided to them by the medical professional. Drunken Angel establishes a loving and frustrating relationship between a doctor and a patient as they both try to navigate in a poisoned and vicious world.
Following a gunfight, Yakuza member Matsunaga (Toshiro Mifune) seeks medical assistance from local doctor Sanada (Takashi Shimura). After running tests for the patient, Sanada discovers Matsunaga has contracted tuberculosis and attempts to steer him in the right path but the young man cannot escape the life he has chosen and all of the toxicity it brings.
The environment where people live says plenty about the community because it shows what people value. If there’s plenty of trash in the streets, it indicates a culture where people are unafraid to litter and make the place unattractive. It all stems from a collective effort and Kurosawa ensures to display that in the way he fixates on this pond in the town where Drunken Angel takes place. It’s no ordinary pond but much of the action happens around it. Plenty of trash thrown in there and even with the black-and-white color scheme of this movie, it’s quite obvious no one should be near it. Sanada indicates as such when he yells at a group of children playing in it warning them of the potential of them catching dysentery. No explanation gets offered as to what caused this water to potentially be toxic, but seeing how this masterful film plays out, it certainly reflects the people.
Sanada and Matsunaga’s relationship throughout the film has a begrudging sense of care and appreciation they have for each other but they struggle to admit it. Sanada acknowledges he sees the younger man as a past version of himself and wants Matsunaga not to go down a path of pain. However, communicating this sentiment to Matsunaga comes with its challenges because they can easily blow up on each other. Take the first scene between them where Sanada treats a wound on Matsunaga’s hand. The doctor asks what occurred resulting in the injury and the patient states a door closed on him. Sanada certainly does not buy the explanation and his suspicions get proven when he literally pulls out a bullet, indicating a different conclusion. The doctor advises Matsunaga to stop these gangster ways in not the kindest tone, and Matsunaga reacts in anger as the two men nearly get into a fistfight. This scene outlines the type of relationship these two will have throughout the story as they manage their own vices and Matsunaga inches closer to death with a diagnosis of tuberculosis.
Going back to films from different eras allows us to see how much we have advanced, especially medically. In this story, tuberculosis plays an integral part because a good portion of Sanada’s patients have it and the diagnosis carries a mark with people being afraid to catch it from others. Today, it’s difficult to imagine a time when tuberculosis ran rampant in towns, but it became a battle for Sanada as a physician and the battle with the disease appears with both Matsunaga but another patient meaning to represent the two possible outcomes.
Both of these men carry their own vices but still have a streak of nobility that makes them endearing. They have a hard time expressing themselves without yelling and getting violent. Sanada struggles with drinking and gets called a drunk by many in the town indicating a reputation. With the amount others drink in this town, to attain this particular title must be quite the feat. Matsunaga can’t seem to follow the instructions of his physician due to pride at first, but also the lifestyle he has chosen to live. As a member of the Yakuza, he was granted this particular turf to oversee and he enjoys the benefits that come with it. He can walk by a stand and take a flower as the merchant smiles and thanks the young man for the attention. He lives a life where nobody can touch him, and this diagnosis changes it all.
Tonally, Drunken Angel works with its compassionate approach to the story along with several moments of blissful comedy. It all comes from Sanada and the performance put on by Takashi Shimura. A Kurosawa regular and this particular role stands out because of the demeanor and attitude of this character. Shimura typically takes on mentor roles in Kurosawa films but he never looks as scruffy as he does in this feature. He has several moments where he makes piercing jokes about others in a manner that even surprised me. At times they were made when Sanada had too much to drink but his caring demeanor and gruff attitude create some moments of perhaps unintended comedy, which only makes the character more endearing. With his character being the drunken angel, he has both sides of the coin and Shimura finds the right balance unsurprisingly.
The best performer, however, is Toshiro Mifune as in most Kurosawa films. The role of Matsunaga serves as one of his earliest with Kurosawa and he demonstrates what makes him attractive to others. He has moments where he’s completely disheveled and rugged only to then have later scenes where he cleans up and turns up the charm to the maximum. Mifune’s character has such masculinity to him, which begins to fade as tuberculosis continues to take control of his body. The makeup department does a strong job of displaying the physical difference but Mifune’s demeanor shifts and the change becomes even more noticeable. His strength fades but his ferocity remains the same.
Thoroughly satisfying narratively and a wonderful explosion of compassion and care, Drunken Angel finds Akira Kurosawa working on both a societal level with the environmental toxins an area can have on someone along with the relational between two stubborn men who grow a begrudging admiration for each other. This film certainly falls into his “underseen movies” category where it does not get brought up in many conversations but it stands tall and matches up to even his greatest works. It pairs high moments of tension with scenes of comedic reprieve to show the humanity involved as it uncovers the plight of these characters.