Set in post-war Japan, Akira Kurosawa’s Drunken Angel revolves around two principal characters: Dr. Sanada played by Takashi Shimura and a hoodlum called Matsunga played by Toshiro Mifune. Sanada is an alcoholic who rarely gets any patients. Sanada brings Matsunga home one night to treat him for a bullet wound. While treating him, Sanada learns that Matsunga is suffering from tuberculosis as he sees him displaying some of it’s symptoms. The stubborn Matsunga doesn’t pay heed to his advice and walk around acting tough. This toughness is only a pretense and Sanada is able to see right through him. He constantly berates him for his boorish behavior and poor lifestyle choices. Sanada’s repeated attempts to get Matsunga to reform is always met with his dismissal.
Matsunga gradually sees Sanada’s point and his good intentions and unwillingly decides to take Sanada’s advice. But when his former boss, Okada, is released from prison, Matsunga finds his resolve weakening and Sanada watches all this helplessly. The interactions between Sanada and Matsunga gives rise to some genuinely really hilarious moments. Whenever they both try a hand at reconciliation, it somehow inadvertently leads to Matsunga grabbing Sanada by the collar and throwing him out of whichever place they are in. The relationship between them is that of a mentor and pupil, the “mentor” here obviously being Sanada. This kind of relationship between two principal characters is something that Kurosawa would later revisit in other films, especially Stray Dog (which followed soon after this), Seven Samurai and Red Beard.
Here, Kurosawa has presented us with two characters who are almost similar. Sanada sees Matsunga and sees his younger self, and this is what compels him to turn him into a decent human being. Despite his general dislike for hoodlums, Sanada doesn’t hate Matsunga. He see some humanity still left in him. Matsunga is a middle-aged man with regrets. He tells his assistant about his self-destructive past and how he would’ve gone on to have a thriving medical practice just like a former schoolmate of his if he had the sense to mend his ways. He doesn’t think it’s too late for Matsunga and repeatedly tries to encourage him and shake him out of his apathy. The “Drunken Angel” in the title could be a reference to either Sanada or it could be Matsunga, who appears before Sanada to remind him of his past and his humanity.
Both characters live in a world of loneliness and sees each other as the last chance for redemption. Sanada hopes to get rid of his existential crisis by reforming Sanada and rescuing both of them from the “murky, stagnant puddle” that is their current state of mind. Kurosawa has come up with some striking and evocative imagery in the film. Sanada runs a clinic that is located next to a murky, stagnant puddle and Kurosawa brings out attention to it on more than one occasion. Note the scene where Matsunga throws a carnation into this puddle and how the camera stays on this image for a while. This happens soon after Okada reappears and serves as a foreshadowing of things to come. Also, the scene where Matsunga keeps staring a doll lying submerged in the puddle. It seems to remind him of not only his own mortality but also that of our own. There is also an inspired surreal dream sequence where Matsunga cuts open a coffin at a beach and sees himself coming out of it and then chasing him.
The film marked the beginning of Kurosawa’s fruitful collaboration with Mifune. Apparently, Mifune’s part was supposed to be only a supporting role but Kurosawa was so impressed with his audition that he eventually decided to expand his part and give him equal screen time as Shimura. Mifune plays the brooding, conflicted, angry young man to perfection. Watch the scene where he gets fully drunk one night and appears at Sanada’s doorstep with his X-Ray results. That’s like a mini version of a similar scene that Mifune knocked out of the park in Seven Samurai. And the equally talented Shimura manages to surprise everyone in each and every role he has done so far. Both Mifune and Shimura share an incredible onscreen chemistry and at times, seems to overshadow the other.
Kurosawa once famously remarked that Drunken Angel is the one film where he really discovered himself as a filmmaker, despite having made seven films prior to this one. This was the first film of his that he thought was able to display the full strength of his creative vision. I find it odd that most film aficionados don’t see this film in the same light as, say, Rashomon or Seven Samurai. But at the same time, I’m glad to know that there are some hardcore Kurosawa fans out there who give this film the attention it deserves. It’s apparent that Kurosawa was strongly influenced by the film noir movement of Hollywood as well as the poetic realism of French cinema in the 1930s. I was specifically reminded of the films of Julien Duvivier and Marcel Carne, especially the latter’s Port of Shadows and Daybreak. Of all the Kurosawa films, this is the one I adore the most.