Doctor Sanada (Takashi Shimura) spends his life dealing with the consequences of a toxic environment. The area he lives and works in is a dirty slum, full of germs and disease. Not only that, there’s also the influence of the Yakuza for him to contend with. He drinks a lot, but he does genuinely care about his patients and does the best he can do to help everybody. One night, gangster Matsunaga (Toshiro Mifune) comes to Sanada seeking treatment after being shot in the hand in a fight with a rival gangster.
It turns out Matsunaga also has tuberculosis, which Sanada believes could be successfully treated if he quits smoking and drinking. At first, Matsunaga wants no part of it and thinks Sanada is lying, but Sanada sees something in Matsunaga that makes him really want to save him. Eventually, Matsuanaga sees that Sanada is right and tries to clean up his act. He tries very hard at first, but then Okada (Reisaburo Yamamoto), Matsunaga’s former gang leader, gets out of prison. Okada sets out to get back to his old life and that includes boozing it up with Matsunaga.
Naturally, Matsunaga’s health starts to decline again. It also soon becomes clear to him that Okada is only using him to regain his power. Sanada still believes he can save Matsunaga and orders him to bed rest, but Matsunaga is determined to confront Okada if it’s the last thing he does.
As I said in my “What’s on TCM: August 2012” post, Toshiro Mifune day was one of the days I was most looking forward to because I have seen very few Akira Kurosawa films. Drunken Angel certainly piqued my interest in seeing more of his movies. It offers a very raw and gritty look at post-World War II Japan, but it’s beautifully shot and has a lot of heart and a sense of hope. This movie came fairly early in Kurosawa’s career and you can absolutely tell that he was on the way to becoming a truly great filmmaker.
Drunken Angel is very significant for being the first of sixteen collaborations between Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. I was quite surprised to realize that this was only Mifune’s fourth film, because based on his performance, you’d think he’d been acting for years. In fact, the character of Matsunaga was originally written as a supporting character, but Kurosawa was so impressed with Mifune that the part was re-written to be much more significant. Mifune had absolutely no problems keeping up with the much more experienced Takashi Shimura, who was also excellent in it.
Even though I’m still pretty new to Kurosawa, I can safely say that Drunken Angel is no Rashomon or Yojimbo, but it’s absolutely worth seeing. It’s very interesting to see the beginning of such a legendary collaboration.