Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Produced by Sōjirō Motoki
Written by Akira Kurosawa and Keinosuke Uegusa.
Cast: Michiyo Kogure, Reisaburô Yamamoto, Toshirō Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Chieko Nakakita, Noriko Sengoku, Shizuko Kasagi, Eitarô Shindô, Masao Shimizu, Taiji Tonoyama, Yoshiko Kuga, and Chôko Iida
An alcoholic and brash aging doctor tries to save a hardened Yakuza member from a fatal case of tuberculosis.
One of Kurosawa’s earliest features, Drunken Angel is a landmark in Kurosawa’s career since it was the first time Toshiro Mifune and Kurosawa would work together. Toshiro Mifune would go on to become the most iconic star from all of Kurosawa’s films.
Drunken Angel is early in Mifune’s career, yet his acting is no less refined compared to his later roles. Mifune brings a stunning humanity to an otherwise utterly vulgar man. Mifune’s performance borders on overacting, nonetheless, Mifune’s top-notch acting keeps the character always authentic, not hammy. Any lesser actor would probably render the character less than authentic. Mifune’s portrayal of Matsunaga feels like an odd impression of Dr. Jekyll strangely enough once his health doesn’t improve. I say that’s because of the dark gazing eyes and Matsunaga’s face rapidly gaining a corpse-like look; Matsunaga’s gestures become more corpse-like as well. In a certain sense, the story is about Matsunaga trying to escape from his sad fate. Perfectly visualized in a dream sequence where Matsunaga is chased by a deformed version of himself arisen from a coffin in the middle of a beach. You don’t expect someone like Matsunaga can be an object of pity yet Mifune’s acting easily achieves this. Mifune’s co-star Takashi Shimura another famous actor from Kurosawa’s roster is great too here. Doctor Sanada is an effective ”voice of reason” with a great insight into humanity. Sanada’s flaws keep him more of an empathetic figure, rather than a preachy one.
Drunken Angel is a grim story, and it doesn’t hide this grimness. The town that the story takes place is near the site of a large dirty marsh. The marsh overlooks the edge of the town, and it’s repeatedly returned to. The marsh even bookends the whole story. So not even the shrewdest viewer will know the marsh isn’t just a marsh, it’s a metaphor for the themes of Drunken Angel. It’s a metaphor for Matsunaga’s deteriorating health condition, and the dire state of the town is in. The creeping influence of the Yakuza and the US occupation keeping the town in such a state. Drunken Angel is a film noir in design. But, thematically, it’s closer to a morality play. It’s clear from the onset, Matsunaga’s life is a tragedy in the making. Since from the moment, we see that Matsunaga is a man blinded by his arrogance to change his ways. Although Drunken Angel is a grinding affair from start to finish, the Matsunaga’s tragedy evokes a strong sense of poignancy. This pessimism jumpstarts even more once Okada enters the picture. Okada’s introduction is meta-like as he literally changes the movie’s tune. Okada is a despicable figure, but he comes to represent the past that Matsunaga can’t escape from.
Matsunaga’s tragedy isn’t totally devoid of hope. There are glimmering instances of it that Matsunaga chooses to ignore which probably epitomizes his destructive lifestyle in general. Most of the supporting cast furthers the central tragedy well. When the tale ends, you’re left with a clear and moral message. Matsunaga is a man trying to live in a bygone era in a world which has no regard for the ideals that Matsunaga wants to live by. On the surface level, it’s a diatribe against the Yakuza or just bad life decisions. However, viewed more carefully, Matsunaga’s tale is a harsh wake-up call for post-war Japan to escape from its destructive lifestyle.