by Peter Truax
Akira Kurosawa’s 1948 film, Drunken Angel, is the eighth film by the Japanese director, and features two long-time Kurosawa collaborators: Takashi Shimura and Toshirô Mifune, the latter at the beginning of his work with the director. Set in post-war Japan, the film explores the relationship between wrongdoing and redemption from the point of view of its two main characters. A classic noir, Drunken Angel is a film about gangsters, dames, and mortality.
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Producer: Sôjirô Motoki
Writers: Keinosuke Uekusa, Akira Kurosawa
Cinematographer: Takeo Itô
Editor: Akikazu Kôno
Music: Fumio Hayasaka
Cast: Takashi Shimura, Toshirô Mifune, Reisaburô Yamamoto, Michiyo Kogure, Chieko Nakakita
Premiere: April 27, 1948 – Japan
US Theatrical Release: December 30, 1959
US Distributor: Janus Films
Shimura plays Sanada, a protective and overly concerned doctor, ministering to Matsunaga (Mifune), a Yakuza hood who is informed he is infected with tuberculosis. The disease serves as a foil for the lifestyle Matsunaga leads, drinking and womanizing and living without concern for his wellbeing. As Sanada treats Matsunaga’s disease, his moralizing arguments towards the man serve to treat his habits. Sanada is motivated by his own past, a life wasted on alcohol and women that kept him from a life of prestige and wealth. He finds cold comfort in his obsessions over the wellbeing of his patients, but that too takes its toll as he turns to drink when disappointed by actions outside his control.
Sanada and Matsunaga trade blows and barbs over the life Matsunaga leads. Even though he rebels, notably exclaiming “its my life to live or die” when drunkenly confronting the doctor, his actions betray his words as doubts about his invincibility creep into his mind.
The unabashed villain of the film is Okada (Reisaburo Yamamoto), the gangster ex-convict who once ran Matsunaga’s territory. Between terrifying Sanada’s assistant Miyo (Chieko Nakakita), whom he had once given syphilis, and stealing Matsunaga’s girlfriend Nanae (Michiyo Kogure), Okada comes across as the film's embodiment of evil. Even the scene where he is identified by his favorite song that he strums on a guitar— Sanada’s assistant calls it “The Killer’s Anthem”—foreshadows him as a harbinger of doom.
Prominently featured in the film is the metaphor of corruption and decay that the local cesspool represents. Frequently, Kurosawa focuses both the camera and the characters on a local swamp. Most poignant is the scene in which Matsunaga, torn by the knowledge his Yakuza ways will only hasten his end, takes a flower from a street vendor and smells it wistfully, its perfume overriding the stench of the swamp. This brief enlightenment ends only too soon as Okada, seen at first only as a looming shadow, comes to Matsunaga to draw him back into self-destruction.
The film’s climax comes as Okada comes searching for his former amour, Sanada’s assistant Miyo. The by-the-books Sanada prepares to go to the police, while Matsunaga tries to intervene within the Yakuza, only to discover that Okada has pushed him out, and a deadly confrontation ensues.
A compelling treatment of contemporary noir, this is a genre Kurosawa is less known for in the West—his Samurai films are perhaps his most well remembered. Still, Kurosawa excels at delivering both a heart wrenching moral picture of a man unable to escape his surroundings, and a compellingly beautiful piece of art, rich with visual metaphors of the seedy, broken-down side of post-war Japan. Mifune and Shimura deliver emotive, robust performances that plainly communicate the inner turmoil of both men.