With this 1948 feature legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa made his first real mark on world cinema, his subsequent rise to fame coinciding with that of actor Toshiro Mifune, whom he used here for the first of 16 collaborations, a remarkable association that lasted the span of 17 years before a falling out after 1965’s Red Beard.
Drunken Angel is set in the bombed-out wasteland of a grimy corner of post-war Tokyo, dilapidated buildings surrounded by pools of muddy water where disease bubbles like dying fish. Nestled nearby is the office and home of Dr. Sanada (Takashi Shimura), a good man but a belligerent drunk, who tends to the children in the community and their fight against tuberculosis without any possibility of profit, a concept long ago dismissed.
A local hood, Matsunaga (Toshiro Mifune), is referred to him after taking a bullet to the hand but shows symptoms of TB as well, and Kurosawa’s interests in the first half of the film concentrate on their curiously combative relationship. Matsunaga rules the local district, strutting around with arrogance and an air of brash superiority but he’s reluctant to submit to treatment, believing himself invulnerable, and the pair spend a lot of time yelling and threatening one another with violent gestures.
Dr. Sanada feels a strange magnetic pull towards Matsunaga however – he admits to recognizing his younger self in the hoodlum, and with his helpless craving for booze leading his nose around he finds himself trawling in Matsunaga’s wake out of curiosity to see what makes him tick.
Two crucial factors conspire to alter the course of events: the release from jail of veteran crime boss Okada (Reisaburo Yamamoto), Matsunaga’s predecessor who will now be looking to reclaim his position, and the issue of Matsunaga’s deteriorating health which requires him to be bedridden at times, especially after ill-advised drinking sessions of his own, mostly when acceding to Okada’s demands to accompany him.
There’s a further complication in that Dr. Sanada’s nurse, Miyo (Chieko Nakakita), happens to be the former wife of Okada, and he soon becomes curious as to her whereabouts, leading to an inevitable showdown between the major players as their destinies intersect. Of course, it’s Matsunaga and Okada who’ll inevitably duel for control of the streets. But it’s a battle with the odds stacked heavily against the fading Matsunaga as he overhears the ruling figurehead’s plans to eliminate him in favour of Okada and his condition hampers him further.
Mifune may have been an inexperienced actor at the time but his charisma has a palpable force; he excels as Matsunaga, revealing the streak of vulnerability – beneath a soon-crumbling veneer of toughness – in a convincing manner. Shimura as the self-proclaimed ‘angel’ watching over the ailing Matsunaga, is equally brilliant, a wise and true man, handicapped all his life by his weaknesses for kindly intervention sure to damage his career, and a destructive thirst for alcohol.
The film’s major set-piece is truly worth waiting for – Okada suddenly looking his age in the harsh glare of confrontation, Matsunaga’s body withering by degrees before his eyes, only his pride feeding his pathetically desperate need to confront the older man in a duel for his life and a dignified exit from it.
It’s here that Kurosawa shines, producing an almost balletic sequence of astonishing power as the two stare into each other’s eyes, barely a word spoken. Conjuring images that are burnt into the brain forever, the director’s meticulously orchestrated and shot finale offers conclusive proof of a first masterpiece, and a hint of the genius to come.