Drunken Angels tells the tale of an alcoholic physician (Takashi Shimura) and his unlikely, and often strained, friendship with a young mid-level Yakuza member (Toshiro Mifune). The gangster, Matsunaga, is quickly diagnosed with tuberculosis, which not only gives the film an immediate atmosphere of death and dying, but also gives it one of its funniest moments, in which a drunken Dr. Shanada violently scolds Matsunaga for having a drink while clamoring for one himself. While hardly a comedy, I found that moment summed up Drunken Angels quite well – it is full of this mournful irony that traps its characters and keeps them spinning in circles.
Aiding this feel is director Akira Kurosawa’s command of atmosphere and mood. He juxtaposes a recurring, melancholic guitar motif with striking imagery of the guitar player small against a backdrop of decrepit architecture, and a foreground of a waste-filled pond. Kurosawa’s Tokyo is poisoned and dying – poisoned by World War II and the subsequent Occupation by the U.S., and poisoned by the leeching Yakuza. The core relationship of the film, then, contrasts nicely with this dying landscape, full of human connection and true empathy on the part of Dr. Shanada, as we watch him – a tremendous performance by Shimura – strive and strive in all the wrong ways to break through to Matsunaga. Mifune is an absolute force of nature, and despite Kurosawa’s striking images, it is this central interplay that truly drives the picture.
Fans of film noir will find the genre’s fingerprints all over Drunken Angel, not least in Mifune’s increasingly gaunt face, its dark alleyways, and backroom gangster chatter. The true stroke of brilliance, however, is the way Kurosawa makes us feel that success, triumph, and escape are always just around the corner, at every corner. Throw in a knife fight that matches Eastern Promises‘ infamous sequence in terms of its sheer desperation between characters, and you have a film that solidifies Kurosawa as a force to be reckoned with. I’d call this essential, both because it is the first of 16 Kurosawa-Mifune films, and because it is perhaps the first example of the director achieving greatness.