DRUNKEN ANGEL is historically important for several reasons. Kurosawa himself considered it to be his first real film, the one in which he finally found his own style. DRUNKEN ANGEL can also be viewed as the second, and most successful, of a trilogy of films that vividly painted a picture of the harsh conditions of post-war occupied Japan, a trilogy that started with ONE WONDERFUL SUNDAY and ended with STRAY DOG Most importantly, DRUNKEN ANGEL is the first of sixteen Kurosawa films that would star Toshiro Mifune, who would go on to become Japan's most famous actor. It is also the first of several films that would pair Mifune with Takashi Shimura, thus treating Japanese and world audiences to a screen team comprised of two of the country's most talented thespians.
It is the performances of the two lead that will captivate today's audience. Shimura always did fine work in Kurosawa films (22 in all by my count), especially the early ones up to SEVEN SAMURAI, where he had meatier roles than in his later career with the director. As an alcoholic doctor in a shabby, waterlogged black-market town, Shimura gives one of his most energetic performances, quite different from his usual ones for Kurosawa, where he was often the calm eye at the center of the storm (STRAY DOG, SEVEN SAMURAI, RECORD OF A LIVING BEING. In DRUNKEN ANGEL, he is one half of the storm, the other half supplied by Toshiro Mifune in the role that first made the Japanese public take notice of him. As a smalltime gangster with tuberculosis, Mifune gives his first powerhouse star turn, one which many feel steals the film from its nominal star, Shimura. As a die hard Takashi Shimura defender, I find both performances equally compelling, with Shimura's more polished stage-trained talents playing against Mifune's instinctive "if it feels good, do it" approach to the art of scenery chewing. Throughout the film, the doctor attempts to convince the gangster to take his illness seriously or else he will die. The doctor brooks no nonsense, the gangster will hear no bad news, thus creating an agitated relationship, to say the least. Scene after scene ends with the pair coming to blows or throwing whatever is handy at each other, while yelling profanities. Both actors play the scenes for all they are worth. Despite a fifteen year age gap and different approaches to acting, the older Shimura and the younger Mifune always seemed to mesh well together in Kurosawa films, and in this film, they are equals in every way. *
Although Kurosawa will never be known as one of the great feminist directors, DRUNKEN ANGEL is very sympathetic toward its female figures. For example, the nurse, played by Chieko Nakakita from ONE WONDERFUL SUNDAY, is afraid when her own gangster husband (not the Mifune character) is released from prison. When the mobster comes to collect her, the doctor protects her and preaches equality between the sexes - probably the last time you will hear anything like that in a Kurosawa film!. Likewise, a local whore is the only person who truly mourns the loss of another gangster character, wishing to take his ashes to the country. Truly strong, memorable female characters would become rare in Kurosawa films with some telling exceptions - the wicked Lady Macbeth character in THRONE OF BLOOD, for example, or the androgynous warrior princess of HIDDEN FORTRESS. For the most part, Kurosawa's world was a world of men.
You might complain about what seems like a tacked-on happy ending, but it doesn't really hurt the film. Kurosawa would often end his films with some sort of mixed message of pessimistic optimism for the future, and the doctor linking arm and arm with his adorable "perfect patient" and strolling happily through the streets of Japan is in line with some of his other endings. If you look closely at the crowds as the pair ambles through the marketplace, they don't seem quite as happy, do they?
Long unseen except for horrible DVD versions from China, DRUNKEN ANGEL may disappoint some who have waited years, or even decades, to see it. It is no YOJIMBO, SEVEN SAMURAI or RAN. But in its own way, DRUNKEN ANGEL is both the best of Kurosawa's pre-RASHOMON films and a classic worthy of being included in any list of the director's best work. - JB
* NOTE: Shimura and Mifune
also had the
opportunity to work with each other on stage after filming DRUNKEN
ANGEL. As a way to raise funds for striking studio workers,
Kurosawa adapted DRUNKEN ANGEL's screenplay into a stage production
which toured Japan.