So many of Akira Kurosawa’s films are morality plays — Rashomon about the limits of perspective, Throne of Blood about vaulting ambition, Seven Samurai about duty — and Drunken Angel, his 1948 film about a sick yakuza thug and his drunken doting doctor, is no different. This post-war effort is bitter but never boring, and Kurosawa gets plenty of dynamic mileage out of his two leads Matsunaga (Toshiro Mifune) and his doctor Sanada (Takashi Shimura). These two men antagonize each other through tussles, insults, and thrown medical supplies, and that’s because of toxic masculinity, sure, but it’s also because they represent conflicting approaches toward Japanese society in the aftermath of World War II. Doctors heal and rebuild that society, whereas the yakuza prey upon and pollute it. And while that’s a compelling tension to watch — especially in 2018 America as a kleptocratic government does everything it can to strangle the natural environment and remove rational thought from national discourse — it’s the filmmaking methods Kurosawa uses to tell his story that make it a gem in his filmography.
The setting is post-war Tokyo, and the neighborhood river is polluted sludge. The people are impoverished, often sick, and live under the heel of the yakuza’s crime bosses. To top it all off, the heat is oppressive, and the mosquitos are everywhere. Kurosawa fills his frames with images that underscore this: Matsunaga the neighborhood boss takes freebies from shops as he pleases, toys and other refuse float in gross water, diseases like tuberculosis afflict children and adults alike, and men drown their sorrows in alcohol. Booze is everywhere, and both the noble-but-flawed Dr. Sanada abuses it as much as Matsunaga. Sanada chides Matsunaga for drinking after his tuberculosis diagnosis, but Sanada himself can’t hold it together, getting loaded several times throughout the film’s runtime and admitting to his nurse Miyo (Chieko Nakakita) that he used to go just as hard as Matsunaga when he was a younger man. Being a doctor isn’t easy, and the guilt of losing patients weighs on him. In one of the movie’s best lines, he stares down the scummy yakuza boss Okada (Reisaburo Yamamoto), and declares, “I’ve killed more people than you.”
The chaotic bond between Mifune and Shimura drives the movie the same way the onscreen bond between Matt Damon and Robin Williams drove Good Will Hunting nearly fifty years later. Boozing, self-destructive Sanada sees shades of his younger self in the boozing, self-destructive Matsunaga. Every time they try to understand each other, either through Sanada’s medical advice or through Matsunaga’s harping about the yakuza honor code, they get into a physical altercation. Nonetheless, Sanada treats his patient to the best of his ability whenever he can, and Matsunaga develops a real respect for Sanada the more he realizes that the doctor’s assessments are accurate.
Mifune really shines as Matsunaga, by the way. He was barely 28 when Drunken Angel premiered, and this was his first movie with Kurosawa, a partnership that would span two decades and some of the most memorable starring roles of all time. Mifune gives Matsunaga a moody stubbornness throughout, whether he’s brooding or fighting with his rival Okada or channeling the shock of coughing up blood. Kurosawa once talked about meeting Mifune: “I am a person rarely impressed by actors,” he said. “But in the case of Mifune I was completely overwhelmed.”
Despite Mifune’s intensity though, Shimura’s Dr. Sanada gets to be Drunken Angel‘s conscience. “Japanese make so many pointless sacrifices,” he tells Miyo bitterly, and in the end, Matsunaga proves his point. Sanada guides one patient to recovery and nearly saves another, but he can’t clean up a toxic river on his own. In his own words, he can’t “sterilize this contaminated town.” That remains true at the end of the movie, but all Sanada can do is keep on living and keep on taking his wins as he gets them. Cold comfort, perhaps, but it’s all any of us has.