The 1948 Japanese film, Drunken Angel, tells the story of two seemingly different men living in a burned-out neighborhood in postwar Tokyo.
Sanada (Takashi Shimura) is an aging and world-weary doctor. Though he may drink too much and he is occasionally too quick to snap at his patients, he truly cares about the people who live near his clinic. He worries about the spread of tuberculosis, which was a very real concern in postwar Japan and which remains a concern to this day. He continually tells his patients that they need to stop drinking and take better care of themselves, even though he does not seem to be capable of taking his own advice.
Matsunaga (Toshiro Mifune) is a young Japanese gangster, a member of the yakuza. Matsunaga does everything with a swagger, one that he appears to have largely adapted from Hollywood gangster movies. He not only dresses like an idealized version of an American gangster but he also smokes his cigarettes like one. Everything about Matsunaga gives the impression that he’s desperate to prove that he’s something more than just a small-time hood living in a bombed-out neighborhood that’s centered around a poisonous bog.
One night, Matsunaga shows up at Sanada’s clinic. He’s got a bloody hole in his hand. Mastunaga claims that he walked into a door. When Sanada responds with skepticism, Matsunaga adds that the door had a nail sticking out of it. Sanada may not believe Matsunaga but he’s a doctor so he treats Matsunaga’s wound. Sanada also diagnosis Matsunaga as suffering from tuberculosis and tells him that he has to stop drinking and womanizing. Needless to say, Matsunaga is not pleased with this diagnosis.
Though they start out as antagonists, a weary friendship grows between the doctor and the gangster. Matsunaga even starts to follow the doctor’s advice or, at least, he does until his boss, Okada (Reisaburo Yamamoto), is released from prison. Under Okada’s influence, Matsunaga falls back into his own habits, drinking and going to nightclubs where the musicians perform Americanized music. Okada is also the ex-boyfriend of Sanada’s nurse and, when he threatens to murder Sanada unless the doctor lead him to her, Matsunaga is finally forced to decide which of his two potential mentors will have his loyalty.
Taken on its own, Drunken Angel is an entertaining gangster film that features two memorable lead performances. Takashi Shimura is likable as Sanada while Toshiro Mifune is dangerously charismatic as Matsunaga. Director Akira Kurosawa originally planned for the film to focus solely on Sanada, with Matsunaga only playing a minor role. Mifune, however, so impressed him that he ended up expanding Matsunaga’s role until Mifune was eventually the film’s co-lead. (Following Drunken Angel, Kurosawa would go on to make 15 other films with Mifune.) Kurosawa keeps the action moving at an exciting pace and he frames the story with haunting images of the dilapidated neighborhood that the two men call home.
However, Drunken Angel is even more fascinated with one consider that it was made at a time when Japan, having been defeated in World War II and still traumatized by the nuclear attacks on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, was still occupied by American forces. The film was made at a time when it was still very much an open question as to what role Japan would play in a postwar world. Would Japan become dominated by American culture (which, in this film, is represented by gangsters like Okada) or would it remain true to itself? When Sanada warns Matsunaga that he is surrounded by toxic germs that are making him ill and threatening his future, he could very well have been talking about what Kurosawa perceived as being the threat of Americans transforming Japan into a westernized playground.
In the end, it’s a film that works on many levels, as a gangster film, as a portrait of a friendship, and as a metaphor for a people and a culture trying to find their place in a new and imperfect world. If you haven’t seen it yet, now is the perfect time to do so.