Drunken Angel is one of the most important of Kurosawa's films for several reasons. It was the first film that Kurosawa had complete control over. From start to finish, Kurosawa, not the studio, was calling the shots.
It was the first film that Kurosawa would work with film composer Fumio Hayasaka. Hayasaka would work on all of Kurosawa's next films, until his death in 1955.
Perhaps most important of all, this was the first Kurosawa film to feature Toshiro Mifune.
Toshiro Mifune is arguably Japan's most famous actor if not of all time then certainly of the period between 1950-1980.
It is somewhat ironic that Mifune would come to be Japan's most well known and respected actors, given he never wanted to be an actor in the first place, and he didn't set foot on Japanese soil until he was 19.
Mifune was born in Qingdao, China in April of 1920. His Japanese parents lived in the Japanese occupied town of Dalian, making Mifune a Japanese citizen. He worked in his father's photography shop until he was drafted into the Japanese military.
Because he had experience working with photography equipment, Mifune was given the job of an aerial photographer.
When Mifune got out of the army, a friend who worked at Toho told him he would get Mifune a job as a cameraman.
Somehow Mifune found ended up auditioning for a job as an actor (again, a job Toho was desperately looking to fill).
In the audition the potential actors drew cards with different emotions written on them that the actors were to act out.
Mifune pulled anger.
Kurosawa details in his autobiography his experience with seeing Mifune's audition. When Kurosawa entered the room where Mifune's audition was taking place, he saw Mifune reeling around the room.
When Mifune sat down in the chair before the judges, he kept a very stern look on his face. The judges took this to be a sign of disrespect.
Mifune was hired nonetheless. There is a bit of mystery surrounding why he was hired. Kurosawa claims that his mentor and head of the judging panel, Kajiro Yamamoto stood up and took responsibility for Mifune. Mifune himself, in an interview for a Japanese television show he did in the 1980s, said that he knew nothing about that.
For Mifune's first few films he was type-cast as a gangster, a role Kurosawa would soon break for him, but not with Drunken Angel.
Drunken Angel is the second film that Kurosawa wrote with Keinosuke Uekusa.
The film revolves around a doctor and gang member who live in a run-down Japanese town.
Kurosawa and Uekusa initially had trouble writing the film because their doctor was too perfect. When they came up with the idea for the doctor to be an alcoholic, suddently the story began to flow.
The Yakuza gangster Matsunaga, played by Toshiro Mifune, seeks out the help of the town's cynical alcoholic physician.
Doctor Sanada, played by Takashi Shimura, first removes a bullet from the hand of Matsunaga, before testing him for TB. Sanada suspects that Matsunaga is infected, but despite his unsympathetic attitude toward gangsters, he urges him to get an X-ray.
Matsunaga, an alcoholic himself, eventually gets the X-ray and his TB is confirmed. Just when he is beginning to start his treatment, the man who once held Matsunaga's position within the Yakuza returns from prison.
Okada begins to seize power again by stealing Matsunaga's territory and his girl. He also begins to threaten the doctor, asking him to return the doctor's nurse who was formally under Okada's control.
Matsunaga, seeking to protect the doctor and nurse who had been looking out for him, goes to Okada to confront him. A fight ensues and Matsunaga is killed.
A major part of the town, and an important element to the film, is the swamp at the center of the town.
The characters in the film are frequently shown walking around it, staring into it, or throwing something into it. This swamp becomes both a literal and metophorical reflection of both the characters and the town itself.
Matsunaga twice goes to the swamp, first after he initially gives up drinking in order to rid himself of his TB. He carries with him a flower, a sign of life, that he then casts into the putrid water when Okada finds him and tells him to have a drink with him.
The second time he returns he is staring into the water, looking at a child's doll lying face down in the water. Matsunaga himself has almost been completely destroyed by his disease. The imagery here is not so subtle. Matsunaga sees himself in the doll.
This is where a particularly rare and interesting sequence begins. Matsunaga has a dream. In a sequence similar to that of Kurosawa's 1980 film Kagemusha, Matsunaga runs to a beached coffin and begins to cut it open with an axe. When he opens it he finds himself. The Matsunaga in the coffin begins to chase him down the beach.
Death is coming for him, not only in his dreams, but in real life as well, as Matsunaga is quickly succumbing to his disease.
Like One Wonderful Sunday, Drunken Angel contains elements both critical of the West, and favoring it (possibly only to appease the occupation censors).
This town is an example of what has become of the poor in Japan after the war. The town is run by gangsters. These gangters wear Western clothing, listen to Western music in their Western cabaret's, and they even talk like Westerners.
The newly freed Okada perfectly reflects the changes in society from pre-war to post-war Japan. When we first see him, he is wearing traditional Japanese clothing.
"Things have certainly changed around here," he says to a guitar player who frequently plays near the swamp.
When we next see him he is dressed in Western clothing, and almost instantaniously transforms himself into a modern Japanese gangster.
Despite this negative attitude about what a Western influence has done to Japan, Kurosawa includes pro-American sentiments sparatically throughout the film.
The most obvious of these moments is when Doctor Sanada is confronted by Okada. Sanada tells him his feudalistic ways won't fly anymore, and asks if he has ever heard of something called equality.
Like One Wonderful Sunday, Kurosawa attempts an experiment in this film. Far from the risky experiment he tried in his previous film, this one Kurosawa would use in films for years to come, most notably in his next film, Stray Dog.
The experiment was a musical one called counterpoint. Normally in film music, the soundtrack will match whatever mood the scene is conjuring up visually. If it is a sad scene, there is sad music, if it is a happy one, there is happy music, and so on.
With counterpoint, Kurosawa and his composer Fumio Hayasaka went the opposite way. In a scene when Matsunaga is completely downtrodden, with no money or power, he walks along the busy streets of the "Happy Market" towards the city swamp.
All along the loudspeaker in the marketplace is playing "The Cuckoo Waltz". It is an incredibly happy song, one that only emphasizes Matsunaga's pain. The effect is incredibly successful, and is later repeated during the fight between Matsunaga and Okada.
Matsunaga's character is an interesting one. It would be easy for an audience member not to connect with this man who has all the ability to rid himself of his disease if he only kept with it. But because of Mifune's energetic and stimulating portrayel, one can't help but root for him despite his vices.
The same could be said of Doctor Sanada. Although he is, deep down, a good man, he is also very hypocritical. He often finds himself lecturing people about their health, when he himself is constantly drinking. He even goes so far as to dilute the alcohol that he uses on his patients.
Finally, Kurosawa ends the film as he does with many, with that bit of humanist optimism. A TB infected teenage girl who was seen by the doctor at the beginning of the film has returned to report that she has been cured.
Kurosawa shows us that there is hope, and not everyone turns out like Matsunaga. The doctor sums this up perfectly when, after the girl repeats what the doctor told her about approaching TB rationally.
"A rational approach is the best medicine for life," the doctor says.