A Month of Kurosawa: Drunken Angel (1948)

To celebrate the upcoming release of my book, Akira Kurosawa: A Viewer’s Guide, due out Dec. 15 from Rowman & Littlefield — preorder here! — I’ll be doing capsule reviews all month covering every single Kurosawa film and posting (very) brief excerpts. These will be short impressions and recommendations, nothing more. For a full, detailed analysis of each, grab the book!

Drunken Angel (1948)

Here’s a recipe for movie magic: Put Toshiro Mifune on screen. Pair him with Takashi Shimura. And have Akira Kurosawa direct them.

Still a no-name actor, this was Mifune’s first of many roles for Kurosawa, and he came out of the gate strong. The always reliable Shimura was supposed to be the lead here, but Mifune steals so many scenes it ends up being his picture just as much as it is Shimura’s.

Drunken Angel tells the story of a troubled (and alcoholic) doctor who treats patients in the slums of post-war Japan. When he encounters a gangster stricken with tuberculosis, he finds himself getting deeply invested in this criminal’s good health, in no small part because he sees himself in the young man. But can Shimura save Mifune from himself?

From the book:

This fear of inner weakness, compounded by an even greater fear of facing that weakness, is a common theme in the director’s work, seen both overtly (Ikiru) and subtly (Seven Samurai). Here, it manifests itself in the unsteady relationship between the two leads. At one point, Sanada accuses Matsunaga of hiding his fears and then confusing that for courage. It’s a small line, perhaps, one easily forgotten in the murk of Drunken Angel’s postwar Japan and the compelling interplay between Mifune and Shimura, but it’s a sentiment worth zeroing in on because it’s reflective of an idea that runs throughout Kurosawa’s filmography. Courage is not charging headlong into battle. Courage is never about being fearless. Real people fear pain and death. Real warriors know each fight may be their last. Real heroes understand that heroism is laced with sacrifice, and those sacrifices can often loom large. The classic image of bravery is as foolish as false bravado. Real bravery is being in fear but acting anyway.

Critics differ on what Kurosawa’s first true masterpiece was, with Stray Dog or Rashomon the most common answers, but Drunken Angel at the very least deserves to be in the conversation. It’s a gripping, emotionally moving drama with some powerful performances and a crushingly nihilistic view of life in poverty. It’s the first film where Kurosawa is truly firing on all cylinders, helped along by his two greatest leads.

From here forward, we enter a period where you’ll see me use the word “essential” pretty often. For ANY fan of Kurosawa’s movies, even just casual fans, Drunken Angel is 100% essential viewing. And I’ll take it a step further: even if you aren’t a Kurosawa Fan with a capital K and F, Drunken Angel is a worthy watch. It’s also on the short list of movies to show people to convince them that Kurosawa was not all about samurai and swords.

Check out my upcoming book for a full analysis exploring this film’s greatness.

You can get the movie in this excellent Criterion Collection release.