Upon its release in 1948, Drunken Angel
was hailed in Japan as Akira Kurosawa's directorial breakthrough, comparable to Kubrick's Paths of Glory
in the way it catapulted Kurosawa into a higher level of artistic achievement. Kurosawa himself noted, "In this picture I was finally myself. It was my
picture. I was doing it and nobody else."
It is indeed an important, vital film, confidently conceived and expertly executed, illuminating themes that would dominate the finest films in Kurosawa's exceptional career. The setting is a rancid, jerry-built section of a postwar city, where a filthy, disease-ridden pond functions as a physical threat and also as the film's central symbol of decay. It's in this hardscrabble environment that a brash young gangster (Toshiro Mifune, in the role that made him a star) visits an alcoholic doctor (Takashi Shimura) to have a bullet removed from his hand. The doctor discovers that the hot-tempered thug is also doomed by tuberculosis, seen here as the physical manifestation of the gangster's moral decay. The doctor is himself diseased by his drinking, and as these clashing men struggle to make some kind of difference in their pathetic lives (spurned by the return from prison of a ruthless yakuza boss), Kurosawa makes unlikely heroes of them both--men who undergo a personal transformation in a vile and violent world.
Drunken Angel is a transitional film for Japanese cinema and especially for Kurosawa; it offers a vivid glimpse of postwar life (both rotten and restoring), and signals the full blossoming of Kurosawa's talent. And while the title role belongs to Shimura (so memorably poignant in Kurosawa's later masterpiece, Ikiru), the film belongs to the forceful presence of Mifune, whose vitality touches nearly every scene of this timeless and powerful drama. --Jeff Shannon