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Review: Drunken Angel
4 out of 5 stars
Drunken Angel is one of dozens of collaborations between Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura, and one of many which was directed by Akira Kurosawa. The two actors have played nearly every possible, even contradictory, dynamic, from sempai-kohai (senior-junior) in Stray Dog and Seven Samurai, to somewhat antagonistic roles in Drunken Angel.
Dr. Sanada (Shimura) is the titular drunken angel. He is a competent doctor, despite being an alcoholic, who operates a clinic in a shabby Tokyo neighborhood, still in shambles in the aftermath of World War II. (The American Occupation forces censored films at the time, and banned the showing of bombed-out ruins. Nevertheless, Kurosawa succeeded in providing a sense of the seediness and desolation of post-war Tokyo.) Dr. Sanada is rough around the edges, screaming at children not to play in the stagnant cesspit in the neighborhood and admonishing passers-by for their unhealthy habits. But we see that he clearly cares about his patients in his treatment toward a 17-year-old schoolgirl who is recovering from tuberculosis.
The story begins when a two-bit yakuza gangster, Matsunaga (Mifune), finds his way to Dr. Sanada's clinic after a gun fight. While treating Matsunaga, Dr. Sanada suspects the yakuza has tuberculosis. Dr. Sanada insists he can cure Matsunaga, but it will take strict discipline on the latter's part.
Mifune fits the role of the down-and-out gangster perfectly. The young actor's face is intensely brooding, but sallow (the result of hardships during the war). Mifune was sometimes accused of overacting by Western critics who only knew his work through Seven Samurai and Yojimbo. His performance here provides a stark contrast to the comical, drunken buffoon he played in Seven Samurai. Mifune's is a fully realized character. Like many life-long lowlifes, his commitment to changing his ways, even in the face of death, is wishy-washy. The audience can see that he's not all bad, and we hope he can change his ways before it's too late.
Watching Drunken Angel, I am reminded of another Kurosawa-Shimura collaboration, Ikiru, which was also about a man facing imminent death. But in Ikiru, Shimura's character makes drastic changes to give meaning to his thus-far wasted life. In Drunken Angel, Mifune's character denies his illness and resists change.
The soundtrack was especially notable. Rather than having a score, most of the music is ambient, coming from some unseen source, such a street performer playing the same tune on a Spanish guitar over and over, or a crackly waltz booming over a loud speaker giving ironic contrast to a dramatic scene. One particularly haunting moment was when the dreaded Okada turns up after being released from prison, takes the guitar from the street performer, and plays a suitably ominous tune.
Like many Kurosawa films, Drunken Angel is somewhat preachy, and the dialogue can be ham-handed at times, particularly when the characters make statements that are obvious to the viewer.
While Drunken Angel doesn't have the epic scope of Kurosawa's later samurai films, it is still a highly watchable, minor classic.