Akira Kurosawa often referred to Drunken Angel as the movie in which the Japanese director finally found his style, though this minor yet fascinating 1948 work might be more accurately described as the movie in which he found his actor, Toshirô Mifune. As Matsunaga, the brash Yakuza hothead who stumbles into Dr. Sanada’s (Takashi Shimura) office with a bullet lodged in his hand, Mifune doesn’t so much enter a scene as burst into it, embodying both the seething dynamism of Kurosawa’s cinematic approach and the frustrated anger of Japan in the years of post-WWII occupation. Mifune has the breakout role, but the angel of the title is Shimura’s grumbling slum physician, a splenetic humanitarian who savors his booze and, staring down a gang of criminals, declares that he’s “killed a lot more people than you.” Like Shimura’s dying-man-on-a-mission in Ikiru, Dr. Sanada is determined to leave his mark by reforming a piece of the world around him, namely the festering neighborhood pond that seems to bubble with disease. This decaying swamp is Kurosawa’s obvious but powerful metaphor for the country’s ailing state of affairs, where loudspeakers broadcast American pop tunes and the black market runs rampant; similarly, the tubercular Matsunaga hides his anxieties behind a flashy white suit and grunting swagger, even as his draining cough turns his face into a hollow Kabuki mask. No less than the young thug, the film is a febrile body prone to galvanic eruptions: Kurosawa’s early stylistic experimentations turn a nightclub stopover into a monstrous parody of an American jitterbug dance-off, and when blood gets finally spilled, it’s in a slip-and-slide Yakuza frenzy choreographed amid splattered paint. Drunken Angel’s censors-imposed optimistic ending prescribes “will power,” but Kurosawa knew that a nation’s healing doesn’t come so easily and went on to explore it more deeply in The Quiet Duel and Red Beard, with Mifune in tow.
Though less than pristine by Criterion’s standards (and burdened by a few persistent lines), the image here is a vast improvement from the often literally unwatchable VHS version of the movie. The soundtrack is stronger in background noise than voices, with some of its original cracks and hisses still present.
Donald Richie contributes another indispensable commentary, peppering his insightful comments on the film’s background with anecdotes about his visit to the set. Two first-rate featurettes are also included, a 31-minute passage from the documentary Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create which details Drunken Angel’s production, and "Kurosawa and the Censors," a brisk video piece on how the director found expression under the watch of postwar censors. The disc’s accompanying booklet features an astute essay by Ian Buruma and passages from Kurosawa’s engaging autobiography.
Country, heal thyself: Kurosawa’s feverish early gem is worth catching.