This 1948 film from Akira Kurosawa was, according to the filmmaker, the work in which he found his style. Since Drunken Angel—which also marked Kurosawa’s meeting with Toshirô Mifune—is the earliest of the director’s films I’ve seen, I can’t offer an opinion on his claim. I can, however, say that this heavily symbolic gangster drama is very much in his style. The striking compositions, optical-wipe scene transitions, the strong characters, the sense of humanity (often hidden behind a gruff facade) are all there. What’s perhaps most fascinating about seeing them here is that it’s also possible to see the heavy influence of Josef von Sternberg and Hollywood movies on Kurosawa in sharper relief—before such elements were more assimilated. That’s all the more interesting when you consider the film’s post-war theme of the Americanization of Japan.
The drunken angel of the title is a genially abrupt, hard-drinking doctor (Takashi Shimura) who works in a rundown, crime-ridden district that appears to be centered on a festering swamp that breeds disease and mosquitos (the symbolism is not exactly subtle). The story begins with the doctor treating a wounded gangster (Mifune), who turns out to also have tuberculosis—a diagnosis that makes the gangster violent. Neither doctor nor patient can quite come to terms with the other, nor can they bring themselves to give up on each other. Much of the film focuses on this strange relationship, which serves to make accessibly human the bigger aspect of Kurosawa’s story of post-war Japan coming to terms with itself. Brilliant filmmaking that remains powerful and moving today.