Top Fifty Films of the 40s — Number Twenty

20 drunken

#20 — Drunken Angel (Akira Kurosawa, 1948)

One of film history’s most amazing partnerships between director and actor begins here. Akira Kurosawa cast Toshiro Mifune sixteen times over a span of fewer than twenty years, making the actor feel like the great director’s manifestation of self on screen, in much the same way that Martin Scorsese once admitted he cast Robert De Niro repeatedly in the parts he himself would like to play (presumably Leonardo DiCaprio has fulfilled much the same role in recent years). It could, however, be even simpler than that. Drunken Angel so fully takes advantage of Mifune’s colossal charisma that it’s not hard to imagine Kurosawa studying the film right down to individual frames and deciding he had stumbled upon a rare force of nature who would endless reward anyone wise enough to train the camera on him.

Unlike Kurosawa’s famed samurai epics, Drunken Angel is basically a contemporary affair. The film takes place shortly after the war, as a low-level gangster (Mifune) seeks emergency treatment from a boozy doctor (Takashi Shimura) following a gun battle. Besides attending to the immediate wound, the doctor determines the thug has contracted tuberculosis, setting up an enduring, uneasy relationship as continuing treatment takes place. There are further complications, of course, involving returning threats and women under duress, but the bulk of the film’s conflict arises between the two men at its center, engaged in verbal skirmishes about how to live life. Their interactions are often barbed, sometimes strangely affectionate and admiring. Throughout the film, the heavy drama that bubbles up is always grounded by the tenuous bond between that twosome, which Kurosawa presents with intuitive cunning.

It’s fascinating enough to consider the film as the beginning of a key cinematic partnership or as an early entry in one of the storied directorial careers in the history of the medium (it was Kurosawa’s seventh film and he’s only been directing for about five years). One of the most striking elements of Drunken Angel is its edgy, oblique reflection of Japan in the immediate post-War years. Kurosawa managed to slip in sly references to topics that were effectively forbidden the censorship board in place at the time, especially regarding U.S. occupation of the defeated nation. Even without a bookish understanding of every detail Kurosawa sneakily introduces into the film, there’s a quivering energy of mischievous accomplishment that’s ever-present. Some of that can certainly be attributed to the spark of claimed freedom, but it’s tempting to see it as something more, something that speaks to a context formulated by all that would come in the future. Maybe it’s the splendid friction of genius emerging.