Drunken Angel poses the question, How do we choose to live? Dr. Sanada (Takashi Shimura), a drunk who has made some poor choices, has chosen brusque hope over despair. Matsunaga (Toshiro Mifune) is a tough, handsome yakuza making his choices, too, and it turns out he is afraid of hope.
Sanada, a rough-tongued drunk, is a doctor whose patients are as poor as the Tokyo slum they all live in. He tries as best he can to deal with tuberculosis, which is insidious and deadly. A 17-year-old schoolgirl just may survive because of him. When Matsunaga shows up at Sanada's tiny office with a bullet wound in his hand, Sanada fixes him up and immediately suspects Matsunaga has tuberculosis. That's not a good thing for a yakuza, especially a man like Matsunaga.
"That girl who just left has more guts than you'll ever have," Sanada shouts at Matsunaga. "She's looking her illness straight in the eye. You don't have a fraction of her guts. You're still scared of the dark."
It gets worse. Sanada eventually persuades Matsunaga to begin treatment. When Matsunaga's old gang boss, a vindictive and cruel man, gets out of prison and takes over again, Matsunaga is drawn back to his earlier choices. As Matsunaga's illness worsens, he's isolated and humiliated, yet the relationship deepens between the young, sick yakuza and the older, wiser doctor.
What does Sanada see in the tough, violent and frightened-of-death Matsunaga...a son there never was?...himself making mistakes when he was younger?...a vulnerable human being who, whatever his crimes and attitudes, requires help?...or just a man he might somehow convince to fight against the odds?
"It's not just his lungs that are bad," says Sanada. "It's like he's sick to the core. He acts tough and swaggers around, but in his heart I know he's unbearably lonely. He still has a conscience tormenting him. His heart hasn't frozen over with evil just yet."
Sanada is a man who refuses to live life without hope. He can become angry when others try to. Well, Kurosawa is nothing if he isn't a director who deals with big themes. There's quite a bit of emotion that Kurosawa draws forth, and he's fortunate in having two fine actors with whom to demonstrate those themes. Takashi Shimura is the heart of the movie. Toshiro Mifune, looking thin, provides the soul that Shimura's Dr. Sanada is fighting for. Drunken Angel, for all the existential humanism (as one critic pompously characterized the movie), ends on a hopeful note: That 17-year-old schoolgirl, a wager won and a piece of candy.
No director always scores 100 per cent with their movies. Kurosawa is no exception. Drunken Angel is heavy handed with symbolism. The opening music announces with a dirge that this is a serious drama with a capital "S." There are frequent cutaways to close-ups of scum-filled puddles when Kurosawa wants to emphasize a point. There's a nighttime guitar player. For those who may know little of Kurosawa, the English title, “Drunken Angel," sounds like it might be a Thirties MGM melodrama with Joan Crawford. Still, Drunken Angel is a movie worth seeing. I doubt you'll be unmoved by it.
The Criterion release looks very good. I didn't listen to the commentary, but it's by Donald Richie, the highly respected scholar of Japanese film. There are two extras about Kurosawa.
To see Takashi Shimura at his very best, watch him in Ikiru.