October 1, 2008

Drunken Angel (1948 film)

Directed by Akira Kurosawa. Written by Keinosuke Uegusa and Akira Kurosawa.

In a postwar ghetto on the edge of a disease-ridden cesspool, the lives of two men change when a criminal pays a visit to a doctor.

Toshiro Mifune is the criminal, Matsunaga. A Yakuza thug accustomed to people bowing in his presence and letting him slide by with treats on the house, he doesn't know how to deal with a diagnosis of tuberculosis in a world where any sign of weakness leaves your peers with the feeling that your position is now up for grabs.

Takashi Shimura is the doctor, Sanada. An alcoholic with a hot temper and a biting tongue, he can't help but become passionately involved in the lives of his patients, even those he deems unworthy of his skills.

The plot is primarily a clash of egos between these two self-loathing yet stubborn men who refuse to budge from their positions on how best to treat Matsunaga's condition. And the two actors, both in the first of many lead roles with Kurosawa (though Shimura did have smaller parts in earlier productions), are more than up to the confrontation, capturing not only the disparate personalities, but the separation of classes in a town where the only people with wealth are those in the criminal underground.

Just as the two seem on the verge of a breakthrough, the plot takes a sudden shift when an old crime lord, Okada, returns from a stay in prison and tries to reclaim his territory from Matsunaga and recover his old flame from her current position as Sanada's nurse. While it's a little contrived to give him such close ties to both men, Kurosawa somehow makes it work by keeping Okada's hijacking of the situation quiet and gradual, slowly sinking into the town like the disease of the infested pond.

While it's a tad heavy-handed and drawn out at times, this is a solid film which perfectly brings to life a Yakuza controlled ghetto where people do whatever they have to in order to scrape by. The performances from the two leads are stunning and it's no surprise both would go on to long, healthy careers. And there's so many wonderful little touches of Kurosawa's skill, like the continued image of the bubbling pond, or a brutal knife-fight where the two opponents slip through spilled paint, or the introduction of a major character through a guitar serenade.

It's not without flaws, but well worth a watch.

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