The story: A drunken doctor with a hot temper and a violence-prone gangster with tuberculosis form a quicksilver bond.
I am fascinated by the fact that Drunken Angel, in its title, refers to one of the two leading character directly, although it is not seen through said character’s perspective. Indeed, the ending reveals that he has ultimately failed to understand the heroic act of his “frenemy,” the gangster, whom he desperately tries to cure throughout the film. His viewpoint of the world, in fact, remains widely unchanged. This, perhaps, empowers the spectator, because he, unlike the doctor, has seen the final heroic gesture of the supposed villain.
It has been twelve hours since I finally watched Drunken Angel for the first time. I have not been able to stop thinking about it. Critics and historians widely regard this as Kurosawa’s first masterpiece. I would argue that at least one prior film, No Regrets for Our Youth, deserves such praise. Yet, I loved Drunken Angel especially.
The characters, for instance, are fascinatingly compelling in their fundamental imperfections. The doctor is a good man, but he is a hypocrite who, while trying to save those around him from disease, neglects to treat his own alcoholism. The gangster would be a near-perfect villain, physically and mentally, if it wasn’t for his tuberculosis, that eventually forces him to face up to the evil of his ways.
As I replay scenes of the film in my head, I return to two shots in particular.
One is of the gangster who picks up a flower from a stand, as an unwarranted sign of his reborn love of life, previously unseen in the entire film. This, I would identify as the only moment of pure joy in the movie. Yet, it is a fleeting type of joy, that is cut very, very, very short when the girl working at the stand asks him for payment. He is no longer a yakuza boss – he has become a shmuck like everyone else, who must pay for goods and services. This realization scares him, fills him with anger, and he throws away the flower.
Another shot is that of the gangster, near the end, cornered by the man whom he tried to kill, despite being on the verge of death himself via tuberculosis. The look of horror and despair – a living corpse – is that of a man who is antagonized by both the outside world – the yakuza – and the inner world – viruses.
Can we therefore spot the existentialist message here? The acts of a kind-hearted individual are not enough when pitted up against the cruelty of the world. I could write about this film forever – I really feel like I could.
But I must cut my ramblings short; I still have a lot of Kurosawa to watch.
It would be wrong of me, however, not to point out that Drunken Angel was Kurosawa’s first collaboration with Toshiro Mifune. Mifune, here (as ever) is an absolute force of magnetism. What a match made in heaven!