A gruff yet well intentioned doctor does his best to cure the ills of post-war Japan in a rundown slum on the edge of a fetid swamp in Akira Kurosawa’s noir tragedy, Drunken Angel (酔いどれ天使, Yoidore Tenshi). The doctor is most obviously the drunken angel of the title though it could equally apply to the unhappy yakuza he tries so hard to redeem whom most agree is not suited to that kind of life and trapped by the feudalistic thinking of the pre-war past.
Matsunaga (Toshiro Mifune) is the big man around town, but jaded physician Sanada (Takashi Shimura) sees straight through him. “He acts tough and swaggers around but I know in his heart he’s incredibly lonely,” Sanada tells his assistant, Miyo (Chieko Nakakita), a young woman he took in to help her escape the clutches of the violent yakuza ex who left her with syphilis. Miyo bemoans Sanada’s terrible bedside manner and tendency to bully his patients but praises his dedication and remarks that few doctors go as far for those under their care as he does especially ones like these who don’t often have the money to pay. This is a little ironic given Matsunaga’s original objection that he doesn’t trust doctors because it’s not in their best interests to cure you, something which Sanada jokingly acknowledges while expressing the futility he feels in the face of the mass sickness that confronts him.
When Matsunaga first comes into his office, Sanada remarks that’s its not just his lungs that are sick, he’s sick to the core. But still he seems to think that Matsunaga can be saved, not just physically but spiritually redeemed if only he can coax him away from the yakuza underworld. Matsunaga is suffering from tuberculosis, a common disease of the post-war era and closely linked to the squalid conditions in which he lives which are themselves symbolised by the swamp in the centre of town onto which Sanada’s clinic backs. Sanada tries to warn the local children not to play in it because of the risk of typhus not to mention the mosquitos it attracts but the kids don’t really listen to him and shout back that he’s “just a drunk”. Yet the swamp represents a world upside-down, the neon sign for the No. 1 cabaret bar constantly reflected in its bubbling waters while as the film opens we see a trio of sex workers preparing to head into the red light district and a pair of petty thugs fighting while a young man plays Spanish guitar on the ruins of a bomb damaged building.
It’s as if it were this world that is slowly consuming Matsunaga, an old-school yakuza who insists “we still believe in things like honour and loyalty” certain that the big boss will side with him against the returned upstart Okada (Reizaburo Yamamoto), Miyo’s yakuza ex, even as Sanada tells him it’s money that matters and Matsunaga no longer makes any. Everyone tells him that he already looks like a ghost, his appearance increasingly gaunt in his parallel decline as the illness takes hold and he begins to lose his status to Okada only to overhear his boss call him an “amateur” that he was only keeping around as a potential sacrifice. In the end, Matsunaga is too good for this world. Naively believing in things like honour and loyalty which no longer mean anything in the dog-eat-dog post-war society he is left with nothing other than a nihilistic bid for vengeance and a desire to repay Sanada’s faith in him if only in the most ironic of ways.
Like Matsunaga, Sanada sometimes says the opposite of what he means claiming that he doesn’t care what happens to Matsunaga but is determined to wipe out the TB inside him to stop it spreading it to others. He’s on a mission to “sterilise this contaminated town” by eradicating the twin threats of disease and the yakuza, calling Matsunaga a coward for failing to face his fear and loneliness succumbing to the quick fixes of his hedonistic yakuza lifestyle. He’s not perfect either, a doctor who drinks his medical ethanol supplies and berates his patients when he them catches out them out drinking when he told them not to, but is also very at home with who he is and doing his best with it. His disappointment in Matsunaga is mainly in his swagger, the false bravado that masks his human frailty and unwillingness to face his fear of death which manifests itself in a hauntingly expressionistic dream sequence. Using silent cinema composition and canted angles Kurosawa conjures a world of constant uncertainty amid the vagaries of the post-war society in which the only sign of salvation is a drunken doctor and his “rational approach” to the sickness of the age.
Drunken Angel screens at the BFI Southbank, London on 2nd & 10th February 2023 as part of the Kurosawa season.