Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura in Drunken Angel
Drunken Angel has been called Akira Kurosawa's Stagecoach, because just as John Ford established a fruitful director-actor team with John Wayne in his 1939 Western, in this movie Kurosawa launched a brilliant collaboration with Toshiro Mifune that lasted for 16 films. But to my mind, just as important, Drunken Angel marked the first teaming of Mifune with the great character actor Takashi Shimura. Kurosawa immediately saw the potential of the team, in which Shimura's low-key steadfastness serves as a foil for Mifune's volatility. He reteamed them in 1949 for two films, The Quiet Duel and Stray Dog, but their most memorable work together would come in Seven Samurai (1954), in which Shimura's wise and wily Kambei Shimada plays off beautifully against Mifune's madly unpredictable Kikuchiyo. In Drunken Angel, Shimura has the title role: an alcoholic doctor laboring in the slums of a postwar Japanese city. His clinic fronts a festering lake of sewage and his clientele comes largely from the neighboring nightclubs and brothels. Mifune plays Matsunaga, a swaggering young gangster with tuberculosis, who comes to Dr. Sanada hoping for a cure that won't put a crimp in his lifestyle. The screenplay by Kurosawa and Keinosuke Uekusa makes both characters into complex figures: Sanada's bitterness about his poverty and lack of status feeds his alcoholism, but he persists in trying to help his patients, even when, like Matsunaga, they resist his efforts, sometimes violently. Still, there's a bond between the two men in a recognition that they are both caught in traps they didn't make. What makes Drunken Angel more than just a clever reworking of film noir tropes -- another instance of Kurosawa's fascination with American movies -- is that it's a veiled commentary on the wounded Japan, in which the militaristic violence has been turned inward. Yesterday's soldier has become today's yakuza, still carrying on about honor and saving face. Kurosawa's film delivers an incisive criticism of some of the root problems facing his country. Made during the American occupation, when censorship was at its strictest, especially in depicting violence, Kurosawa nevertheless stages some vivid and intense fight scenes, using Mifune's physicality to great effect. That much of it occurs against a background of Western-style pop music only heightens its boldness.