Akira Kurosawa's and Toshiro Mifune's first collaboration is set at the end of the Second World War and revolves around a doctor (Takashi Shimura) and his yakuza tuberculosis patient (Toshiro Mifune). The doctor, Sanada, is a drunk who can't even stay away from his medical alcohol and his practice is located near the shore of a toxic swamp. On the other side of the swamp is the black market, the turf of Matsunaga, a violent criminal. When Matsunaga visits Sanada in the middle of the night to have a bullet removed from his hand, Sanada discovers that the yakuza has tuberculosis. Matsunaga refuses to believe him but later comes back with an x-ray that shows a hole in his lung. At the same time, Okada, Matsunaga's former boss, is released from prison and comes back to the neighborhood to reclaim his turf. This just makes Matsunaga's fight against his illness, while trying to keep his appearance of strength, even harder.
Drunken Angel seems to be about the morals and codes of the yakuza and all the violence they bring. Sanada questions everything Matsunaga does because of his yakuza code, and insists that he tries to get well instead. Feudalism is out of style. In the booklet that comes with the Criterion dvd of the film, Kurosawa talks about falling out with the co-writer, Keinosuke Uegusa, over their different views on the yakuza and the role that society plays in shaping these individuals. Basically, he's saying that, while society has some influence, it's up to the individual to decide what kind of person to be. After all there are a lot of poor and weak people who doesn't resort to a life of crime to get ahead. The same reasoning that I got from his Stray Dog (1949), made one year after Drunken Angel.
Toshiro Mifune as the tuberculosis-ridden Matsunaga.
From what I've read, Stray Dog is considered to be Kurosawa's first masterpiece, and while Drunken Angel might not be a masterpiece, it's a big step towards creating one. The acting is great all around, and even though Mifune seems a bit unpolished compared to his later work with Kurosawa, he still gives a haunting performance as Matsunaga. While being a very good film, Drunken Angel does seem a bit simpler than Kurosawa's later films when it comes to technique, that doesn't mean that it's bad in any way though, just that Kurosawa evolved as a filmmaker. Drunken Angel is the earliest of his films that I have seen, so I don't know how big the difference is between this and the films that came before, but I look forward to finding out.