This is a noir-tinged melodrama from the Japanese post-war master, Kurosawa Akira. Takeshi Shimura plays alcoholic Doctor Sanada, living and working in a slum area of Tokyo dominated by a yakuza-run market district and a noxious bubbling swamp. One humid mosquito-ridden night, young gangster Matsunaga comes in to have a hand wound repaired; Sanada has no trouble diagnosing TB, despite the gangster’s denials. The advance of the disease and the return of the old neighborhood boss from jail spell trouble for Matsunaga’s career.
This was Kurosawa’s eighth film and the first in which he felt that his own style really emerged, and the hand of the master is evident in the superb evocation of the sweltering, festering summer heat around the swamp (even though the film was shot in winter); the integral use of music to heighten both dramatic tension within scenes and sense of character; the photography filled with ambiguous shadows; his ability to elicit superb performances that bring so much more to the relationships between characters than the script alone could manage; and a morally-anchored protagonist who is nonetheless an irascible old grouch.
It was also his first collaboration with the firebrand of Japanese cinema, Mifune ToshirÃŽ as Matsunaga, with whom he went on to make a further fifteen pictures. Mifune was then on his fourth, and the forceful impression he made initiated constant rewrites to enlarge his role. He starts off dangerous and dynamic, natty and feline in a white suit with the unassailable arrogance of a successful yakuza; as the TB takes hold his descent into sallow-faced physical weakness is all the more striking, whilst his own moral compass starts to align itself. But the film belongs to Takeshi as the doctor, who manages to spend the whole picture being bad-tempered in a good-natured way – he cares too much about his patients and the other inhabitants of the poverty-stricken neighborhood, and too much about his practice of medecine, to let them get away with things that are harmful to their own health, constantly upbraiding or hurling objects at people he describes sharply as “fool” idiot” or “spineless”.
With his shabby clothes, unshaven face and constant need for a drink, he cares only about practising medicine and it’s not so much that he refuses to sugar-coat the truth but that he is too angry with the crummy state of the world to waste his breath doing so. His relationship with Matsunaga is marvellous; constantly abusing one another and fighting, each recognises in the other a man of strength; Matsunaga knows that Sanada’s diagnosis, advice and insights into his own character are correct, and Sanada recognises a young man not yet fully corrupted by his self-aggrandising life of crime, who has still within him the strength to overcome his disease. Their mutual respect – even affection – is palpable from the start, and all the more realistically effective for being expressed through the tentative overtures of friendship which descend quickly into frustrated argument.
The swamp itself is one of Kurosawa’s great metaphors. In the lovestruck barmaid’s exhortations to Matsunaga to leave the city for the countryside, it stands for the evil corruption of the yakuza world in which he operates, itself polluted by decadent western influences; Sanada compares it specifically to the disease that is polluting Matsunaga’s body; and it represents synechdocally the whole of post-war Japan, riven by corruption, economic deprivation and moral uncertainty. None of these situations is improving as more and more garbage is shovelled into the foul waters. No wonder Sanada is so angry; he rails against the too-many unnecessary sacrifices the Japanese make, the foolishness of patients who won’t take his advice, the seeming ridiculousness of a profession in which success deprives him of customers. All of these themes are woven seamlessly into the story however; Kurosawa stuck firm to the principle that a great film should be enjoyable and as is perfectly evident here, with natural moments of good humour, a splendid fight amidst paint-cans in a hallway, and a crazy swinging night-club act (”jungle boogie”) that sees Mifune, drunk and dejected, at his most animalistic. Despite the presence of a sightly cloying schoolgirl, the ending is as bittersweet as usual for Kurosawa – things go well, things go badly, people act foolishly, and there’s no reprieve for mankind in his endless struggle against the fundamental cruelty and stupidity of the world.