Toshiro Mifune did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Matsunaga in Drunken Angel.
This is Toshiro Mifune's first collaboration with Kurosawa which apparently came about when Kurosawa saw an audition of his. Kurosawa not only cast Mifune in this part but he actually expanded the part due to Mifune's portrayal. Mifune plays the young gangster who we first meet while he has a bullet taken out of his hand by the good doctor. Mifune here has his trademark intensity once again though this time handled rather differently from when it was insanity fueled in Seven Samurai, anger filled in Throne of Blood, or held up inside as it was in the quiet duel. Mifune here takes a different approach and this time it comes off as sometimes misplaced and inconsistent intensity fitting for the young Matsunaga.
Early on in the film Matsunaga jumps in and out as Sanada keeps trying to tell him that he should take the fact that he has tuberculosis far more seriously than he is. Mifune is excellent in his somewhat brief scenes in portraying the style of Matsunaga. Mifune in one moment is able to be the true gangster you would imagine a man like Matsunaga would have to be to be the boss of any area even a slum. Mifune has the perfect cocky stride and pompous demeanor that shows the assurance of the young man in his somewhat powerful position. In the next moment though Mifune effectively turns him into an angry violent man. Mifune though is great because it is not anger of hate, but anger of fear that he conveys in his performance as all that Matsunaga wants to do is deny his illness.
Mifune is terrific the way he makes Matsunaga such a mess of emotions. He portrays the struggle in Matsunaga merely to heed Sanada's warning. Mifune is excellent in portraying the fierceness in the sudden emotional bursts that comes from Matsunaga, and he creates an interesting portrait of the gangster who cannot get over himself to help himself. Mifune though creates sympathy because every time Matsunaga fails to listen to the doctor Mifune is very believable in portraying this and is able to convey why exactly he keeps falling back on his vices. Mifune importantly allows us to see the struggle in his eyes and that there always is considerable resistance in Matsunaga even when he falls once again.
Like most of Mifune's performances he has a great physicality in the role. Here it is particularly notable and important to his performance as it not only tells of the unpredictable nature of the young gangster but as well portrays his physical degradation. Mifune is something just to watch in the way he changes in his physical manner that reflects the emotional state of Matsunaga. When he is trying to keep it together he plays it with a sturdy forceful posture fitting of his man in his power. In his drunken or angry rages he reduces down almost to animal like quality that is quite electrifying to watch Mifune's sheer unrelenting power of his performance. Mifune is fascinating to watch him simply in the act of his performance.
A great deal of the sympathy we are allowed to feel comes from Mifune's portrayal of Matsunaga tuberculosis that slowly becomes worse throughout the film. Mifune delivers this quite effectively throughout the course of his character and makes it a slow but very natural process as that strength we see of him early on quickly becomes to dissipate. Mifune properly does not rush through any part of it instead showing almost the entire process in its entirety showing properly the sadness of the situation as Mifune moves from a young physically fit man who seems entirely sure of himself to eventually nothing more than a physical wreck by the end who can barely stand on his own.
Although at first Matsunaga seems no more than a foolish young man. As we proceed though Mifune gives a complex portrait of the man whose disease thrives from his personal circumstance. Mifune shows above else the one thing that Matsunaga holds on to is a pride and honor of the Yakuza. Although the truth seems quite the otherwise, Mifune makes it believable that Matsunaga would hold this view through the conviction of his performance. It is a foolish conviction one that Mifune shows through the lens of a youthful inexperience. It isn't something he thinks too much about but Mifune's passionate portrayal shows that he definitely believes in it.
That conviction that Mifune brings to the role is what makes this a tragic portrayal. Mifune's very best scene comes when Matsunaga goes to the head boss to clear things up thinking he will be on his side. Mifune is perfect as he waits with a foolish smile, and that pride so filled in his face. As he listens though Matsunaga finds that not only does the boss not take his side but in fact seems to care nothing about Matsunaga's possible death. Mifune is terrific seeing the lost of the pride all at once a great sadness, and Mifune expression suggests that of a man who sees that so much of his life has been a lie. It is an absolutely brilliant scene by Mifune that honestly shows how much this revelation tears him apart.
This is a great performance by Toshiro Mifune and despite being one of his earliest roles Mifune already establishes himself as incredible screen actor. It is no wonder that Kurosawa expanded the role after seeing Mifune as Mifune presence is truly remarkable. There is such an enthusiasm and energy in his performances that it is hard not to watch him on screen. Of course this performance is not only about screen presence, like his performances I have reviewed before he uses that screen presence to create a compelling character. Mifune turns Matsunaga into a memorable tragic portrait by emphasizing the foolishness in his pride but as well suggesting so poignantly that underlying potential for redemption.