Drunken Sword (1961)
Directed by Tadashi Sawashima

Drunken Sword
Yoidore Musoken
Starring Utaemon Ichikawa (Sensei Henmi), Chiyonosuke Azuma (Kawakami), Kotaro Satomi (Choji), Jushiro Konoe (Tenzen), Haruo Tanaka (Tome), Hiroko Sakuramachi, Denjiro Okochi, Sonomi Nakajima, Sonosuke Sawamura

Toei Company, 92 minutes
Color, 2.35:1 scope ratio
English-subtitled DVD: Kurotokagi Gumi (TV broadcast quality)

A few years before Akira Kurosawa's classic Red Beard, Tadashi Sawashima directed this far lesser known adaptation of the Shugoro Yamamoto novel Akahige shinryo tan. There are lots of differences between the two films in terms of historical setting, character names and dramatic tone, and the protagonist doctor in Drunken Sword doesn't have a beard, red or otherwise. But the common inspiration is readily apparent, and my guess is that Kurosawa took his usual liberties in adapting a story source and Sawashima may have kept closer to the original book.

Like Red Beard, this is the tale of a strong-willed country doctor and the young doctor assigned to serve as his apprentice. The elder sensei Henmi runs his practice out of his fencing dojo, where he also gives lessons in swordsmanship. For whatever service he performs, the fee Henmi charges is 10 mon, which is super cheap, something like the equivalent of 50 cents. At the beginning of the movie a bunch of roughnecks charge into Henmi's dojo in pursuit of a yakuza whose fight injuries he is treating. Henmi draws his sword and beats the crap out of all of them, then demands that they each pay his 10 mon fee for the "fencing lesson." And they do! Truly, this doctor is one bad ass.

Into Henmi's unorthodox clinic comes the young and conceited Kawakami, a recent graduate in Dutch medical training, who is aghast at the sensei's coarse, country-bumpkin style of medicine. Kawakami believes he knows far more about being a doctor than this clown he now has to serve under. Also opposing Henmi is the local medical establishment, who resent his "hero of the common man" persona and his low fees that have driven all the poorer patients from their practices. Plus, Henmi makes enemies of crime bosses when he takes action against their corruption and exploitation of workers.

The English title Drunken Sword is really poorly chosen and inappropriate, referring only to one isolated scene in which Henmi fights yakuza after getting sauced on sake. The frustrated Kawakami challenges his master to a drinking contest, angry that Henmi seems to be better than him at everything else, and of course the hardy Henmi proves to be a superior drinker as well. Even heavy intoxication doesn't diminish his skills with a sword, but that fact is scarcely worth naming the movie after. It's not like those Jackie Chan Drunken Master movies, where the hero has to get drunk in order to perform his fighting style. A better title for overseas distribution would have been something like Doctor of the Dojo.

But whatever you want to call it, this is quite a good movie that holds up surprisingly well in comparison to Red Beard. Drunken Sword is a funnier and more light-hearted movie, but it does have a resonant message about compassion and the responsibilities of the medical profession. This is one of Utaemon Ichikawa's best performances I've ever seen. Typically Ichikawa is a fairly one-dimensional presence, radiating menace with that scowling kabuki mask face of his, but here he's more often mischievous and bellowing with laughter. I would even call it a Mifune-like performance, though it's more akin to the wildman Mifune than the sedate doctor from Red Beard. In its examination of the moral questions surrounding affordable health care for all versus medicine as a profitable business, this 1961 Japanese period film is awfully relevant to what's happening in the United States today.

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