The intertwined stories of an alcoholic doctor (Takashi Shimura) and a yakuza (Toshirô Mifune, age 28) dying of TB in a shabby neighborhood in postwar Japan.
The young gangster doesn't want to believe that he is sick. If he shows weakness his mob compatriots will use him up and push him aside. But there is no way out: he's coughing and can't hold his liquor, loses his luck at gambling, his girlfriend bails on him and everyone knows he is finished.
He tries to strike back at his replacement in a late scene of tense, unromantic violence, but what is the point? It's tragedy verging on the comic as two gangsters flail at each other while slipping in a bucket of spilled paint.
Yet, as is typical with Kurosawa, it's not all despair; there is something higher. The doctor, drunk as he is, yelling and throwing things, sometimes has small victories over disease and the brutish behavior of the mobsters. And even when love is hopeless, it is still love.
This is the first film Kurosawa felt he controlled, and his first with Mifune. The film source has a lot of problems and the DVD image is soft throughout.
Criterion DVD with an informative commentary track by Donald Richie, who was present at the filming and knew everyone. He gives background on postwar conditions and the director's struggle with the censors; one screenplay was rejected as "too democratic" by the Japanese censors during the war, and then by the allies as "too feudal" afterwards.
The parallels between Kurosawa and John Ford grow stronger; both would bully and pick on their actors. Neither cared for critics or big ideas. I believe Richie says that the doctor was inspired by Thomas Mitchell in Stagecoach (1939).