Dr Sanada (Takashi Shimuira), the drunken angel of the title, runs a clinic in the slums of Tokyo. When small-time hood Matsunaga (Toshiro Mifune) comes to his surgery after a gunfight Sanada diagnoses him with tuberculosis and convinces him to begin treatment. The disillusioned doctor feels that, by saving this young yakuza, he can retrieve a sense of his own lost youth and idealism. Thus they embark on a troubled friendship which is tested by the prejudices of the two and the release from prison of Matsunaga's mobster boss.
Mifune, in his first major screen role, and Toho regular Shimura star together in a film which is part gangster, part melodrama and part social critique, establishing for the first time their dynamic relationship and the extraordinary on-screen chemistry which Kurosawa would explore further in films such as Stray Dog and Seven Samurai.
Despite being Kurosawa's eighth feature, Drunken Angel was the director's first critical success and the first film in which he 'finally discovered (himself)'. The 'existential humanism' which made him famous is at the root of this extraordinary tale with the correlation between strength of spirit and physical well-being representing the two forces at work in post-war Japan.