A small-time doctor with an alcohol problem and a tough, swaggering young yakuza living in dirty, decaying post-war Tokyo form an uneasy friendship after the latter learns he is suffering from tuberculosis. Dr. Sanada (Takashi Shimura), who discovers the disease after a chance discussion with Matsunaga (Toshiro Mifune), refuses to leave the violence-prone gangster alone and pesters him to accept treatment. Meanwhile, the young woman who lives with the doctor worries about her ex-lover Okada returning from jail to take her back.
Drunken Angel (1948) was the first of 16 film collaborations between Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune with Mifune in his first major film role as Matsunaga. Although not his first ever on-screen role it is credited with kick-starting his career as well as that of Kurosawa's. His co-star Takashi Shimura is known for having starred in many of Kurosawa's other works including Stray Dog, Rashomon, Yojimbo and Sanjuro. Drunken Angel has also been referred to as the first post-war Japanese film to feature a yakuza character.
Drunken Angel contains examples of:
- After-Action Patch-Up: The reason for Matsunaga's sudden appearance at Dr. Sanada's clinic late at night. He blames it on accidentally slamming a door on his hand. This turns out to be a bullet lodged in there. Ouch. Sanada remarks somewhat disapprovingly, "A nail, huh?"
- Anti-Hero: Matsunaga.
- Badass Boast: During their first meeting Matsunaga immediately establishes his place in the hierarchy of the marketplace: Ask for Matsunaga at the station market. Everybody knows me.
- Blood from the Mouth: Matsunaga coughs more and more blood in the film's third act, as a result of his tuberculosis worsening.
- Break the Haughty: Matsunaga denies his tuberculosis over and over in the first act because he's too proud to admit he's wrong, and feels he only has to come over to Sanada's office falling-down drunk to finally accept it. The whole movie is a Break the Haughty for him.
- Catapult Nightmare: Matsunaga wakes up from his nightmare by sitting bolt upright in bed.
- Character Tic: Dr. Sanada has a tendency to scoff a lot.
- Comforting Comforter: Dr. Sanada and Gin put one over a blind-drunk Matsunaga after he passes out on the floor of the doctor's office.
- Death Equals Redemption: Matsunaga confronts Okada in the climax and Okada knifes Matsunaga to death, which gets Okada arrested and saves the doctor and Okada's ex-girlfriend from the yakuza. In the end, at least Dr. Sanada and the shop girl are saddened by Matsunaga's death and will miss him, and the girl has even taken possession of Matsunaga's ashes to place in a grave at her village in the country.
- Distracted by the Sexy: Okada appears very enticed by Matsunaga's girlfriend when they meet at the dance hall the night Matsunaga gets plastered. Matsunaga either pretends to or doesn't care about the attention she receives from him.
- Dream Sequence: Matsunaga has a frightening nightmare of his own death and the futility of trying to escape it, revealing his tough guy facade beginning to crack as his illness worsens.
- Evil vs. Evil: Matsunaga takes matters into his own hands to defend Dr. Sanada from his old yakuza buddies, Okada in particular.
- Fat and Skinny: Matsunaga's two lackeys.
- Forceful Kiss: Matsunaga does this to the nurse.
- Functional Addict: Dr. Sanada is an alcoholic but he's very good at his job.
- Hot-Blooded: Both Matsunaga and Dr. Sanada have explosive tempers. Dr. Sanada even explains that Matsunaga reminds him of himself when he was a young man.
- I Own This Town: The yakuza boss who exerts power over the rather dilapidated section of Tokyo where Dr. Sanada practices. Arguably Matsunaga as the power he holds trickles down to him.
- I Owe You My Life: Matsunaga rushes to Dr. Sanada's defence with this reason when Okada harasses the doctor.
- Jerk with a Heart of Gold:
- Matsunaga. He takes what he wants without paying, treats most people who aren't above him in the food chain like crap and is easily moved to violence if insulted, especially by Dr. Sanada, because he sees through his tough guy persona. But he has a soft spot for the shop-owner woman who tries to convince him to leave the yakuza lifestyle behind and flee to the country, and a strange enduring affection for the doctor. In the end he confronts Okada with the aim of protecting the doctor and taking revenge for his betrayal of their relationship.
- Also Dr. Sanada. He isn't very sensitive to other people's feelings, well-captured by his aggressive arguing with Miyo and his provocation of Matsunaga. But he genuinely cares about helping his patients and has Miyo's best interests at heart.
- Leitmotif: Two different tunes played on guitar. A neighborhood local always plays only one tune. Then Okada enters and only plays another.
- Like a Son to Me: How Dr. Sanada treats Matsunaga, although he doesn't say it. When Matsunaga comes into Dr. Sanada's office drunk, and later when he's too ill to even move around, Dr. Sanada even tucks him in like a little boy.
- Mr. Fanservice: Toshiro Mifune is briefly shirtless during his first doctor's examination. The reason why it was open in the first place is... unclear.
- The Pollyanna: The young girl who, like Matsunaga, has tuberculosis but is much more optimistic about it and listens to Dr. Sanada's advice. Dr. Sanada spells it out to Matsunaga that she has more balls than him when facing the same disease.
- Yakuza: Fairly obvious from the get-go, as Matsunaga runs a territory belonging to his yakuza boss in a run-down area of Tokyo. He believes strongly in their code of honour.
- You Have Outlived Your Usefulness: To Matsunaga's shock, he learns this about himself after overhearing a conversation between fellow gangsters.