Grade: BRed Beard (1963)

Director: Akira Kurosawa

Stars: Toshirô Mifune, Yuzo Kayama, Terumi Niki

Release Company: The Criterion Collection

MPAA Rating: NR

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Kurosawa: Red Beard


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Red Beard (Akahige) marks a turning point in Akira Kurosawa's career: It was his last black and white film, the last to be shot with widescreen cameras (subsequent films being shot in 1.85 to 1 ratio to accommodate television better), and the last he ever filmed with alter ego Toshirô Mifune (after working with him in sixteen films). Kurosawa's last "hero" film, featuring characters that undergo spiritual growth and enlightenment, Red Beard signaled the end of the legendary filmmaker's popular appeal and he found it difficult to find funding the rest of his life. Although Kurosawa had directed twenty-four films between 1943 and 1965, he headed up only seven more film projects in the final three decades of his life.

Classics like Seven Samurai, Ikiru, and Rashomon stand far atop Kurosawa's works, but the less-viewed and less-critically heralded Red Beard showcases Kurosawa's unsurpassed cinematic style and artistically features familiar Kurosawa themes very satisfyingly. Now that the Criterion Collection definitively preserves the three-hour epic with a crystal clear 2.35:1 aspect ratio transfer to DVD, Kurosawa's overlooked masterpiece should receive more attention. Besides the beautifully restored visual quality (minus thousands of flaws caused by dirt, debris, and scratches), the audio has been cleaned up digitally, reducing the hisses and pops from analog. Kurosawa film scholar Stephen Prince adds greatly to the DVD's value with perceptive audio commentary about the filmmaker's techniques, film background, and thematic elements.

Kurosawa began the project after finishing 1962's Sanjuro, also based on the writings of Shugoro Yamamoto. After reading Yamamoto's Red Beard, Kurosawa thought it could be adapted into a script for another Japanese director. He wanted to direct the material himself, however, as he wrote and incorporated material from Dostoevsky's The Insulted and the Injured and from his own experience.

Although historically based, Kurosawa doesn't dwell on educating viewers on the background. Red Beard begins with young Noboru Yasumoto (Yuzo Kayama) paying a formal visit to the Koishikawa Public Clinic, run by Dr. Kyojio Niide (played by Toshiro Mifune and more commonly called Red Beard). Yasumoto has studied several years at the Dutch medical schools in Nagasaki, and now learns that he is to intern at the clinic. These schools actually did exist in the port city of Nagasaki in the 17th and 18th centuries, where the Dutch were often called "red hair" and this became a melding of western medicine with the philosophy of eastern medicine, which firmly believed that illness was symptomatic of deeper emotional and psychological disorders.

Yasumoto's unreliable guide hates the place and its poverty-stricken clients and negatively paints the clinic as a horrible place to work and describes Red Beard as a dictator. Others disagree, but one thing is clear: Red Beard must be a charismatic leader since everyone talks about him. It's a full ten minutes before we finally meet him on screen. Kurosawa builds the suspense further by photographing Mifune from the back initially, before he slowly faces his new intern face to face. At this point the audience is unsure what to think of the clinic director, and his stern, stoic stare lends to the ambiguity.

Yasumoto, unhappy with his assignment, shows his displeasure. He boycotts his first supper, violates the hospital rules, stubbornly refuses to wear his uniform, and insists on hanging around the forbidden area where the insane patient called the “Mantis” (Kyoko Kagawa) is sequestered. Yasumoto, proud of his medical training, thinks that Red Beard just wants to steal his medical notes, at one point bragging to nurse Osugi (Reiko Dan) that he knows more about medicine than the elder doctor, adapting western knowledge but more versed in eastern beliefs about the spiritual and psychological nature of illness. As Red Beard states,

"Medical science doesn't know everything. We know the symptoms and how things go...We can only fight poverty and ignorance, and cover up what we don't know. If it weren't for poverty, half of these people wouldn't be sick."
Things will change before long, when Yasumoto's naivete nearly costs him his life, and he witnesses the "solemnity" of an old man's dying moments along with the good works and wisdom of the patient Red Beard to end the first act of the film. The second act consists primarily of a parallel story of Yasumoto's first patient, the syphilis-stricken twelve-year old Otoyo (Terumi Niki) that Red Beard rescues from a brothel. Like Yasumoto, she learns to trust the kindness of strangers and reaches out to help a less fortunate soul than herself.

The idea that man is nothing unless serving mankind is a theme Kurosawa used often. Similar instances occur in Seven Samurai (warriors protect the helpless village), in High and Low (a wealthy businessman must sacrifice to save the son of a lowly chauffeur), and in Ikuru (a bureaucrat finds redemption by cutting through the red tape to build a playground for a community). Anyone who practices in a human service field will take heart from the lessons of Red Beard.

Striving for wealth and position is clearly put into perspective. Kurosawa portrays a wealthy nobleman who ignores Red Beard's dietary advice as deformed and bloated, as he suffers from perpetual constipation. While Yasumoto initially wanted to treat cataracts and constipation of the wealthy to attain recognition and social status, he becomes transformed at the clinic with new idealism, understanding that the world doesn't revolve around himself. Once again, karma comes full circle in Red Beard--the student, Yasumoto, learns from a mentor and passes on his knowledge to another needy soul.

In the hands of a lesser artist the material would prove tedious and didactic. Not so with Kurosawa. Just the photography alone makes Red Beard required viewing for cinema aficionados. Collaborating with cinematographers Asakazu Nakai (who also worked with Kurosawa in such early films as Ikuru, Seven Samurai, High and Low, and in later films Kagemusha and Ran) and Takao Saitô (Sanjuro, High and Low, Kagemusha, and Ran), Kurosawa uses his trademark telephoto lens to create a two dimensional effect and numerous horizontal wide screen shots that are wonderfully composed. (Don't ever consider watching a pan and scan version of this or any other earlier Kurosawa film; far too much would be lost visually. Most obvious are shots like the ones that show three of the characters sitting side by side at dinner--with a pan and scan version only two characters could be seen simultaneously, and you would lose the reaction shots as another character speaks.)

The lighting effects contribute greatly to the film. One of the more obvious examples occurs during Rokusuke's (Kamatari Fujiwara) death scene. The neophyte Yasumoto had been instructed to stay with the old man as he lay dying, since his last moments are a "solemn occasion." Yasumoto, skilled in western medicine, can only see the old man suffering from cancer and in the darkened room only hears horrifying gagging and gasps--he is thankful when a nurse relieves him from watching the suffering. Later, as he observes the well-lighted head of saintly Sahachi (Tsutomu Yamazaki) being widely mourned on his death bed, a changed Yasumoto flashes back to Rokusuke's last moments with a different attitude, signified by the same glow around the old man's head.

To delineate scene changes, Kurosawa sticks with his standard wipes, but one beautiful 8-minute montage utilizes dissolves--the sequence where Otoyo nurses Yasumoto back to health. This is a visually rich sequence that will cause silent film lovers to wax nostalgic, since no words are spoken throughout.

If you're looking for samurai fighting action, this isn't the right Kurosawa film to check out. He does, however, include a humorous sequence at the brothel where Red Beard takes on a large number of guards, throwing them about like toothpicks, breaking limbs, dislocating jaws, and knocking them senseless. Not the usual routine for a healing doctor dedicated to helping people, but humorous in delivery as Red Beard matter of factly disposes of the attackers and remarks how doctors shouldn't commit such violence.

Although Red Beard doesn't rank with the greatest of Kurosawa's films, anyone who appreciates Kurosawa will want to add this film to his collection for its historic value--the last film from his prolific days, simpler times where heroes had a strict honor code to follow, Mifune and Kurosawa were still in their prime, and widescreen black and white photography was at its peak. Many directors still have never created one film equal to Red Beard, which only pales when compared to Kurosawa's greatest films. Those expecting another "Japanese western" will find the pace too languid, but film students and aficionados will enjoy revisiting Kurosawa's familiar themes and visual style in this tightly constructed tale.

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