Kurosawa’s final collab with Mifune yields a near masterpiece about humanity that is beautiful, poetic and enlightening.
Dir. Akira Kurosawa
1965 | Japan | Drama | 185 mins | 2.35:1 | Japanese
PG (passed clean) for some violence and brief nudity
Cast: Toshiro Mifune, Yuzo Kayama, Tsutomu Yamazaki
Plot: In 19th-century Japan, a rough-tempered yet charitable town doctor trains a young intern.
Awards: Won Best Actor & Nom. for Golden Lion (Venice); Nom. for Best Foreign Film (Golden Globes)
Subject Matter: Moderate – Human Condition
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse
Viewed: Criterion DVD
First Published: 30 May 2010
If cinema was to become a religion, I would pray to Kurosawa.
Red Beard, one of Kurosawa’s lesser known collaborations with his star actor, Toshiro Mifune, is such a beautiful, poetic, and enlightening piece of cinema that it is unfairly overshadowed by their more well-known films such as Seven Samurai (1954), The Hidden Fortress (1958), and Yojimbo (1961), which by no coincidence, are much more action-oriented in nature.
By contrast, Red Beard contains only a five-minute action set-piece that seems out of place in this quiet meditation on the human condition, if not for the Kurosawa-Mifune factor that justifies it. The film is lengthy; it runs slightly more than three hours.
It also has a plot that would probably put anyone with a short attention span to sleep. What then does Red Beard offer to those willing to challenge themselves to watching a profound film on humanity?
The premise is simple: An arrogant young graduate from an overseas medical school is forced to become an intern with a small, non-profit clinic for the poor. The clinic is run by a chief doctor (Mifune) whose name the film title takes after. He is compassionate and patient, but is very strict and serious about what he is doing.
The young intern’s cumulative experience with the wise doctor and his patients lead him to understand humility, love, and the need to become selfless to help others. This simple premise cannot mask the fact that Kurosawa has created a picture of astounding emotional and intellectual power.
“It smells like rotten fruit.”
“It’s the smell of the poor.”
Most of the film’s power stems from Kurosawa’s treatment of its main theme – the human condition, which not only acts as an astute observation of Japanese society a couple of centuries ago, but also, and more importantly, functions as a sharp critique of post-WWII Japan that is characterized by social and moral decay amid a booming economy.
In Red Beard, Kurosawa interweaves stories of dying patients into the main narrative. He uses the flashback technique sparingly but effectively, and in one occasion, he pierces a character’s deep, melancholic recount of his depressing life with a ‘flashback-in-a-flashback’ sequence, remarkably adding another layer to the narrative.
Technically, Red Beard is as stunning as any other great work by Kurosawa. His framing of the actors in each shot (even as they move around in the shot in a long take) remains unparalleled.
His camera frequently moves together with the characters and he brilliantly communicates their inner emotions just by this movement. Natural elements such as rain and wind are also used to both dramatize the scene and add realism at the same time.
In one emotionally-charged scene, a group of women shouts into a well, calling the name of a dying child in an act of tradition. The camera in the well rotates from top to bottom to show the women’s reflections in the still water below. A drop of water (perhaps the shedding of a teardrop) breaks the stillness and destroys the reflections, becoming a visual metaphor for the washing away of sadness that brings the possibility of hope.
Red Beard has many of these moments. Some are delicately directed, others are forceful. For those who can appreciate the art of filmmaking, especially the creativity involving the capturing of shots (framing and angle), this Kurosawa film is a must-watch. While its runtime may be daunting, the film’s elegance and grace, and a story well-told, will eventually win you over.