One of the fascinating things about Japanese director Akira Kurosawa is that, more than any other director one can think of, he made great or near-great films in ways that were as different from each other as many of the films of other directors are from each other. From the incisive existentialism of High And Low to the innovations and stylistic influence of Rashomon to the historical action epopee of Seven Samurai to the novelistic depths of Kagemusha and Ran to the searing noirish political critique of The Bad Sleep Well to the comic extravaganza of The Hidden Fortress to the action virtuosity of Throne Of Blood to the mix of violence and comedy in Yojimbo and Sanjuro to the innovative format and humanistic depths of Ikiru, there is simply no other filmmaker I’ve ever seen that so defies pegging into a corner with a claim such as ‘that’s a typical Kurosawa film.’ And that’s not to defile great filmmakers whose works screamt their auteurity: Chaplin, Welles, Kubrick, Bresson, Scorsese, Ozu, Bergman, Allen, Fellini, Kobayashi, Malick, Antonioni, Tarkovsky, Tarr, Angelopoulos, etc. It’s simply to acknowledge that, at least in terms of diversity and breadth of greatness in cinema, Akira Kurosawa is utterly nonpareil.
Hence, it should be no surprise that his last black and white film, 1965’s novelistic Red Beard (Akahige)- also the last Kurosawa film to star the great Toshirô Mifune, is also a masterpiece of a film. The only thing of any merit for a real discussion is just how high in the Kurosawa canon it ranks. If I were to ballpark it, I’d say (at least of those Kurosawa films I’ve so far watched) it ranks below (in descending order) only High And Low, Ikiru, The Bad Sleep Well, and Seven Samurai, but, it is arguable that it is a greater film than its historical cousin, Seven Samurai, because the two films are so utterly different. In fact, Red Beard seems almost to be a Masaki Kobayashi film, in its tenor, for it shares the intellectualism and humanism of that master’s great films, Harakiri and Samurai Rebellion.
The film takes place in early 19th Century Edo (now Tokyo), in the Koshikawa District, at a clinic for poor people. We see the arrival of what appears to be a young samurai, but which is, in reality, a young doctor from the Nagasaki medical ranks, having been trained by Dutch doctors in Western medicine. His name is Noboru Yasumoto (Yuzo Kayama) and is the film’s central character, despite the presence of Mifune, who plays the titular character, Dr. Kyojo Niide aka Red Beard- a dig at both his visage and the fact that the Dutch doctors were called Red Hairs. Yasumoto desires to be made personal physician of the shogun- a job his father has, but, via a series of personal and professional machinations, he has been assigned to train at the clinic, on the outskirts of the capital. Initially, Yasumoto believes the rumors of Red Beard’s authoritarian ways, and petulantly refuses to wear clinic garb, nor follow any of Red Beard’s rules. He also suspects that Niide only got him assigned to the clinic to get his hands on Yasumoto’s notes of his medical experiences in Nagasaki. It is revealed that Niide actually wants the notes to benefit the other doctors and patients he serves for he believes that medical knowledge is for the benefit of mankind, not any individual.
Yasumoto’s insolence almost gets him killed when he falls victim to a wily murderess (Kyoko Kagawa), the daughter of a wealthy man who has built his own psychiatric prison on the clinic grounds. The murderess is known as The Mantis, and she lures Yasumoto in with a sob story. Hers is but one of a number of interesting characters whose tales are told because of their time at the clinic, and she eventually suicides when her sanity returns. Others include Rokusuke, a dying man whose secret life is revealed only when his daughter tells it to the doctors; Sahachi (Tsutomu Yamazaki, so perfect as the villain in High And Low)- a generous man who works himself to death due to the guilt he feels regarding his dead wife mysterious end; a preteen prostitute named Otoyo (Terumi Niki), rescued from a brothel by Niide and Yasumoto, who suffers from psychological horrors regarding her abuse, but who recovers, then nurses Yasumoto back to health, when he falls ill; and, finally, a thieving urchin named Chobo (Yoshitaka Zushi), whose poverty and pluck lead Otoyo to befriend him. All of these people and episodes turn Yasumoto around (midway through the film he starts wearing the clinic’s uniform), and lead him to respect and admire Dr. Niide, and even resisting a possible transfer to the job he originally sought.
The DVD, by The Criterion Collection, shows the 185 minute black and white film in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio, and the transfer is quite good, with just a few moments where dust and scratches are visible. Because of the widescreen aspect ration, Criterion’s usual poor choice of using all white subtitles (no English language dubbing, alack!) on a black and white film actually works, as the subtitles stand out well against the lower black bar. The screenplay, written by Kurosawa, Masato Ide, Ryuzo Kikushima, and Hideo Oguni, adapted from a short story collection by Shugoro Yamamoto, Akahige shinryotan (??????), is great- the characterizations are done with minimal artifice, and allow the actors to flesh the roles out. The acting is excellent, with Mifune restrained and filled with angst, and Kayama especially good in all emotional aspects that he is given. The cinematography, by Asakazu Nakai, subtly disorients viewers at the right times, with oddly placed angles which illuminate the mindsets of the particular characters. Masaru Satô’s soundtrack, with its use of Western music and emotional cues, is resonant and aptly applied, starting with the alternately silent and ambient sound motif of the opening credit sequence. The extras for the DVD include an insert that has liner notes by Japanese film scholar Donald Richie, the original theatrical trailer, and a film commentary track by Japanese film scholar Stephen Prince. Prince is one of the more consistently high quality commentators from the now passing Golden Age of DVD commentaries. His insights are well scripted, so there is little deviation from his format, but there is a consistent passion that he brings that engages the viewer, as well as his top notch insights into scenes, histories of tropes, characters and film cast and crew members. Overall, this is an enjoyable and informative track. Prince’s best moments come when he explains the interpolation of the Otoyo character from a minor Fyodor Dostoevsky work, The Insulted And The Injured, as she was not original to the source stories, and his worst moment comes when he foolishly claims that Mifune was not as good a choice to play Red Beard as would have been long time Kurosawa stock actor Takashi Shimura. Prince claims that, especially in a scene where Red beard finally persuades Otoyo to take her medicine, Mifune comes off as forced. But this is exactly why his eventual winning over of Otoyo’s trust works. Also, in the film’s lone fight scene, Shimura would have been too old and feeble to convincingly pull off Mifune’s bravura action and comic scenes. One of the many minor pluses to the film is how Kurosawa pays subtle tribute to his then recently deceased colleague of Japanese cinema, Yasujirô Ozu (this was Kurosawa’s first film since Ozu’s death), by adding in two long time Ozu stock players into roles film viewers would be familiar with. In the role of the brothel madam who abuses Otoyo he cast Haruko Sugimura, best known as the nasty daughter from Tokyo Story, and Chishu Ryu, who played the father in that same film, as well in many other Ozu classics, such as Late Spring, and plays Yasumoto’s father in a brief, late scene in this film. The screenplay also allows characters which seem fated to be background characters only, to bubble up and have their moments in the sun, which increases the realism of the film, as well. This is also heightened by a scene wherein Mifune’s Red Beard even blows his nose after Yasumoto is saved from The Mantis, and when Yasumoto faints during the first operation he participates in.
Kurosawa’s film has numbers of multi-minute long shots that heighten tension gradually, and show the power of such, which, following a career of famed action films, amply demonstrate just how diverse and skilled a craftsman of the filmic art Kurosawa was. Red Beard could very easily have veered off into banalities and melodrama, but, with Kurosawa’s guiding hand, it never does, and instead shows how classical great art is made. While not the director’s greatest film, any viewer or critic who denies its greatness simply has no grasp of what the term great means. Watch it, watch it again, and the film’s subtleties manifest the correctness of my claim.
Japanese director and writer, and one of the most important figures in 20th century cinema. Kurosawa was greatly influenced by Hollywood - John Ford being his idol - but more than any other film-maker was responsible for introducing Japanese films to West. He originally trained as an artist and worked as a studio scriptwriter, before directing his first film in 1943, the martial arts drama Judo Saga. Kurosawa's next few films were made during World War II and had to adhere to strict state guidelines; it was 1948's gangster movie Drunken Angel that first saw the director's emerging personal vision, and was his first film to star regular leading man Toshirô Mifune.
Rashomon was the film that brought Kurosawa acclaim in the West, winning top prize at the Venice Film Festival in 1951, and a string of classics followed - Throne of Blood, The Hidden Fortress, Yojimbo, Seven Samurai - all set in Feudal Japan and combining incredible cinematography and thrilling action with humour, sadness and deep insights into human behaviour. The director also turned in some superb non-period film around this time too, such as the thrillers The Bad Sleep Well and High and Low.
The following decade proved a frustrating one for Kurosawa, as he struggled to get projects off the ground, culminating with the box office failure of Dodesukaden and a suicide attempt in 1970. The director's fortunes turned when 1975's Russian epic Dersu Uzala won the Best Foreign Language Oscar, while his next two films were among his very best - the beautifully shot Kagemusha and 1985's spectacular, hugely successful King Lear adaptation, Ran. Kurosawa's final films were smaller and more personal - Dreams, Rhapsody in August and Not Yet. He died of a stroke in 1998, aged 88.