When I sat down to watch Red Beard, I had no intention of writing about it since this will make the fourth film by Akira Kurosawa in this series.I changed my mind. It wasn't just because I enjoyed the movie; it was because it was so unlike the Kurosawa movies that I had already seen.
It didn't start that way. As the movie opens, we see a man with topknot, kimono and sword walking into what seems a rundown village. This is a black and white movie set in the 19th century, and this scene is reminiscent of the earlier samurai movies. Soon, though, we find this is something different.
The young man, Dr. Noboru Yasumoto, has just completed his medical training and is expecting that he will soon follow in the footsteps of his very successful father. He is arriving for what he thinks is a visit at a government-run clinic in a poor suburb of Edo (Tokyo). He is surprised when he is eagerly welcomed by the doctor who has been working at the clinic for three years who can't wait to get his replacement, Dr. Yasumoto, settled in. The departing doctor gives Yasumoto a very disheartening tour of the small, inadequate facility. The waiting room is packed wall-to-wall with sick patients awaiting treatment. The current patients are lying in a room where their mats are laid out like floor tiles with no space in between. But worst of all, Yasumoto hears, is that he will be constantly watched by Dr. Kyojô Niide, Red Beard (Toshirô Mifune).
Yasumoto is filled with resentment as he begins his internship at the clinic. He resists Dr. Niide's authority, refusing to even put aside his sword and wear the uniform of the clinic doctors. As the story progresses, however, we see his transformation through a series of encounters with the patients of the clinic, and his increasing appreciation of and respect for Red Beard.
Even before his arrival at the clinic, Yasumoto has had another disappointment when he was betrayed by his fiance, so he isn't exactly a stranger to suffering; however, in treating these indigent patients, Yasumoto comes face-to-face with suffering in away that he had never experienced before. For the first time he watches as a woman undergoes excruciatingly painful surgery without anesthetics. He sits with a man who is dying in agony. He also witnesses the death of Sahachi, a permanent resident of the hospital who spends all his time making objects to sell in order to buy things for the other patients. In Sahachi's final hours Yasumoto learns the tragic story of his life.
There is one patient who is not poor, and who is not bodily, but mentally ill. She is kept in a small house on the clinic property and watched over day and night by a female employee of the clinic. Only Red Beard is allowed to treat this patient. She is called The Mantis, and during an encounter with Yasumoto, we find out why.
The most touching of all these vignettes it the story of Otoyo, a twelve-year-old whom Yasumoto rescues from a brothel. Otoyo has never known kindness and is completely withdrawn into her own little world until Yasumoto takes over her care. Eventually, she begins to improve and in her turn, offers help to another child in desperate straits.
Of all the Kurosawa films that I have seen, this is the most realistic. The characters and situations in Red Beard are characters and situations that are familiar to us. The acting for the most part is not exaggerated. It could very well have taken place in the United States with only a few costume and set changes. In a way it reminded me of old Dr. Kildare movies with Lew Ayres and Lionel Barrymore, although I don't really remember much about those movies and I'm sure Red Beard is much better.
Robert Reineke, the author of this very interesting website, says that in many ways Red Beard was a turning point for Kurosawa.
Although they likely didn’t know it at the time, Red Beard marks the end of an era. It’s the end of Kurosawa’s most productive period where he directed 23 movies in 22 years; he would end up directing only seven films over the last 28 years of his career. It’s Kurosawa’s last black and white film. It was the end of a contract with Toho Studios who was finding it increasingly difficult to fund Kurosawa’s films due to their cost since television was changing the Japanese film industry, even though Kurosawa’s films were proven money winners. And it would be Kurosawa’s last film with Toshiro Mifune.
Reineke's review of the film is very good, but replete with spoilers. I would not advise reading it before watching the movie.
The 52 Movies series has become for me an elementary education in Asian films. The more I watch these Japanese movies, the more curious I am about them, and I really wish that I could take a class in the history of Japanese film. Maybe I can find a book.
—Janet Cupo has been commenting on this blog for about as long as it's existed, and has her own excellent blog at The Three Prayers.