Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Red Beard (1965)

Perhaps the most important reason “Red Beard” is remembered is because this was Akira Kurosawa’s last film starring Toshiro Mifune before they had a fall-out! I would like to remember it another way though…as one of the most unconventional films in the great director’s impressive filmography.

“Red Beard” isn’t really a single story or plot…it is about a young intern Dr. Noboru Yasumoto (Yūzō Kayama) educated in Nagasaki, sent for his post-graduate medical training in a rural charity clinic. The director of this clinic is Dr. Kyojō Niide (Toshiro Mifune) also known as “Akahige”(the “Red Beard”), who on the surface appears tyrannical and a steadfast individual who dictates certain “rules” around the hospital. Yasumoto is supposed to work under Niide and serve in the clinic but he is immediately disappointed with the kind of environment he finds himself in. There aren’t enough funds to support the infrastructure in the clinic and patients are kept in pathetic conditions. There is poverty, disease and death all around and Yasumoto finds himself trapped in the stricken atmosphere and wishes to leave immediately.

When he finds he won’t be able to leave for a while, a miffed Yasumoto comes to believe there is nothing he can possibly gain from working in that environment and is certain that Niide has a vested interest in him for his advanced notes from his Nagasaki medical education. Yasumoto becomes a silent rebel and starts his non-cooperation movement by refusing to wear his uniform, drinking “Sake” in the clinic when it has been prohibited by Niide, among other things.

The film then chronicles Yasumoto’s tenure at the clinic, the various individuals he comes across, patients as well as staff, several unexpected episodes that ultimately make him more compassionate and enable him to come to terms with the situation.

Throughout its sprawling 185 mins length, “Red Beard”, for the most part is a depressing film. A few very interesting characters are shown, each one, mostly a tragic figure, supported by an even more tragic back story as to why he/she has ultimately reached the state of misery he/she is in!

So there is this ailing yet extremely good-hearted patient Sahachi (Tsutomu Yamazaki) who in spite of being seriously ill himself goes out, does some odd jobs and earns money to buy himself and some of his fellow-patients their much needed medicines which seem to fall short in the already impoverished clinic. Then there is Rokusuke(Kamatari Fujiwara), an old man dying of cancer who refuses to say anything! A wonderful scene in the film comes to mind in which Niide asks Yasumoto to sit next to Rokusuke as he dies, for “there is nothing as solemn as a man’s final moments”!

There are other characters like The “Mantis” Madwoman (Kyoko Kagawa) a supposed murderess with a history of abuse, and the teenage prostitute, Otoyo (Terumi Niki) rescued by Niide and Yasumoto from a local brothel, who finally finds a “decent” life in Niide’s clinic! In fact, Otoyo’s story dominates the entire second half of the film, clubbed with the heart-rending story of a little boy named Chobo.

“Red Beard” is a unique film, especially for Kurosawa, no doubt. It could be the only one of its kind amongst all the pictures Kurosawa made. So while the film isn’t really plot-driven, it is an intense study of various characters and an account of the impact of the various challenges in their lives on them. The film moves at a considerably moderate to slow pace, but that helps us sink in, be at one with the environment of the film and relate to the characters. The film is extremely engaging, but there are times when the long length seems to be a deterrent especially when some of back stories take too long to unfold as the audience waits in patience for the back story to reach its conclusion. Some of these scenes also lead to some unnecessary melodrama. But these minor quibbles in no way bring the film down in terms of the overall quality of this passionate picture.

Toshiro Mifune’s towering performance is unfortunately given limited screen time while Yuzo Kayama gets to do more scenes in this one. Apparently one of the scriptwriters Hideo Oguni told Kurosawa that Mifune’s performance had been “all wrong” in the film, which supposedly led Kurosawa, for the first time, to doubt Mifune’s abilities, which ultimately led to the rift, partly due to Mifune’s own misgivings about the project and how it was taking a toll on his other projects. Whatever the back story of the Mifune-Kurosawa rift, it is indeed sad that this prolific partnership had to end. That said, this remains one of the most restrained, accomplished and memorable performances by Toshiro Mifune. While he plays a calm, yet stern individual, he gets to re-live his action-hero persona in a brief fight sequence.

Then there is the “real” lead actor, Yuzo Kayama who impresses with his superb performance. It is sheer pleasure watching the initial arrogance turn into tender compassion as the film progresses.

“Red Beard” may not match the brilliance of his masterpiece “Seven Samurai”, but it certainly does not deserve to be pushed into oblivion, for it certainly is one of Kurosawa’s finest but underrated works!

Score: 9/10


  1. Wonderful review. All Kurosawa is worth watching, and this sounds truly unique.

  2. Unfortunately the only Kurosawa I have seen is Seven Samurai. I need to change that. Nice work!