RED BEARD

(Japanese title: Akahige)
(1965 - Japan)
With Toshiro Mifune, Yuzo Kayama, Tsutomu Yamazaki, Reiko Dan, Terumi Niki, Takashi Shimura
Directed by
Akira Kurosawa
Black and White
Reviewed by JB

Not dead yet? Okay, I'll come back later for the sheets.     RED BEARD was Akira Kurosawa's most unashamedly sentimental film to date.  Its freewheeling, episodic structure is a long cry from the pure narrative drive of SEVEN SAMURAI or the ethereal weirdness of THRONE OF BLOOD, but, despite often teetering on platitudinal predictability, RED BEARD is considered a masterpiece by some fans.  I don't think it is, but it is certainly worth the long trip for all the usual reasons - excellent performances, memorable vignettes and Kurosawa's unmistakable magic touch behind the camera.  There's so much in RED BEARD, you will undoubtedly find things to love about it, but also things to dislike.

     RED BEARD tells the story of young doctor Yasumoto, fresh out of medical school, who rebels against being assigned to a public clinic.  Under the tutelage of the gruff head doctor, nicknamed Red Beard, Yasumoto eventually learns that curing sickness does not just mean tending to the body, but also to the heart and soul.  In his first and only film with Kurosawa, popular Japanese star Yuzo Kayama plays Yasumoto, and he is splendid in the role.  Had the film been made a decade or so earlier, Toshiro Mifune would have undoubtedly played the young upstart, with Takashi Shimura playing the wise mentor, a screen relationship they portrayed in such films as DRUNKEN ANGEL and STRAY DOG.  But times had changed, and now Mifune was playing the mentor, Red Beard, with Kayama in the "student" role.  As one insightful Internet critic remarked in a review of RED BEARD, Mifune now seemed to be outgrowing Kurosawa's films, which may have been one reason why RED BEARD was the final collaboration between the two men.
   
     RED BEARD features one of the most superb female performances in any Kurosawa film, that of young Terumi Niki as Otoyo, a twelve-year-old girl rescued from a life of prostitution. Niki is remarkable throughout the film as, with Doctor Yasumoto's help, Otoyo transforms from an emotional cripple to a sweet young girl once again capable of love and kindness.  The character is the most sympathetic female character in a Kurosawa film since the young office worker of IKIRU, more than a decade earlier.  Again, as with Yuzo Kayama, Kurosawa had found a possible new member of his stock company in Terumi Niki, one that could have gone on to great things with the director, but circumstances dictated otherwise.

    Although it attempts to encompass the entire spectrum of human existence, RED BEARD is not one of Kurosawa's deepest works.  Melodramatic and manipulative as the director slams home his visions of the wretched lives of the poor, RED BEARD wears its heart on its sleeve from frame one through to the fade-out, and you either give into it or you resent it.  It is a Kurosawa valentine to humanity, with the message later echoed up by another humanist, novelist Kurt Vonnegut, "You've got to be kind".  A such, it is a lovely film, one that like so many Kurosawa films gets better with each viewing.  It's such a nice film, and so beautifully shot, that it is hard not to get caught up in the various stories, but it may leave fans of the director's more complex work cold.  

    For those who stick with it, there are many unforgettable moments, from low comedy to stark tragedy.  Mifune is fine as RED BEARD, although you can't really rank it amongst his best performances simply because his character lacks the dimension Mifune needs to really get going. He gets to be gruff and wise, but the doctor in DRUNKEN ANGEL was much more interesting, as was the mentor-student relationship in STRAY DOG. Only once does Mifune get to be "Mifune" in a rollicking YOJIMBO-like scene featuring Doctor "Red Beard" systematically defeating a group of street  thugs with the bone-breaking expertise only a skilled surgeon would have.  Those (like me) fascinated with Kurosawa's use of long takes will love a suspenseful five-minute scene in which Yasumoto is seduced "the praying mantis", a beautiful patient who is also a homicidal maniac who kills men with a hairpin. (The scene, however, begs the question - why the hell is this patient still allowed to have a hair pin???).

     Kurosawa conceived RED BEARD as a huge, sweeping film that all of Japan would want to see - in short, a blockbuster. In its day it was a sensation in Japan and a disappointment in America.  Today, it is still a must-see for all Kurosawa fans, but really - pouty rich student, kindly old doctor?  We accept it because it is Kurosawa, and is stunningly brilliant in parts and enjoyable overall, but it feels more like Lifetime Movie or Hallmark Hall of Fame stuff than the kind of film we usually get from this genius.  It wants to be Kurosawa's most deep and meaningful, but IKIRU runs rings around it without trying half as hard.

    You'll probably love it more if think of it as a bookend to 1948's DRUNKEN ANGEL, as the last film in the amazing 17-year-run of uncommonly superior movies for which Kurosawa is most famous.  Things would never be the same again.  After RED BEARD, Toho and a more cost-conscious Japanese film industry lost patience with the director, who, indulging his in perfectionist tendencies, took two years to deliver the film.  One of his most ambitious creations, RED BEARD marked the end of Kurosawa's most creative and successful period.  The age of Mifune, Shimura and "the Kurosawa Players" was over.  Although Kurosawa would make several excellent films after RED BEARD, including one late masterpiece (1985's RAN), it is the black and white films from the late 1940s through 1965 that will always best define his virtuoso brilliance and his importance in the history of filmmaking . ½ - JB

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