When the names of the world’s greatest film directors are discussed, the Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa often enters the conversation. As a screenwriter, director, and producer, he worked in Japan from 1936 into the 1990s. His most productive period was in the 1950s and early 1960s and the films of that time, including Rashomon which marked Japan’s entrance onto the international film scene, Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, The Hidden Fortress, and Yojimbo, are considered classics.
Many of Kurosawa’s films are based on Western literature, including Shakespeare, Gorky, and Dostoevsky, but combined with Japanese lifestyles and culture. He often cast Toshiro Mifune in key roles. Mifune had an electric onscreen presence, and as a younger actor he was occasionally compared to Marlon Brando. There was a feral quality to Mifune which suited his roles as social misfit or samurai warrior. Much has been recorded about the rocky relationship between Kurosawa and Mifune who managed to complete sixteen films together. Books have been written, and a documentary film, Mifune: The Last Samurai, was made a few years ago.
When Martin Scorsese, a disciple of Kurosawa, was asked why the two separated, he said, “Sometimes people use each other up.” That brings me to the final film the two of them made together, Red Beard from 1965. This film took two years to complete and, because it precluded Mifune from making any other films during that period, he was left feeling financially strapped. Their relationship ended on a bad note, and shortly afterwards Kurosawa had a nervous breakdown.
Red Beard isn’t often listed among Kurosawa’s top works. For years I, who is in no way an expert on Japanese cinema, didn’t even take the time to see it. Then the title rose to the top of my Netflix DVD queue a couple weeks ago. I saw it and was overwhelmed by its intensity!
Red Beard follows a young doctor who is fresh out of the Dutch Medical College in Nagasaki. He wants to minister to rich and powerful shoguns, live a privileged life. Instead, he winds up training at a clinic for the needy, under the supervision of a rigid but righteous older doctor (Toshiro Mifune). Under the strict tutelage of this older authority figure, the young intern gains a meaningful portrait of the world. He learns that the sick and dying may smell bad and be without assets and even without loved ones, but they are worthy human beings, and often have fascinating life stories to share.
The film runs more than three hours. During its stretch, the viewer witnesses gradual but eventually broad-based changes in the young doctor’s beliefs and behavior. The viewer also comes to learn some curious details of the older doctor’s nature, his vulnerabilities and his strong suits. All the while, the Mifune character is in full command of his hospital and those who occupy its shabby spaces – in full command of the film’s universe. This character commands the movie in the same way that Kurosawa takes full command of its making.
Interwoven are a few rather lengthy but well-conceived stories of and by several patients, histories that offer profound insights into life itself. Red Beard is a study of the human experience, but it never is preachy. Beautiful quality material is available on various formats for home viewing.
Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.
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