Red Beard (1965) – One of Kurosawa’s most overlooked films

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Red Beard is legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s 16th film with actor Toshiro Mifune. It’s also the film that is now known as the one that effectively ended their long and fruitful collaboration, which began with 1948’s Drunken Angel. Kurosawa and Mifune were the Japanese equivalent of Scorsese and De Niro and it’s a pity that their relationship had to end on a bitter note. The role that Mifune plays here is that of a sage-like physician and for this, he had to maintain a full beard for a whole 2 years and this prevented him from signing on other projects. The resulting financial troubles frustrated Mifune and this led to his decision of parting ways with his long-time mentor.

Apparently, the reason for Kurosawa making this film was that he was quite displeased with how his previous film High and Low was received by Japanese audiences and to rectify this, he wanted to make a film so magnificent that everyone would flock to see it. Kurosawa wanted this film to be his ultimate “epic” and worked so hard on the project for 2 long years. His obsession with details is well-known and for Red Beard, he built a set so massive that it was a small town by itself – a town that resembled one from the 1800s. He even used the same kind of wood they used back then. It’s a 3-hr long film and is perhaps Kurosawa’s most overlooked film. The story is set in 19th century Japan and revolves around a young doctor named Yasumoto, recently graduated from a Dutch medical school in Japan. Yasumoto has lofty aspirations and when he is assigned to a public clinic for his internship, he becomes unhappy.

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The clinic is headed by the intimidating yet compassionate Dr. Niide, who is also known by the nickname “Akahige” (Red Beard). Niide’s methods and the working conditions initially make him rebellious but the various patients that arrive at the clinic, their history and Niide’s compassionate attitude towards them slowly transforms Yasumoto and he evolves into a new and completely different man. In the beginning, Yasumoto is someone who is very arrogant, ambitious and thinks highly of himself. He finds the thought of working at a public clinic repulsive. But the various adversities that he comes across during his work there, provide him with a path for self-discovery and redemption.  He tries every trick in the book to make Niide kick him out of the clinic. But Niide being the inspiring figure that he is, Yasumoto slowly turns into a person who starts to care more about others than himself. This is a character with whom I can very much relate to.

There is a particular scene in Red Beard that some think is out of place considering the overall tone. Niide displays an aversion to violence after getting into a violent confrontation provoked by some goons, he breaks several of their bones and seeing the damage that he has done, regrets going too far. I felt this scene fits very well and clearly demonstrates what kind of character Niide is. This trait is reminiscent of another Kurosawa character, Sanjuro, which also was played by Mifune. This is Kurosawa’s most humane film since his 1952 film Ikiru, starring Takashi Shimura. Kurosawa has made several films that explored the mentor-protege story in different forms. First there was Drunken Angel which was followed by Stray Dog and then there was Seven Samurai, all featuring Mifune as a protege. But here, the roles are reversed and this time it’s Mifune playing the mentor, one who is as restrained and wise as Takashi Shimura’s leader in Seven Samurai.

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