#8 in my ranking of Akira Kurosawa’s filmography.
This is the film that ended the working relationship between Toshiro Mifune and Akira Kurosawa, a production that went for two years, required a massive amount of art direction to bring Kurosawa’s vision of a 19th century village to life (that we barely see in the film), involved sickness across many cast and crew, and required Mifune to keep a full beard for the whole time. It apparently went so far that Mifune was unable to find other work at the time due to his commitments to the long production, tied up so much of his money, and limited his ability to change his image that his feelings towards Kurosawa on a professional level, at least, cooled to the point that they never worked again, the two taking very different paths for the rest of their careers. It’s unfortunate, because the end result of all that hard work is a tender, humanist fable that feels like a combination of Ikiru and The Lower Depths.
Dr. Noboru Yasumoto (Yuzo Kayama) arrives at a remote medical clinic run by Dr. Kyojo Niide (Mifune), also known as “Red Beard” for the reddish tint in his facial hair. With no idea that he’s been assigned to the impoverished clinic, Yasumoto is surprised when Red Beard insists that he will be staying but also demands all of his medical notes. Yasumoto was being groomed to be no less than the Shogun’s personal doctor, and he sees this assignment, given to him without his knowledge to an unpleasant and tyrannical overseer, as an insult. He refuses to give his notes, wear the clinic uniform, or even to see any patients until Red Beard grows so tired of him that he kicks him out. Red Beard, though, is far more obstinate than Yasumoto.
The bulk of the film, especially the first half, is a series of vignettes involving patients of the clinic as they tell their stories, wearing down Yasumoto’s unpleasant veneer and haughtiness. There is the old man, brought in from an inn, who is slowly dying of liver cancer (Yasumoto incorrectly diagnoses it as stomach cancer) without ever saying a word that Red Beard insists Yasumoto observe as he dies. Yasumoto cannot bear the pathetic sight and leaves, allowing one of the servant women to be with him in his final moments. To the clinic, just out of time, comes the old man’s daughter with her three small children in tow and her tale of woe about how she had rejected her father because she had been forced to marry her mother’s younger lover. There’s also a solitary man who, despite his respiratory illness that will not go away, insists on working at all times to earn money and offer it up to his fellow patients. He had loved and married a girl some years ago, and they had been separated by a great earthquake. Reuniting several years later, she had reappeared with another man’s child on her back, the result of her previous promise to marry another man. She then committed suicide out of sadness in front of him, and he had buried her and built a workshop on top of her grave.
Kurosawa was frequently revisiting the idea of the stray dogs of society, those cast off by the larger world. The peasants in Seven Samurai, the dying yakuza in Drunken Angel, the titular stray dog of a criminal in Stray Dog, the peasants in The Lower Depths, the kidnapper in High and Low are all people on the edges of society trying to find ways to survive. The films are usually about a man outside of that trying to help like the titular samurai, the doctor, the detective, the astral figure of the old man, and the rich man in each of the films. In Red Beard it’s about the titular character teaching his young doctor through his example the values of charity not only towards those receiving it but also to those giving it.
By listening to all of these stories of poverty, never purely victim stories that reduce the characters to caricatures but complex problems rising from complex human emotion, Yasumoto softens in the face of these poor people. His softening comes to the point where, when Yasumoto accompanies Red Beard on a visit to the brothel area, they take a twelve-year-old girl, Otoyo (Terumi Niki), out of her captivity under the tyrannical madame and nurse her back to health. Her poor health is not just her fever that leads her to collapse from exhaustion, but also mental. It becomes Yasumoto’s job to help her recover completely, and it’s a long job that ends up getting him sick as well, allowing the two to switch roles of caretaker. The process of healing is not a straight line, nor is it simple, but it’s a long, hard process.
I should take a moment to note the film’s length. This is Kurosawa’s second longest film, second only to Seven Samurai, and it never really feels like it. The film has little plot to drive the action. What it has instead are extended character moments of revelation and confession, and they’re all wonderfully and gently written while also being intricately performed. The reason the production took two years was the same reason it took a full sixty day shooting schedule to make a film version of a stage play in The Lower Depths. Kurosawa was looking for perfection in his those performances, and the work paid off. Every character, from Red Beard on down, is precisely and distinctly performed, and no where does that work better than with Kayama as Yasumoto. His change from haughty young rebel to dedicated disciple is rather perfectly drawn.
What Yasumoto’s growth as a character ends up doing is filling his heart with a complete charity that helps heal old wounds in his own life, mostly stemming from his broken engagement with his former fiancée (she broke it off in favor of another man). Her father was so enraged by her mistreatment of Yasumoto that he cut her off, but he long desires to hold his grandchild. So, when Yasumoto decides to marry his ex-fiancée’s younger sister, he offers his forgiveness to the woman who wronged him at the same time, allowing healing throughout his in-law’s family.
There’s more, mostly involving a young boy who steals gruel to feed himself that Otoyo takes pity on, offering her rice, and the boy’s family deciding that committing suicide is the best way out of their poverty and shame of the boy being caught for stealing. The charity of Red Beard has filtered from Yasumoto to Otoyo, and the efforts to save the boy have real emotional weight.
There’s something special about Red Beard. It’s Kurosawa’s most purely humanist work since Ikiru. I took several classes with Stephen Prince, the film scholar, when I was at Virginia Tech, and I asked him what his favorite Kurosawa film was. He said it was Red Beard, and it’s easy to see why.