Red Beard (1965)
Nicholas Driscoll
August 3, 2009
Note: review may contain spoilers

Reviewing Akira Kurosawa is intimidating. Considering how revered the old master is in his medium, I feel as if there is some expectation that the baseline score for any of his movies is five stars out of five, and goes up from there. Along with other legendary directors like Scorcese or Ozu, a dissenting opinion on one of the sacred films is motivation enough for some pompous fans to decry a critic's opinion as ignorant and more foolish than giving crutches to a lame snake. On the one hand, whenever I watch Kurosawa movies, I can excuse myself from reviewing what I see by asserting that I am unqualified for the job—and thereby keep to myself the opinion that, say, Dreams (1990) was fairly mediocre. On the other hand, I find that sort of kowtowing to cultural elitist rhetoric distasteful. Put simply, I want to review what I want to review when I want to review it—so there, nyah!

Nevertheless, I've put off reviewing Kurosawa, for whatever reason. For one thing, all the Kurosawa films I have seen up to this point have been some of the more famous ones—movies that film critics love to praise, and enough ink has been spilled about them already to fill a lake or two. I prefer to focus on more overlooked gems, in my humble attempt to bring more recognition to movies that have, for one reason or another, crawled into obscurity. And while it may be a bit of a stretch to call Red Beard obscure—it is Kurosawa, and it does star Toshiro Mifune after all—nevetheless, I knew nothing about the film going in. That, and whenever I told someone that I watched Red Beard, the general response went something like, “Kurosawa directed a pirate movie?” Well… as deliciously appealing as that concept is, no. Red Beard is a samurai-era Japanese medical drama. For what it's worth, I certainly don't hear that plot description very often, either.

The plot is long, and it travels several roads, yet centers around Noboru Yasumoto (Yuzo Kayama, ESPY), a doctor-in-training who aspires to become the shogun's personal physician. The film opens with Yasumoto arriving at what appears to be a rather depressing clinic filled to overflowing by the poor and needy. Yasumoto doesn't know exactly why he has been called to this place, and comes to a rude awakening when the smarmy Genzo (Tatsuyoshi Ehara, Sanjuro, The Izu Dancer) informs him that he is to begin working there immediately. Initially, Yasumoto is appalled at the Spartan living conditions, the illnesses of the poor, and the strictness of Red Beard (the incomparable Toshiro Mifune), head of the clinic and so nicknamed because of the crimson tint to his whiskers. Yasumoto rebels, disgusted that his fate could be attached to such a backward, hopelessly poor establishment; but his attempts to escape are spoiled as he becomes aware of the enormous need of the populace, and endures their many stories of suffering and redemption.

Filmed in stark black and white, and based on a novel by Shugoro Yamamoto (who also wrote Sanjuro, Dodes'kaden, and others), Red Beard is slow and measured, lingering long on Yasumoto's step-by-step character progression. Initially the young doctor comes across unsympathetically, a rebel, unconcerned with anyone except himself and his own ambitions. It is through the intense suffering and sacrifice of his patients and their stories that his heart begins to crack open, and his life transformed.

And there are a lot of stories, too—each one memorable in its own way. The old man dying of cancer, and the family that depends on him. The bizarre (for Western ears) tale of the man who marries happily, only to have his wife leave him because she felt she was too happy and didn't deserve it, and the horrific end to their tale. The “mantis”—a mad woman, tormented by memories of childhood sexual abuse, who now serially seduces men only to kill them. The young girl Otoyo, owned by a brothel to be used, saved by Red Beard in a show of strength, but suspicious and broken by nature, and requiring tender care for a healing of more than just physical illness. And there are more—hesitant romances, a starving child living by stealing, etc. But each story is told with care, unhurried, usually with exquisite photography. And the characters are well-realized, easily sympathetic with time, and complex, even if occasionally some of the performances might falter.

But none of the performances falter much. Yuzo Kayama, perhaps best known in Japan as the title character from the much-loved Wakadaisho series, is decent as Yasumoto. His character is somewhat bland, but as the protagonist, he functions as a serviceable stand-in for the viewer. Toshiro Mifune is superb, retaining his commanding screen presence even when not wielding a sword. He is a man of healing and cares deeply for the downtrodden, but is also prone to be overtaken by his passions, and at one point explodes, using his intimate knowledge of the human body in order to break the limbs of a gang of attackers. It's an astounding, painful scene that really conveys Red Beard's power and disdain.

Other characters shine brightly as well. Maybe my favorite was Otoyo, portrayed by Terumi Niki (who was also in The Man Behind the Scissors). Niki's performance is somewhat mixed, but her character, a preteen trapped in a brothel, is deeply sympathetic and sweet. As to be expected, when she is rescued she starts off life at the clinic harsh, hiding, expecting everyone to hate her, hurt her. She is shocked when she is shown any measure of kindness, and her subsequent evolution as she learns to love, well—alright, I admit it. I loved it.

I also loved Chobo (Yoshitaka Zushi), the little rugrat thief, and his story. The kid is an adorable rascal in a bad, bad situation, and though Zushi is just a little kid, he imbues the proud scamp with zest and pathos. Man, it's great.

All that said, some of the scenes don't come off very well. At one point, Yasumoto struggles with the insane woman (good performance by Kyoko Kagawa), but the fight goes on too long, and at one point the doctor seems to mysteriously pass out for a few moments, and for no apparent reason. As I said before, some of the plots are hard to understand via Western sensibilities, and the pacing is rather slow, which may try the patience of viewers accustomed to fast-paced narratives. Nevertheless, I was never bored, and in a movie three hours long, that's an accomplishment. The biggest disappointment for me was that the subplot with “the mantis” is never fully resolved. Because her story was presented so prominently in the narrative, I expected some kind of catharsis before the end—but none was given.

The music was somewhat sparse, instrumental work with strong motifs in string and brass. Usually the film remains quiet, almost brooding, and the music comes in to highlight particular sequences. None of the themes stuck with me after viewing, but they were more than acceptable in the context of the film.

Red Beard is simply quite excellent as a more serious film experience. While squeamish viewers should be warned—a particularly gruesome sequence features a struggling naked woman during an operation—lovers of strong story should find much to appreciate here, with Kurosawa's usual flair for framing scenes, and strong performances all around. The somewhat unusual clinic setting gives the narrative a unique punch. Definitely recommended, even though Barbossa never makes an appearance.