Welcome to a brand new edition of Hall of Fame, a blog where I’ll be exposing my favorite movies and discussing exactly why I like them so much, this might include some pivotal plot points and even endings so if you haven’t seen the movie I suggest you don’t read these until you do.
This week is the turn of my favorite filmmaker, one that you should be expecting to see here very often, Akira Kurosawa and his 1965 film….
First off, I’ll start with a brief summary of my history with Kurosawa and his films, which I’ve been seeing since a very early age. Seven Samurai was my first, and it was the film that changed how I view movies and made me realize their potential, I’d even go as far as saying that it is the movie that made me want to become a filmmaker. After that came the usual fare…Yojimbo, Rashomon, Ran, Ikiru, etc. All of which have shaped my film-viewing/making life in one way or another, I also love his underappreciated gems like The Bad Sleep Well, Dreams and One Wonderful Sunday. Basically, I’ve never seen a Kurosawa film I don’t like, though I have not seen them all.
Red Beard could’ve changed that. I don’t remember exactly when I first watched it, but I do remember not liking it very much. I could probably attribute that to the fact that it’s a 3 hour movie with only a brief moment resembling action, a necessity for my then very young mind. Over the years and after multiple viewings I have a lot more appreciation for it, so much so that I’d place it as one of his masterpieces.
This story, like many of Kurosawa’s films takes place in a small district of Edo during the 19th century and follows the young and highly unsympathetic and arrogant Dr. Yasumoto (who until recently I could’ve sworn was played by Tatsuya Nakadai and turns out it’s played by Yuzo Kayama; the resemblance is uncanny), who has been assigned to a small rural clinic which he believes is below his talent and aspirations as a physician. The clinic is filled with patients who are “poor, filled with fleas and lice and stink” as one character so eloquently puts it, the staff is small and can barely keep up with the constant influx of sick patients.
Dr. Kyojo Niide, or “Akahige” (red beard, played by the legendary Toshiro Mifune) is the head of the clinic and though he seems autocratic at first, we soon discover he is actually sweet and compassionate, running the clinic with almost no resources and yet never charging poor people. Yasumoto rebels against him, “how does he dare to make me work for people who don’t pay me? I trained to be the Shogun’s doctor!” He thinks to himself; he never obeys Akahige and very rarely helps anyone.
Kurosawa’s mastery in demanding absolute perfection out of every single aspect of shoot, be it the actors’ make-up or the realistic and claustrophobically small rooms, makes the clinic come to life (which is rather ironic since most of the people in it are dying). It really puts you inside that place in that moment and it’s truly depressing. The juxtaposition of these images and Yasumoto’s attitude actually makes me angry, “What the hell is he doing? Can’t he see all that’s going on around him?”
And right there, from the very beginning, it’s always clear to me that this is a movie that will make me feel and will make me think. Kurosawa always puts a lot of social commentary in his films and I feel like in this one, alongside Ikiru and One Wonderful Sunday he makes his views on injustice clearer than in any other.
Thanks to Akahige and his patients, Yasumoto starts to realize how terrible things around him truly are as well as what he can do to help. From that point on I feel the film starts showing us Akahige from Yasumoto’s subjective point of view, because even though he continually criticizes himself he is shown as an almost flawless character, so kind and good that he seems almost like out of an alternative universe were people is completely thoughtful and compassionate, an idealized version of what a doctor should be (I’m not saying there aren’t doctors like him but they’re certainly a minority). This amount of social criticism might turn some people away from the film altogether, but I can’t help but agreeing with it and the fact that a film that takes place in the 19th century and was made in 1965 still resonates with the reality we’re living in right now is truly impressive.
As its common occurrence in Kurosawa’s films, the story of the lead character is but a small piece in a gigantic puzzle. There are many other sub-plots revolving around patients and staff of the clinic. Most of these are great and add a lot to the plot, the only notable exception is the story of Sahachi, a popular and generous man who tells the story about his wife and how it relates to a mysterious corpse that is discovered during a landslide on his deathbed. This takes roughly 15 minutes of the film and it’s not very interesting, it doesn’t add anything to the rest of the story either so it’s not only boring but also unnecessary.
But this is a small exception that can be easily overlooked when we consider how powerful the rest of the stories are, especially Otoyo’s, a girl who becomes the central point of the movie during most of the second half. The sick 12-year old is rescued by Niide and Yasumoto from her oppressive step-mother who makes her work in her syphilis-infested brothel without any regard for her health or sanity.
How she is rescued is actually amusingly strange. Niide has to fight off a gang of toughs and uses his martial arts and medical knowledge to break their bones and put them out of battle. The film is very consistent with its dark and dramatic mood, almost depressingly so, so this scene stands out because it comes out of nowhere and although very brief and not intended to be, it’s actually kind of funny. But I suppose that also applies to how Niide is presented as a nearly perfect human being.
Otoyo forms a bond with Yasumoto, who spends most of his time taking care of her, so much so that she even gets jealous when his fiancé visits him. With time, she earns everyone’s trust and even begins to work in the clinic helping the staff. She becomes friends with a young thief her age, offering him food and life advice. Their story takes the center stage for a good portion of the movie, but it’s so rich and beautifully told that it’s hard to complain.
One of the most magnificent and heartbreaking moments comes near the end of the film. The kid is about to die so Otoyo runs out crying, we start hearing screams coming from outside; it’s Otoyo and the other women of the staff screaming the boy’s name into the well, they believe that if they call out to him his soul will return from the center of the earth and back to his body, if they can bring his soul back by the morning he won’t die, it gives me chills every time I watch it. It’s also a wonderful technical accomplishment; in one shot we see them from inside the well when suddenly the camera starts panning down its walls until it reaches their reflections below as a single drop falls. How this was made still boggles my mind.
We’re used to see Toshiro Mifune in larger than life roles as sometimes crazy but hilarious characters, but Niide is a whole different beast than Kikuchiyo or Sanjuro (his characters in Seven Samurai and Yojimbo respectively), he is a lot more calm, serious and knowledgeable, something more akin to his roles in The Bad Sleep Well and High and Low, though a lot less dark. This also represents something of a step up from his early collaborations with Kurosawa where he often played the apprentice (most of the time opposite Takashi Shimura as his master), here he plays the master, a calm, serene and strong man. It truly is one of his great performances.
And yet, no matter how good Mifune is, it’s Terumi Niki as Otoyo who is the stand out in the cast. Despite her young age at the time, the performance is completely believable, touching and sometimes even painful to watch because of how real it is. If it wasn’t for how good the rest of the cast is, she could’ve completely stolen the show.
And what about the incredible cinematography? The beautiful soundtrack? The amazingly realistic sets? I could literally talk and write for days and days about this movie and that wouldn’t even scratch the surface of everything that could be said about it. This is a notable film in Kurosawa’s filmography for not only being his last one in black and white, but also the last time he would work with Toshiro Mifune, his collaborator in 16 films. The two-year long production and the fact that his natural beard had to be maintained through shooting because Kurosawa would not allow a fake beard which made him unable to act in other films and resulted in him being nearly bankrupt caused a breakup between them. Sure, it is a damn shame that we never got to see another Kurowa-Mifune film, but boy, what a swansong we got.