Red Beard
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Akira Kurosawa's cinema is large in every sense of the word. He often spent a year or more on preparation, sometimes had enormous sets built, popularized the three-hour movie, drew on elite literary sources such as Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky, and tackled the big questions centering on social injustice and the more tragic aspects of the human condition. It's no coincidence that major western films were inspired by, or practically copy, Kurosawa's originals (Magnificent Seven's debt to Seven Samurai, and A Fistful of Dollars' to Yojimbo, come to mind).

Of course, ambition has its pitfalls, and a sprawling project like Red Beard illustrates some of Kurosawa's weaknesses alongside his obvious strengths.

The story, ostensibly based on a novel by Shuguro Yamamoto, suggests both Dickens and Dostoyevsky in its sweeping, multi-layered story of a slum doctor's tutelage of a bourgeois young doctor, and the latter's progress from selfish to selfless, from looking inward to seeing and trying to improve the world, through a complex indoctrination into the life of a slum clinic and its suffering souls. (Dostoyevsky's The Insulted and the Injured inspired one of the major subplots here, the story of 12-year-old Otoyo, rescued from a brothel.)

Set in the early nineteenth century, Red Beard begins with the arrival of an arrogant young doctor, Yasumoto (Yuzo Kayama), at an impoverished clinic. His plan to become an "important" doctor for the shogunate, treating the problems of the rich, is thwarted, and he becomes the unwilling assistant of the clinic's chief, Red Beard (Toshiro Mifune). Yasumoto's disgust manifests itself immediately: he spurns the clinic uniform, drinks forbidden sake, faints during a violent surgical procedure, and balks at sharing the much-needed results of his medical studies with Red Beard.

Yasumoto's experience at the clinic is initially as difficult as the lives of those he's supposed to treat. In a riveting early sequence, he's attacked and almost killed by a beautiful but deranged woman known as "the Mantis" for her habit of seducing and then murdering men. This episode begins his education in life that will continue in a series of extended set-pieces that could be excised and shown as miniature movies themselves.

These episodes are the meat of the movie. The first is the story of "the Mantis," a woman who was raped repeatedly as a child and survived intact only physically. Her encounter with Yasumoto is a kind of test that he survives through the intervention of Red Beard, who treats him for the slight wound she was able to inflict before being dragged away. Another major sequence is the story of Rokuskue, a gold-lacquer craftsman dying of liver cancer. Yasumoto is told to stay with the patient, to see him die, which Yasumoto can only do briefly, enduring the closeness of death until, huddled in a corner as Rokusuke's choked, clicking breaths echo in the room, he collapses. Yasumoto's mettle is further tested when he's exposed to the grim story of Rokuskue's daughter, and by the equally tragic tale of the Sahachi, who works relentlessly to help the other indigents despite the fact that he is equally poor and in fact dying.

The film tracks Yasumoto's progress from a sulky, privileged boy angry at being duped into exposure to this demimonde into a mature man who realizes the worth of other human beings despite their circumstances. By the final episode, the salvation and redemption of 12-year-old Otoyo from a vicious madam, he has come to understand the world through his experiences at the clinic.

Throughout these experiences stands Red Beard as a steadying, nurturing influence. Their relationship, initially hostile on Yasumoto's part and gruffly stoic on Red Beard's, inspires some of Kurosawa's most poetic visuals, as when Red Beard's shadow is seen as a kind of ghostly moral authority, thrown against the wall behind the peaceful but supine form of Yasumoto, recovering from the wounds inflicted by the Mantis.

Red Beard is a heady mix of such intimate, interiorized moments and a grand, almost grandiose vision. Its sheer scope accounts for much of its success but also for some of its problems. The film was a failure in international release. Fans weaned on Seven Samurai, which ran about equally long, could not get past the mostly slow, stately pacing. The characters and every nuance of their lives become familiar to the viewer, in a sense painfully so, as some of the sequences are overlong and underdramatized. The set-pieces are all variations on hammered-home themes of human misery and transcendence, and as strong as the individual stories are, the film might have benefited from less of them. Western critics were more praising than western audiences, but there were mixed reactions there also. Some commentators, including Richard N. Tucker, believe it is the director's greatest. Contrarily, Audie Bock, a highly regarded scholar of Japanese cinema, found a "didactic remoteness" in it and claimed that while the visuals were "expert," they also "lack the depth and movement of a film like Seven Samurai." Red Beard's failure abroad was not repeated in Japan, where it was revered instantly as a masterpiece, both commercially and critically,

That said, Red Beard remains a powerful experience for those willing to accept it on its own terms. The visuals are consistently inspired, from what commentator Stephen Prince calls the "smoky, flattened" look of the telephoto lens used throughout, to the crystalline cinematography that drives home every gorgeous detail of mise-en-scene, to the harrowingly steady camera focused on wrenching scenes like the Mantis attacking her prey. And there are unforgettable images throughout — the close-up of Rokusuke dying, the women wailing into a well to save a dying child.

The acting is equally superb, with special marks going not only to Mifune and Kayama, but to some of the secondary players such as Kyoko Kagawa, brilliantly unhinged as the Mantis, and Terumi Niki, heartbreaking as young Otoyo. Kurosawa's characteristic care with framing, his jarring cuts to make the viewer as uncomfortable as the characters, the poetic touches — all are in full, finished form here. And to show he hasn't lost his martial-arts chops, Kurosawa beautifully executes a scene of Red Beard casually dispatching a group of bodyguards at the brothel. His quietly calculated bone-breaking of his attackers (as a doctor he knows just where to snap) is a wonder to behold. A group of tough but sensitive cooks add humor and pathos, particularly in a scene where they assault the madam who's returned to take possession of Otoyo. Mifune shines here and throughout, the very essence of personal strength in the face of an implacable world.

Red Beard was two years in the making, partly because by this time, with an international reputation to uphold and perhaps because of his own ambitions as an artist, Kurosawa insisted on verisimilitude at all cost. Thus, shooting was held up until a suitable snow fell, or a heavy rain, or a particular kind of sky. And then there's the set. The director insisted on an absolutely authentic reproduction of virtually an entire small town, which the camera makes ample use of. The film's unusually long shooting time took its toll on the relationship between Kurosawa and the actor indelibly linked to him.

Toshiro Mifune was hitting his stride at this time and wanted to work elsewhere, but was held up by the demands of Red Beard. The result was that the friendship ended, and they never worked together again. Kurosawa's avowed intent to make "something so magnificent that people would just have to see it" — understandable after the unenthusiastic reception of his previous film, High and Low — was laudable but cost him considerably. He may have simply expended too much personally and professionally on this monumental film. Several aborted projects followed, including a few weeks' work on Tora! Tora! Tora! that ended in a bitter dismissal by the studio, Fox. Five years would pass before he would realize another project.

Red Beard is now available on DVD from The Criterion Collection in a new high-definition transfer with restored image and sound. The disc includes audio commentary by Kurosawa film scholar Stephen Prince and an original theatrical trailer. Suggested retail price: $39.95 each. For more information, check out the The Criterion Collection Web site.


(Photos: © 2002 The Criterion Collection. All rights reserved.)