Criterion: Red Beard(****) -Kurosawa’s Last with Mifune

Red Beard – 1965

Director Akira Kurosawa
Screenplay Masato Ide, Ryūzō Kikushima, Akira Kurosawa, Hideo Oguni based on Akahige shinryōtan by Shūgorō Yamamoto
Starring Toshiro Mifune, Yūzō Kayam, Tsutomu Yamazaki, Reiko Dan, Miyuki Kuwano, Kyōko Kagawa, Takashi Shimura, Terumi Niki

There is mystery surrounding the break up of Kurosawa and Mifune. It’s not clear when it happened to this viewer. What is well known is that this would be the last time they worked together.

The story is of a young doctor, Yasumoto (Kayama) who is assigned to a medical clinic in the Koishikawa district of Edo (former name of Tokyo). His chosen path is to be the personal physician to the Shogunate, and working for a clinic serving the poor does not appeal to him. He makes this clear to everyone, including the head physician, Dr. Niide (Mifune). The doctor takes the young man’s reticence in stride and goes right on doing the good work for the community.

Faster than one can say Doc Hollywood, Yasumoto is brought into the light and becomes a true believer. Kayama’s performance is layered, as Yasumoto is given the lion’s share of the storylines. One after the other, the townspeople show him the virtue of what it means to be a true caretaker of humanity. It’s a lesson worth repeating, to be sure.

The challenge in this film is presenting a compelling case against helping people in need. No one really wants to believe people are disposable. Everyone thinks of Niide as their grizzled guardian, and in almost every scene, he does the right thing. Even when he takes out a gang of thugs, he does so with their recovery in mind.

As such, the film is driven by some of the subplots. One is about Sahachi, a wheelwright who generously helps the community, but has a dark secret. His story is compelling, if somewhat of a stretch to believe.

Another compelling story is of a 12 year old girl (Niki) forced into prostitution. She is rescued by Red Beard and his protege, only to become enamored with the latter. This is the best thing about the film, as the delicate matter is handled sensibly on all sides. Otoyo’s feelings are not trivialized. She is not in love, as much as in repose. She needs to come out of the shock of her experience. This story leads to an even more touching subplot involving a little 7 year old thief who Otoyo befriends. The movement from one portion of the story to the other is handled deftly.

Mifune is fine for the role he is given. He really doesn’t have much to do, other than ponder fate, work with the sick and injured and share bits of wisdom with Yasumoto. His reputation as a tyrannical boss never really comes across. He allows his rebel to express himself, while the true believers tell the young doctor how hard he is on them. This doesn’t ever really come across in action, only words.

The years really hit Mifune. In these last few films, youthful good looks had given way to a gruff exterior. His continual sideways motion of rubbing his beard is reminiscent of some of Shimura’s best work. He knows how to express much with very few words. Some of the medical procedures expressed at the time (approximately 1825) are shocking in the age of Covid-19.

There is one time where the “wisdom” prevailing in the 60’s makes an appearance on the film. Red Beard, at the house of an obese socialite, gives him the instructions that seemed right at the time (less meat and eggs, more rice), but have since proven to be the kind of diet which would have made the man die in record time.

Much of the film feels manipulative. Kurosawa’s desire to study the agency of humanity individually, as well groups, is in full force here. We’re given a philosophy course on how valuable people are for their experiences, feelings and hidden virtues. These are expressed in action, then followed up in words of the master Red Beard to his ever more willing student.

As such, the film doesn’t give us much of a character for Mifune to play. He has no moral bridge to cross. His performance echoes Shimura’s of Seven Samurai. He’s a guy with the whole package, just passing it along to someone who will follow in his footsteps. As such, Kayama mirrors Mifune of the same film. If his performance is not as magnetic as Mifune’s, its definitely a worthy effort by the singer turned actor.

As usual, no one makes better use of the wide screen than Kurosawa. The breadth of his lens makes even a crowded room feel luxurious. One of the more remarkable scenes is when a group of women, lead by Otoyo, shout down in a well, praying for dawn to come so someone can make it through the roughest part of the night.

Where is the camera?

The incredible work allows us to follow the voices down the well. When we get to the reflection, no trace of a camera. This is truly a master craftsman.

He gets some incredible performances throughout the cast for this 3:05 minute running time. The afore-mentioned Niki is remarkable in a tough role. The entire nursing staff is tremendous, as well. It’s with their performances one gets a grasp of the magnitude of the clinic’s incredible value to its community.

This is not Kurosawa’s best work. In many ways, it is a film of its time. Much of Kurosawa’s work is more of the timeless quality. This feels like something one might have seen from some of the better television dramas of the 1960’s. For that, it is still worth our time.

(**** out of *****)

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