Akira Kurosawa: Red Beard (1965) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Akira Kurosawa: Red Beard (1965)

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If the movie Red Beard were a person, it would be a spirited kid pursuing a career as an engineer even though he's terrible at math, simply because some well-meaning kindergarten teacher told him he could be anything he wanted when he grew up. This is a film that really, really wants to be a quiet personal epic, and it seems to think all it needs in order to do so is the will. Character transformation from one spectrum of values to the other? Check. Lengthy running time covering a multitude of experiences from a wide range of characters? Check. Grand, generalized emotional struggles? Super check.

I don't dislike this movie, but Red Beard needs to make a choice between two extremes: either a long-form epic that takes place across many different, smaller stories building to a grand mosaic effect, or a tighter, more quickly paced film that covers the fairly standard territory it does here. As it is, it offers glimpses of a meandering, sweeping experience, but doesn't arrive much of anywhere at the end of it.

The basic plot concerns Noboru Yasumoto (Yuzo Kayama), a young, arrogant doctor returning from his studies in Nagasaki with an entitled attitude toward his arranged position serving the Shogun. Much to his surprise and whiny, 3-year-old-level dissatisfaction, he finds himself routed instead to a public clinic run by Red Beard (Toshiro Mifune), an older doctor who gets his name from his distinctive facial hair and also, as he explains, the fact that it is very difficult to pronounce his name. It's literally the most easily pronounced name in the whole movie, but one can imagine Akira Kurosawa sitting over the typewriter trying to find ways to lift the character to mythical status before he even appears on screen, scratching a 5 o'clock shadow, and having an “aha” moment.

The film's structure offers multiple episodic occasions for Yasumoto to learn the error of his ways and come to appreciate not only his position at the clinic and the good he can do there, but also the deeper philosophy of Red Beard, which essentially consists of “be a good person except when you have to do bad things to bad people... but then have the decency to feel bad about it.” The older doctor views his profession less as one in which he must “cure” people, and more as occupying a unique position to marshal patients between life and death. He is a guardian angel figure for the weak and poor in the community, easing their pain when possible and taking advantage of the corrupt elite when he needs additional funds.Several patients are the subjects of their own vignettes across the film's 3-hour running time, all of whom have encountered hardships that factor into their current close encounters with death—be it their own or that of someone near them. This makes for some haunting sequences, most notably one in which a man recounts his experience marrying a woman who he later thought to be dead, before finding her alive years later and the tragedy that followed. He relates his story on his deathbed, and with some well-staged flashbacks and his typically assured command of atmosphere, Kurosawa fully conveys the weight the experience has had on his soul throughout the years.

Few of the other patients' stories can match the impact of this segment, as they nearly all involve the person simply telling others of the events that led them to their current state. This isn't to say these tales aren't well told—and Red Beard's clinic apparently has the unique function of attracting the saddest people in all of Japan—but there are only so many times you can listen to such straightforward stories of someone's sad life before you start to feel like Kurosawa just left a camera on in a therapist's office.

My main issue with the movie is that its primary power seems to lie hidden in these segments, which could expand and develop fully if allowed to take center stage. This would have been an ideal mini-series. But as one long story, the episodic “and now on to the next one” structure combined with (and really just interrupted by) events in the main characters' lives strips the “death vignettes” of any lasting impact. The one exception to this is the aforementioned man who had to lose his wife twice, but Kurosawa finds a way to quickly relay his tragedy through distinct visuals and tone—the other characters require of level of investment that the audience isn't given enough time for.

The end result is, for me, a movie with an instinctual, elegiac view of death that acts as a backdrop for characters and events that aren't that interesting. As well-played as he is by Mifune, Red Beard isn't really that unique of a character, and Yasumoto's transformation is so clearly telegraphed by the opening scenes that the later changes seem like obligatory steps being fulfilled rather than anything of consequence. It's spoiling nothing to reveal that in the end he vows loyalty to the clinic, choosing to stay and remain poor over taking a more luxurious, lucrative position—I could have told you that from the very beginning. Is that it? Is there something else I'm missing?This hasn't happened often, but I'm going to have to take slight issue with the way you posited the film there at the beginning.  At this point Kurosawa has the same status as Tolstoy in the realm of cinema with the exception of Tolstoy's legendary ego.  You note several times that Kurosawa's talent is on display with the movie but relegate it to that poor kid in Kindergarten who just couldn't make the grade because he's chasing a false hope.  This isn't a post-Donnie Darko Richard Kelly film, but a very humble story from a director who has been so mired in darkness the last few films that he just wanted to let some of his latent humanism shine through.

All that said, I agree that the pacing of Red Beard and the stories presented aren't up the the whizz-bang editing of Seven Samurai or Rashomon.  But the point of Red Beard is less to present tight answers in a short frame and more to teach lessons to the doctor.  Yes, this is a bit of a cliche'd notion, but one that works well given the slieght-of-hand that Kurosawa uses here.  Look at the advertising and materials leading up to Red Beard's release with Mifune's mug sternly glaring at any potential onlookers.  Discounting High and Low, he's fresh from two films where he plays the greatest action star of Japan.

So the audience goes into Red Beard with this history and expectation and walks out with disappointment that the only action scene in the film is one that Red Beard regrets.  All this is in service of Kurosawa's humanism as he tells the stories of the downtrodden folk that populate the clinic.  The stories don't feel repetitive because they are all sad, they are all unique in the way that Kurosawa presents them.

I agree that the high mark is the nearly thirty minute deathbed account of Rokusuke.  But that portion is told like a grand melodramatic epic.  Look at the stylistic shift of Dr. Yasumoto's confrontation with The Mantis (Kyoko Kagawa).  She is not given the same drastic weather changes and beautiful flashbacks but instead has to relegate the story of her rape in a single unbroken shot while the soundtrack remains silent save for her movements and dialogue.  Another amazing moment comes later on when Kurosawa changes the quality of the film stock to mix with the chaotic noise of the operating room when Dr. Yasumoto finds he's not the amazing doctor he'd like.It's not so much that Kurosawa is going through a checklist of peaks and valley's that these stories require but giving each character the weight and respect that they deserve.  I guess I'm a bit confused about what would have made them more interesting given Kurosawa's task is to show that Dr. Yasumoto's job is about the people instead of himself and, slowly, both he and Red Beard fade into the background to give way to the patients.  I understand how it seems to be a cliche, but given the craft on hand and intensity of each story how does that make the film a disappointment?

This is one of the Kurosawa films that really lingered in the back of my mind after I watched it for the first time three years ago.  Watching it again I'm impressed how he doesn't play everyone's story as misery porn but, rather, a story that is repeated in different ways far too often.  You say that the stories aren't taking center stage but there is nothing else but these stories.  It's why Dr. Yasumoto's first task is to sit with the dying man.  The Dr. will always be "on to the next one" because that's the nature of his position and why Kurosawa's framing of the narrative is so effective.

I don't think there's much you're missing, but it's clear that we seem to feel very differently about it.  Does any of what I have to say give your perspective a bit of change or am I the babe in the woods here?

Aside from some innuendo that would make the folks at home uncomfortable, I don't think you're the babe in the woods here. The thing that draws me away from the individual patients' stories is primarily the character of the young doctor and, as you said, the film's use of him as an anchor to reflect lessons learned. For me his transformation is so telegraphed early on that every time Kurosawa pivots from a patient's story to its effect on Yasumoto, it diffuses things ever so slightly.

Take for example his early confrontation with The Mantis, who much to my disappointment did not turn out to be this man. The scene is tense, claustrophobic, and chilling in the inevitability of its unfolding, but it ends abruptly and shifts to a scene not so much about the young doctor's arrogance or the frailty of life, but rather Red Beard's reassuring explanation that the silly girl was just born that way. There is of course more care in his version, and thanks to Mifune bringing an unprecedented level of subtlety to the role, he inflects his explanation with sympathy and tact—but I had a tough time reeling from the fact that the intense scene Kurosawa had just played for us turned out to be simply at the service of knocking Yasumoto's arrogance out of him. The Mantis barely figures into the movie again, except for a late scene in which her existence is used tangentially.

This may be a better way to describe the experience of the movie for me: building investment followed by a break where I knew we'd have to go back to the young doctor and his obligatory next step toward enlightenment. As it progressed, the knowledge that the vignettes would ultimately be in the service of this purpose made it tougher for me to invest in them in the first place. I'd have rather witnessed them like Red Beard himself, with acceptance and quiet understanding.Another moment that stands out, though: a little boy lies dying in the clinic after his entire family has tried to poison themselves. The camera is positioned directly above him, so that he looks up while the others look facelessly down at him, and he explains his role in the attempted mass-suicide. It's haunting and made all the more tragic because in his weakened state he must speak slowly, and as a result his tale unfolds with slow and horrible realization on the audience's part, as it gradually becomes clear that an act of childish innocence has marred his life forever. This is interrupted by a ghostly noise outside, which we learn is the sound of staff members at the hospital shouting into a well in order to “call him back to life.”

This sequence is enormously effective, and stands as the best intersection of a patient's individual case and the larger setting of the clinic and its characters. However, by this point in the movie we've gotten more developed relationships between all the characters, so the child's possibly impending death isn't just an occasion for another lesson—it's an event that impacts a number of characters in different and complex ways.

Kurosawa is such a talented director that no matter what he is bound to do at least a few things right. My complaint here is basically that he did most everything right—I just don't understand why he had to ground it all in such a dull and expected character as Yasumoto. The scenes close to the end of the film that follow the one described above focus on his wedding to an almost completely inconsequential character, and his swearing allegiance to Red Beard and the clinic. Why not leave us with something as much impact as the effect of the young boy's poisoning on those at the hospital? It doesn't diffuse the effect of that sequence in itself, but it does change the impact of the film as a whole for me.Our main divergence appears to be how useful Yasumoto is as a central figure for the movie.  In the case of Red Beard, Kurosawa is not trying to give us another epic but, as I said, a humanist tale.  There are no real larger than life figures in the kind of empathetic story that Kurosawa is trying to tell here because we're all caught in the same muck, which is why Kurosawa has so many stories from the community to draw from.

Yasumoto's tale has to be the grounding influence and the one most free from drama to show that the noblest of heroes come from silence instead of bombast.  This is also why I love the way that Kurosawa toys with Red Beard's image.  The good doctor has allowed a mystique to build up around him precisely so that he is able to get what he needs for the townsfolk and so when they are threatened he is able to defend them.

The young apprentice's journey is predestined but for the same reason that Shimura's death was foretold so soon in Ikiru.  It is Kurosawa making the point that the destination should be the same for all people exposed to these sad tales.  I know that we can see the steps ahead of Yasumoto clearly,which is exactly why we view the scenes, as you said, with acceptance and quiet understanding.  The stories themselves are filled with sorrow and emotion but Yasumoto watches each patient come and go in the same way Red Beard watches over his training and we watch the film unfold.

Yes, the way the scenes with The Mantis play out is designed to teach Yasumoto a lesson, but she's just another patient.  If he were a horrible doctor then none of the things that Yasumoto encounters would have changed him in the slightest.  He would have gone back to whining about the shogunate and how his talent's would be better used pulling teeth and helping cope with the pain afterward.  But in the hypothetical movie where there are patients that draw that doctor out I can't imagine any of the cases looking different than the ones we see in Red Beard.

There's no pat closing for the same reason that none of the patients seem to stick around either after they're cured or they die.  Life moves on, rare tragedies like the death of the child really interrupt the flow of treatment, and everyone has a story uniquely their own.  It is a bit pat, but I can't fault Kurosawa for it at all.

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Next week: Kurosawa in color for the magnificently strange Dodesukaden.

Posted by Andrew

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