Red Beard (Akahige)
Japan (1965) Dir. Akira Kurosawa
Talk about misleading titles; I was expecting this to be a film about a pirate or maybe a savage samurai since this is a Kurosawa/Mifune collaboration. Instead, the eponymous character of this near three-hour epic is in fact a dedicated country doctor in Edo era Japan – and the film isn’t even about him anyway!
Red Beard charts the growth of Dr. Noboru Yasumoto (Yuzo Kayama), a young man recently graduated from a Dutch medical school in Nagasaki with the lofty idea of becoming the chief physician to the Shogunate. Instead, he is sent to complete his training in the rural clinic run by the strict and surly Dr. Kyojo Niide (Toshiro Mifune).
Believing he deserves better because of his father’s connections, Yasumoto arrogantly plays idle, refusing to conform to Niide’s rules and holding back from sharing his notes to ensure Niide kicks him out. But old Red Beard is smarter than that and he lets Yasumoto get his pettiness out of his system before showing him the true meaning of being a doctor.
We find Kurosawa in quite a philosophical mood with this film, which isn’t a surprise as his film were often deeper than their plots suggested, but the medical premise, based on the short story collection of Shūgorō Yamamoto with an added subplot borrowed from Dostoevsky, suggests there was a lot on his chest he wanted to offload.
A prevalent thread running throughout is social injustice with poverty being the prime concern, reflected straight away in the meagre conditions of the clinic as Yasumoto is being shown around his new home for the foreseeable future. There are no tatami mats, staff and patients sleep in cramped accommodation and medical budgets are tight enough as it is.
The district of Koishikawa, where this is set, isn’t exactly a prosperous metropolis so the propensity for high sick rates among the denizens on a daily basis is exceptionally high. For Yasumoto this is all beneath him and Niide’s bushy beard (with red tint hence the nickname) and stern manner doesn’t scream skilled physician to his arrogant standards either. But the journey Yasumoto is about to embark on under the aegis of Niide breaks down the purpose of being a doctor to its fundamental ethics.
Kurosawa develops Yasumoto’s education through the suffering of others before having him experience his own hardships. Still in his rebellious mode, even refusing to don the clinic uniform, Yasumoto‘s first assignment is to watch a dying man in his final moments, something he is clearly ill-prepared for. His bravado is the challenging when called on to assist with an operation, only for Yasumoto to faint halfway through.
In trying to bate Niide, Yasumoto tries to gain entrance to a forbidden client, a woman known as The Mantis (Kyoko Kagawa), for her habit of killing men who get near her. One night she corners Yasumoto in his quarters at the clinic and tearfully tells him her tragic history of abuse as a child which has shaped her warped view of the opposite gender. Through the use of shadows and noir lighting Kurosawa turns this simple scene of emotional outpouring into a terrifyingly tense dramatic centrepiece.
However it is another tragedy, this time an unburdening of the conscience by another dying man, the local Good Samaritan Sahachi (Tsutomu Yamazaki), that it all hits home for Yasumoto and he sorts himself out. The aforementioned Dostoevsky inspired subplot dominates the second half of this film after a call to treat syphilis at the local brothel reveals a sickly 12-year old girl Otoyo (Terumi Niki) being beaten by the madam.
Niide instructs Yasumoto to taker Otoyo on as his patient, struggling with her distrusting and traumatised reactions towards him but when Yasumoto falls ill from fatigue, the roles are reversed and the doctor is now the patient. As serendipitous as this was, it finally instilled into Yasumoto the main credo that Niide operates by – that people are just as important, if not more, than their health and compassion is just as great a healer as medicine.
It might sound hokey and perhaps too idealistic to feel altruistically credible but this is where Kurosawa the storyteller reveals his incisive understanding of human nature to present a compelling case. A recovered Otoyo, now working at the clinic with the embittered old Mrs. Scrubs, has her own storyline involving a young boy thief (Yoshitaka Zushi) to reiterate the pay it forward importance of kindness of the unfortunate.
Providing the balance to illustrate Niide’s tenet further is his house call to a nearby lord, a corpulent, privileged oaf whose diet of rich food in colossal portions and dedication to being completely inert is putting his health at risk. Niide has no qualms shooting from the hip and demands a scornfully hefty payment in return for his advice, which goes right back into the clinic.
At almost three hours in length, this is a film that takes its time to get into gear; this lack of immediacy and the slow first hour might deter some viewers, but once things get going the time flies by. Kurosawa employs a number of techniques, visually and in the narrative, to create mini-stories within the main remit to keep thing fresh and engaging, boasting some of his most creative camerawork and shot composition from this period.
Toshiro Mifune may not be the central focal point but he still dominates the screen with his magnetic presence that even a thick beard and atypical calm demeanour can’t hide, letting mask slip briefly to beat up a gang of thugs with literal clinical precision. Yuzo Kayama offers robust support as Yasumoto but for this writer, the scene-stealer is Terumi Niki, then 16, playing young Otoyo.
In asking “What price humanity?” Kurosawa demonstrates a rare lack of urgency, allowing a deeper probing into wider issues that remain relevant to this day. Against expectations, Red Beard stands as one of Kurosawa’s most astute, socially conscious disquisitions.