Review by Michael Jacobson
Toshiro Mifune, Yuzo Kayama, Terumi Niki
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Audio: Dolby Digital 4.0
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Features: Commentary Track, Theatrical Trailer
Length: 185 Minutes
Release Date: July 16, 2002
is a great doctor…no…a great MAN.”
arguably the most transitional of all of the great films by Japanese master
Akira Kurosawa. It was his last
black and white film. It marked the
end of a prolific period of productivity…in the 70s and 80s, he would make
only two films per decade. It
largely marked the end of his camera fluidity in favor of a more static,
carefully composed frame. And
sadly enough for fans everywhere, it marked the last of his collaborations with
actor Toshiro Mifune.
a film, Red Beard is the culmination of every cinematic craft Kurosawa
had experimented with and perfected in twenty years of filmmaking.
As a story, it seems something more suitable to a television series or a
soap opera. Bustling with melodrama
and ideals, this three hour picture essentially tells a very simple story of an
ambitious doctor forced to work in a lowly public clinic where he learns
compassion and other valuable life lessons from its patriarchal doctor.
young doctor is Yasumoto (Kayama), who has returned from studying Western
medicine and is expecting to take his father’s place as the shogun’s
personal physician. But the
magistrate has other plans: when
Yasumoto pays a visit to the local public clinic, he learns unceremoniously he
is to stay there. The clinic is
headed up by an intensely imposing but caring figure named Niide (Mifune),
nicknamed Red Beard.
selfish and sulking Yasumoto at first refuses to accept his lot.
He shuns the clinic’s uniform and breaks as many hospital rules as he
can, hoping to get thrown out. But
life and death, using Red Beard as a tutor, has many lessons for him.
The most important ones are that there’s a world of difference between
the lessons he mastered in school and the practical application of them to real
flesh and blood human beings, and that death is as much a part of a medical
career as life.
experiences his first death with a liver cancer patient, who is departing from
the world alone and silent save for the horrible sounds of his forced breathing.
A terribly gruesome surgery is his next experience, followed by yet
another death; this one accompanied by suitable mourning and a rather shocking
story of pain and regret told in flashback form.
At one point, Yasumoto almost experiences death from the wrong point of
the blade, as a mentally ill patient woos him to distraction and almost ends his
misery as a result!
the lack of money or prestige, Yasumoto begins to warm to his position and the
gruff Red Beard, who refuses to stop caring for the poorest of the poor even
when the government cuts off funding for them.
As Yasumoto finally dons the clinic uniform with pride, his moral
awakening seems complete…but the second half of the story is still to come.
is more somber tragedy in part two, as Yasumoto attempts to care for his first
real patient, the scarred Otoyo (Niki), a 12 year old girl rescued by Red Beard
from a brothel. She is later able
to return the favor when Yasumoto exhausts himself from his work.
As a finale, Otoyo befriends a thieving little boy whose actions lead to
tragedy, and Yasumoto comes to a final decision about the way he wants to lead
most of Kurosawa’s works before, is a technical marvel, filled with the kind
of framing composition, camerawork, spatial relations and editing he had become
famous for. Every shot in the
picture is filled with detail and information that helps to define and express
his characters and their relationships. Shots
that last five minutes or better are not uncommon, but to consider the mastery
of his camera movements and the choreography of his actors within them is to
appreciate the cinematic arts at their finest.
the picture suffers slightly from its often slow and contemplative approach to
its subject matter. Kurosawa clears
wants his audience to think about life, death and all things existential, but
sometimes, the pacing wears on the narrative a little bit.
Consider another Kurosawa epic, The Seven Samurai…also over
three hours in length, but a picture whose running time flies by because of the
energy and passion in the storytelling. Red
Beard is the type of picture where you feel every minute of the length in
ways that are both good and bad.
a minute number of flaws, though, Red Beard deserves consideration as
Kurosawa at the top of his form as a craftsman and as a turning point in the
great master’s career. It’s
ambitious, personal, technically brilliant, and unfortunately, one of the last
films of its kind from a brilliant and influential filmmaker.
has always done respectable work with regards to bringing Kurosawa films to DVD.
Red Beard might just be their highest point yet.
This is a beautifully crisp black and white anamorphic transfer from
start to finish, preserving the rich detail and integrity of every frame without
any grain or compression artifacts to mar the experience.
Blacks, whites and every shade of grayscale all ring out with clarity and
distinction. The print itself is in
remarkably good condition…only a few light instances of specks or shimmer are
noticeable, and none are distracting. Kurosawa
fans will be extremely pleased with this presentation.
to the audio track, which has been remixed for surround with a full front stage
and a single signal to the rear one. This
soundtrack is lively and dynamic, with much of the punch coming from the
actors’ intense performances. Certain
crowd scenes access the back speakers for extra ambience, and the lightest
sounds, from the outside winds and rains, are never lost in the mix.
The audio is also surprisingly and pleasantly clean during the movie’s
many quiet moments. A superb effort
for an older film!
disc contains a trailer and a commentary track by film historian Stephen Prince,
which earns an extra * in this department for being such an in-depth and
informative listen. Mr.
the entire running time of the film with information on the historical
background of the story, Kurosawa’s technique, the actors, the modern cultural
context of the time, and so on…a real prize for the serious cinema student.