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RED BEARD

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Toshiro Mifune, Yuzo Kayama, Terumi Niki
Director:  Akira Kurosawa
Audio:  Dolby Digital 4.0
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  Commentary Track, Theatrical Trailer
Length:  185 Minutes
Release Date:  July 16, 2002

“He is a great doctor…no…a great MAN.”

Film ***

Red Beard is 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.

As 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.

The 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. 

The 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.

He 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!

Despite 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.

There 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 his life.

Red Beard, like 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.

But 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.

Despite 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.

Video ***1/2

Criterion 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.

Audio ***

Kudos 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!

Features ***

The 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. Prince fills 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.

Summary:

Red Beard isn’t a perfect Kurosawa offering, but still better than most directors at their best.  This is a film filled with a master’s unique and distinctive touches that take an otherwise simple melodrama and elevate it into the realm of supreme art.