Donald Richie’s ground-breaking study, The Films of Akira Kurosawa is a must-read for anyone interested in Japanese cinema or the art of film-making in general. I couldn’t help the length of this long post, the subject warranted it.
Kurosawa once accompanied his brother through the ruins of Tokyo after the great Kanto earthquake of 1923. Amidst the scenes of the dead and dying victims of the quake, his elder brother told Kurosawa, “If you shut your eyes to a frightening sight, you end up being frightened. If you look at everything straight on, there is nothing to be afraid of.” Red Beard is Kurosawa’s greatest statement in response to that challenge. Red Beard is powerful, moving, deep and profound. Kurosawa calls it a “monument to the goodness in man”. In my opinion, it is also the culmination and climax of Kurosawa’s humanist cinema, brought to life by the great Toshiro Mifune.
In around 1825, a young doctor Kayama, trained in modern medicine, comes to work at a free public clinic against his will. His ambition is to work as a personal doctor for a rich family. He rebels and refuses to even wear the doctor’s uniform. He works under the old doctor, Red Beard (Toshiro Mifune) who pretty much runs the show.
Through a series of episodic tales about the patients in the clinic – poor, suffering, victims of injustice – we and Kayama understand Red Beard better and better as each episode reveals yet another layer of this profound teacher. The young doctor learns that medicine is not a fashionable profession, and reality can be hard to face. But as a doctor, he has to face it if he is to do anything worthwhile.
After rescuing a traumatized 12 year old girl from a brothel, Red Beard asks Kayama to take her as his first patient and help cure her. There is a deeply moving scene as the girl refuses to take any medicine that Kayama tries to feed her with a spoon. Red Beard lets her push the spoon repeatedly, never giving up, till she finally accedes. Kayama learns that patience is invincible. (Recollect Watanabe’s patience while dealing with indifferent bureaucrats in Ikiru).
The startling proposition Kurosawa offers in Red Beard is that evil may beget evil as is widely understood, but it is equally more important that good begets good. The young girl cares for Kayama when he falls ill, then cares for a young, poor, thieving boy. Kurosawa shows human characters, none of them completely good or evil, and constructing a chain of good that has a profound impact on each. There is a dramatic, poignant scene of the young boy’s death, when a group of women shout his name in ostinato in a well. I have never been able to watch this scene without breaking down.
Red Beard has sometimes been criticized as a sentimental tear-jerker. Nothing could be further from the truth. As Richie explains, “to simply feel for, sympathize with, weep over – this is sentimental. But to gird the loins and go out and do battle, to hate so entirely, that good is the result: this is something else.”
The beauty of Red Beard is the realistic and complex characterization that shows Red Beard making personal and difficult decisions regarding what he considers to be ‘good’. He lies to a girl who has had a hard life that her father died a peaceful death, fulfilling her wish. (Kayama had fainted witnessing the painful death). He blackmails a magistrate. He fights. This kind of goodness has nothing weak nor even appealing about it and is the opposite from the traditional ‘being good’ in terms of obeying.
At the end of the film, Kayama comes full circle, and disobeys Red Beard by deciding to stay on at the clinic. Kurosawa shows that ideas of absolute evil and good are an illusion. We must decide what we think is good and act accordingly. Richie says: “We who live in hell are so conditioned that we would much rather laugh than weep – for that seems the only alternative. If one prefers this, then the film may be called sentimental, but of course to do so is to miss its point – and through what Kurosawa considers moral cowardice.”
Kurosawa deliberately shot Red Beard for two years to give the actors and sets the required ‘lived in’ effect. The set was an entire town meticulously built using century-old tiled roofs and wood. Costumes and props were ‘aged’ for months, bedding was actually slept in for months before shooting. Tourist buses ran through the set during the two years of filming. Red Beard covers a span of six months in the film, during which the characters undergo a profound spiritual change. The actors had to portray this change over a span of two years but the shooting was not chronological at all – this was a great challenge. Before shooting began, Kurosawa played the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and told the cast that this is how he wants the audience to feel when they walk out of the theatre. For two years from that day, the cast was devoted despite illnesses and many other difficulties.
Finally, about Toshiro Mifune. When I first watched Red Beard during my college days in the late 80s, I saw it in a festival a day after watching Seven Samurai. At that time, I was willing to bet that the austere Red Beard actor can never be the one that played the swashbuckling, rambunctious Samurai. On the big screen, Red Beard is intimidating, awesome, and demands respect. Mifune is one of the greatest of all actors. Clint Eastwood made an entire acting career out of him. But Mifune’s range was breathtaking. Kurosawa said that Mifune took 3 feet of tape to give an impression for which other actors will take 10 feet. I disagree emphatically. Kurosawa would have had to dump infinite feet of tape if he had tried Red Beard, Rashomon, Throne of Blood, or Seven Samurai – to name just a few – with any other actor. If you want reaffirmation of the goodness of man, watch Red Beard.
Kurosawa’s Rashomon shook the cinematic world like an earthquake when it was released in 1950 and its tremors can still be felt today. The first flashbacks that do not agree with reality (The Usual Suspects?). The tale of four inconsistent eyewitness accounts (Courage Under Fire?) has lent the adjective Rashomonesque to the language. From Robert Altman to Satyajit Ray, many great directors have acknowledged Rashomon’s influence on their film-making (See Wikipedia for more information). I need not write much about this well-known film in this already long post!
Rather, why do I rate Red Beard higher than Rashomon? The simple answer is that I enjoy watching Red Beard more than Rashomon. From the shot directly into the sun, which was a taboo at that time, to the unique plot techniques and story ideas, I would have liked Rashomon more if I was older and had seen it many decades ago. Today, for me, Rashomon is more a film to be admired than enjoyed. But that’s also the reason it is the runner-up winning over excellent, magnificent films like Scorsese’s Raging Bull.
And thus, Akira Kurosawa rules ‘R’ for me.
While Rain Man, Raiders of the Lost Ark are good films, I’d like to mention the following as noteworthy:
- Scorsese’s Raging Bull was voted in three polls as the greatest film of the decade. One of the most painful and heartrending portrayals of jealousy, it features one of Robert De Niro’s finest performances. Rates 10/10.
- Rear Window, one of Hitchcock’s best and a personal favorite.
- Roman Holiday, simple delightful romantic drama with Gregory Peck and the gorgeous Audrey Hepburn. Watch Hepburn’s facial expressions and eyes closely as she moves her gaze across the crowd in the end.
- The Right Stuff, the entertaining epic chronicle of the first 7 American astronauts who went into space in Mercury 7.