In 19th-century Japan, a rough-tempered yet charitable town doctor trains a young intern.In 19th-century Japan, a rough-tempered yet charitable town doctor trains a young intern.In 19th-century Japan, a rough-tempered yet charitable town doctor trains a young intern.
Up to then, I had only seen the B&W Samurai classics of the 50s and early 60s. The must-sees: not just Seven Samurai, but Yojimbo and Throne of Blood. The under-appreciated Sanjuro, and the light but enduring Hidden Fortress. This was my first non-samurai film from him. What I did not realise until later was that it was his career apotheosis.
Red Beard is not Kurosawa's best film. Yet when it came out, it was a phenomenon much like Titanic 30 years later. It broke the bank, it was an exercise in unprecedented creative and financial power by a major filmmaker, and it appealed to filmgoers like few filmes before or since. Kurosawa built a hospice and miniature village for his characters to inhabit, and this episodic story of a young star doctor discovering a vocation among the poor under the gruff "red beard" (Mifune) feels all the more authentic for it. It is a film of such deliberate ease and confidence that it could only be made by this director, at this point in his career. It could not be anything less than the fullest exploration of his most cherished themes - social injustice, the redemptive power of human kindness, personal codes. It could also do nothing but foreshadow his decline.
That's a lot of expectation to pile onto the unsuspecting viewer, so what do you get during those 3 hours? You get a first-class drama, Mifune's finest performance, and one of the most beautiful tear-jerkers ever to grace a screen. All the while, countless instances of technical brilliance remind you why this film could only be made by this director: a surgery covered in nothing but an extended closeup of the young doctor, an eerie seduction covered in an almost static, dreamlike wide shot, and, halfway through, the ass-kicking of a life-time and its touching follow-up.
This is an extinct form of filmmaking, one preserved in the ember of its stark black-and-white film stock. The cinematic equivalent of a Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton: there are ways in which you won't relate, but it is daunting, powerful, and a journey into an intriguing other world well worth spending 3 hours in, and then some.
- May 23, 2002