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Red Beard (Akahige)
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Screenplay: Ryuzo Kikushima, Tomoyuki Tanaka, Masato Ide, Akira Kurosawa (based on the novel by Shugoro Yamamoto)
Stars: Toshiro Mifune (Kyojio Niide, "Red Beard"), Yuzo Kayama (Noboru Yasumoto), Yoshio Tsuchiya (Handayu Mori), Tatsuyoshi Ehara (Genzo Tsugawa), Reiko Dan (Osugi), Kyoko Kagawa (Mad Woman), Kamatari Fujiwara (Rokusuke), Akemi Negishi (Okuni), Tsutomu Yamazaki (Sahachi), Miyuki Kuwano (Onaka), Eijiro Tono (Goheiji), Takashi Shimura (Tokubei Izumiya), Terumi Niki (Otoyo), Haruko Sugimura (Kin), Yoko Naito (Masae), Yoshitaka Zushi (Chobo)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1965
Country: Japan
Red Beard DVD Cover

Red Beard (Akahige) marked the final collaboration between director Akira Kurosawa and actor Toshiro Mifune. Since 1948, they had worked together on 15 films, including such masterpieces as Rashomon (1950) and Seven Samurai (1954), two films that, more than any others, were responsible for introducing postwar Japanese cinema to the United States. Kurosawa and Mifune comprised one of the most celebrated director-actor teams in the history of cinema, and Kurosawa's later work, despite including several notable works such as Ran (1985), would never quite be the same without Mifune's presence.

Mifune's turn as the titular character in Red Beard is one of his best performances, and his presence envelopes the entire film even though he is arguably not the central character. Taking place in 19th-century Japan, as the country was slowly shifting from a premodern to a modern culture, Red Beard tells the melodramatic story of a young man's spiritual awakening. That man is Noboru Yasumoto (Yuzo Kayama), an arrogant and ambitious young doctor who, against his will, is assigned to work at the Koishikawa Public Health Clinic under the tutelage of Dr. Kyojio Niide (Mifune), who is nicknamed "Red Beard" for the reddish flecks in his facial hair.

Yasumoto was expecting to work for the shogun, and to be stuck in a struggling public health clinic tending to dying peasants living in squalor is virtually unbearable for him. Yet, as he observes Red Beard working, he begins to learn the true value of his work as a doctor--that it is not just about tending to lives, but tending to people's spirits, and there is more honor in that than looking after wealthy aristocrats who fill themselves with rich food and don't care to lift a finger.

The narrative, based on a novel by Shugoro Yamamoto with characters borrowed from the Russian novelist Dostoevsky's The Insulted and the Injured, is organized around a series of encounters with various patients and how Yasumoto learns something from each one and grows accordingly. The patients vary widely, from a mentally disturbed murderess known as "The Mantis" (Kyoko Kagawa), to a dying man who tells a sorrowful story about lost love (Akemi Negishi), to a 12-year-old girl named Otoyo (Terumi Niki) who has been so emotionally and physically abused that she has literally withdrawn from the world of human contact.

Weaving the narratives of these various characters together, Kurosawa creates a moving story of the true meaning of humanity and how it can be found in the most unlikely of places. Always the committed humanist with a deeply existential philosophy, Kurosawa paints his characters with many brushes, showing both their strengths and their foibles. Yet, the thread running throughout all of it is the uplifting path of Yasumoto's spiritual awakening, how his arrogance and selfishness slowly give way to empathy and a desire to aid his fellow human beings, even if it means sacrificing conventional notions of honor in the rigidly stratified Japanese society.

However, Yasumoto's growth takes place under the watchful eye of Red Beard, who is perhaps Kurosawa's ideal. Stern but good-hearted, Red Beard is initially misunderstood as a dictator until Yasumoto learns that all his methods have a purpose, many of which he does not initially understand. While Yasumoto is steeped in traditions of Western medicine (he studied at the Dutch medical schools in Nagasaki), which focus exclusively on empiricism and anatomy, Red Beard tends to both the spiritual and the physical causes of illness. As the film makes clear, most of the people who are dying are spiritually sick, as well. Therefore, it may seem narratively pointless for the film to take such a long detour to hear Okuni relate his tale of lost love on his deathbed unless you take into account that this is his form of spiritual healing, unleashing his long-held secret so that he may die in peace.

Narrative aside, Red Beard is a strikingly visual film, melding together many of the techniques that characterized Kurosawa's earlier works with those that would dominate his visual aesthetic in the 1970s and '80s. Always the master of fluid camera movement, Kurosawa includes a number of elegant tracking shots in the film (which was filmed on an enormous set that reproduced an entire village), as well as several finely edited montage sequences. However, the most impressive moments are when Kurosawa utilizes the long take, which emphasizes the characters and their connections. This is particularly true of a tense five-minute shot in which the Mantis attempts to seduce and kill Yasumoto by telling her heartbreaking story of sexual abuse as a child.

There will be some who see Red Beard as too sentimental, as overly idealized and bordering on the realm of the soap opera. At almost three hours in length, the film takes its time telling each character's story, and such a length also allows Kurosawa to indulge in the small details. Perhaps it is a bit too soft in the middle, with Red Beard standing tall as the impossibly wise man (he can even fight with the best of them, in one scene taking out a dozen men in order to rescue Otoyo from the brothel in which she is being held). Yet, at the same time, Kurosawa never shies away from the dark aspects of life, many of which have consumed the characters in the film and are always threatening others. Yet, because of Kurosawa's humane treatment of them, even the characters in the worst of circumstances elicit sympathy. To some, this may be a weakness, but I see it as a moving illustration that hope and generosity, even in small amounts, will always persevere and make a difference.

Red Beard: Criterion Collection DVD

Aspect Ratio2.35:1
LanguagesJapanese
Subtitles English
DistributorThe Criterion Collection / Home Vision Entertainment
Release DateJuly 23, 2002
SRP$39.95

VIDEO
2.35:1 (Anamorphic)
Another beautiful high-definition transfer from Criterion. Taken from a 35mm fine-grain master positive and presented in its original TohoScope aspect ratio of 2.35:1, the image on Red Beard is finely detailed with a rich array of gray tones. Having been digitally restored with the MTI Digital Restoration System, the image is also sparkling clean, with only a few barely noticeable vertical hairlines.

AUDIO
Japanese Dolby Digital 4.0 Surround
The Dolby Digital four-channel surround soundtrack was mastered from the original four-track magnetic master in 24-bit. This is a notably clean-sounding soundtrack, with almost no audible hiss even in the film's quietest moments. The musical score is rich and enveloping, and there are even some good surround effects, particularly when Kurosawa evokes natural sounds such as the wind blowing or rain falling.

SUPPLEMENTS
Audio commentary by film scholar Stephen Prince
Stephen Prince is an associate professor of communication studies at Virginia Tech and the author or editor of two books on Sam Peckinpah, an introductory film text, and a book on Kurosawa. In this scholarly screen-specific audio commentary, he discusses the details of Kurosawa's work on Red Beard, pointing out stylistic, narrative, and thematic traits, as well as offering much-needed historical information that helps the viewer understand the film (unless you are an expert in 19th-century Japanese culture and the history of modern medicine, this commentary is a must-listen). Unfortunately, Prince sounds a bit stilted in his delivery, obviously reading from a paper and e-nun-ci-at-ing everything to a T. Still, it is a fascinating and informative commentary, one that makes viewing the film a second or third time a much deeper and more rewarding experience.

Theatrical trailer
Presented in nonanamorphic widescreen.

Overall Rating: (3.5)




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