Akira Kurosawa's Red Beard would be the second film I have seen from his work. Red Beard seems to be regarded as one of his lesser known works and I can see why. It seems to be more drama centered rather than something action/adventure based that are found in films like Rashomon, Seven Samurai, and Yojimbo. I never thought I was gonna like this film because sometimes dramas like this can feel overly sentimental and cliche. Instead the film surprised me, though it still has it's few sentimental moments, it still managed to make me care for the story and it's characters. Though I cannot compare this to the director's other films as I have only seen two of his films, but I can say that when compared to Rashomon, the film falls a little short.
Red Beard was written by Masato Ide, Hideo Oguni, Ryuzo Kikushima, and Akira Kurosawa. The writers have written a personal story that mainly follows the experience that the young doctor, Noboru Yasumoto, had on his stay at this clinic. Judging from the title, I assumed that the story would primarily follow Red Beard himself, also known as Kyojo Niide, but instead we only know more from this figure through the perception of Yasumoto. For the first hour or so, I never understood what the film was trying to say, the film's plot kept me interested, but it wasn't clear to me the point of following this man's experience. It wasn't until after the intermission where things started to become very clear what the writers' intentions were. The film speaks about the lack of kindness and compassion of people during that time period, and it can be reflected to present reality. This clinic is a symbol of healing, of not just the illness and it's symptoms, but of our souls, and Niide is the primary physician who can fix that. This man seems to have touched the souls of his patients, and even some of the staff members including our protagonist, to become more compassionate to others and not think so much of just themselves. The film also displays the transference of kindness, showing that the effect of this kindness can spread to others and therefore constantly passes it on to the next; Red Beard to Yasumoto to Otoyo to Chobo/Choji. This made me feel guilty, watching these individuals being so noble and compassionate while I sometimes often think selfishly and sulk when I don't get what I desire. I enjoyed the process and change that our protagonist has shown throughout the film, becoming the better man than he was at the start. Throughout the film, Red Beard, was shown as a great man, who has very few flaws. I think he is meant to be a representation of a perfect man within society. Other than personal story that the film touches on, it also explores the current state of society during that time period. The writers have shown us that poverty is the cause of the poor health that is commonly found within the citizens and that cure is something that is too out of reach, so the only thing that these health professionals can do is to make them feel comfortable and control it's symptoms. I feel that this is still relevant today, as cure is something that is still not a common idea within our society, and contemporary health professionals still sometimes feel helpless in saving a person's life as the disease is too strong for them to handle. The film also, in a minor way, touches on the idea of mental illness and how it was depicted and seen at that time. I found that small story element to be really interesting. I did have issues with the film's back story on Sahachi was a little bit too long and it wasn't as interesting as I hoped. The sequence also took me out a bit. The film's dialogue was great to listen to, especially when Red Beard starts talking. Even during the small conversations, like in the Pharmacy room between Yasumoto and Handayu Mori, were a delight to listen to.
The film was directed by Akira Kurosawa. Kurosawa has created a film that is touching, dramatic, and sometimes funny. I adore the way he handled the film's characters in Red Beard because they are the most important element of the film. He understood how to use them as a symbol and he knows how to use them as a plot driver. I was surprised how much the film feels genuine, as films like this have a tendency to become overly emotional or melodramatic which is an unappealing trait when is being used too much. This film was able to have that melodrama but was used in a way that fuels the film's message and is used only in small doses. This film feels very intimate and small, with the film mostly taking place indoors and uses dialogue to move the scene along. Kurosawa was able to keep me interested even in the scenes that lacked "excitement". The film at times does feel slow, but it never seems to move towards the territory of being dull or boring. Kurosawa just wants to flesh out his characters as much as he can, and it may be a little too much for other viewers. I did think 185 minutes was a little bit of a stretch but I think it may fare better during subsequent viewings. I felt that the film was also a little off balance, when it comes to quality. The pre-intermission side of the film doesn't seem to match up with the strength in emotion and power found in the post-intermission scenes. The last hour of this film is amazing, and if the film only consisted that portion, then this film would have probably rated a little higher for me. Kurosawa did a wonderful job in making this feel like a story set in that time, during 19th century Japan, but there wasn't a lot of opportunity for him to explore the period visually as the film is primarily focused on the character development, so instead it is done through dialogue, with characters discussing the difficulty of living in that time and place.
The film's cinematography was handled by both Asakazu Nakai and Takao Saito. Nakai is the one that has worked more with Kurosawa, as Saito only worked with the director his films in the 1960's and up, starting with Sanjuro. Both cinematographers have done a great job in shooting this film. Red Beard was the last black and white film that Kurosawa made. The choice of using black and white wasn't clear to me at first but I started to realise that it was essential in order to create that bleakness and suffering that are also found in the film's themes and the time period the story was set in. They seem to have the camera in motion, whenever they have the opportunity to, I think in order to give the film a sense of style and to make use with the actor's blocking. Most of the time, the camera seems to be just in place, focusing in capturing the performance of the actors. It is of great importance of Kurosawa to have the story and it's characters be the main focus of it's audience, which is why the film lacks the beauty that was found for example in films like Rashomon, where he captured the beauty of and darkness of the forest and placed a lot of emphasis on it. That's not to say that this film lacks any beauty at all, as there are a couple of shots in this film that I found to be very well crafted, like the scenes with Otoyo when she was still ill, the way the cinematographers used light to create this shadow on her, symbolising the damage that has been inflicted on her physically and psychologically, or the scene with Yasumoto and "The Mantis" alone in the tight room together, where it was captured in a way that felt quite claustrophobic and we can feel the danger that Yasumoto is in. I think my favorite shot of Red Beard was the last one, where the camera looks up at these two noble men, like as if they were the most important people in the world.
The film's score was composed by Masaru Sato, who has worked on a couple of Kurosawa films. I cannot judge how Sato's score for Red Beard fares in comparison to his other work as I have only had the opportunity to listen to his composition used for this film. I enjoyed his score for Red Beard, as it seems to have this sense of optimism that works really well with the film's imagery and the ideas that Kurosawa explores throughout the film. Sometimes it also gives this idea of hope that all of this suffering may just be something that mankind might just have to hurdle, in order to get to the end which has people living in much better health and are much more cleansed in regards to their souls. There were a couple of moments where Sato's music was used so well that it made the film's imagery and acting look even better than it already is, and sometimes it was able to create a small emotional response from me, particularly heading towards the end of the film.
The film's acting was top notch, with a great performance from Yuzo Kayama. Kayama showed us this thorough transformation from a young, egotistic, selfish man to a person that is more compassionate, kind, empathetic and last but not least mature. We follow him throughout and there was never a moment where he I felt he was short in his skills as an actor. Toshiro Mifune as "Red Beard" or Kyojo Niide was amazing and so far it's his best performance I have seen from him. Seeing him in Rashomon, made me believe that he was a good actor who knows how to sell the role physically and emotionally, but this film showed how mature and well into his character he can be. Even the small mannerisms he gives to his character were nice to see. I enjoyed the relationship between Mifune and Kayama's characters that was being established as it felt natural to watch, and it was pleasant to see the clash between the two characters at the start of the film. The supporting cast were also great to watch with notable performances coming from Terumi Niki as Otoyo, Yoshio Tsuchiya as Handayu Mori, and Tsutomu Yamazaki as Sahachi.
Red Beard may not be a favorite of mine by Kurosawa, but I cannot deny that it's a really well made film that definitely deserves more attention.