Akira Kurosawa's RED BEARD
A movie review by Dennis D. McDonald
A young doctor with hopes of being the Shogun’s personal physician finds himself assigned to a poor rural clinic lorded over by a stern, tenacious doctor played by Toshiro Mifune – the “Red Beard” of the title.
Initially the young doctor resists the assignment. He gradually learns through direct experience with Red Beard and the patients and staff at the clinic that all people are deserving of respect, even the lowest of the low who are treated by Red Beard’s poor clinic. And as a result of this awareness his own attitude changes.
In the hands of a lesser director this three-hour black-and-white movie would have been an exercise in sentimentality and happy endings. In Kurosawa’s hands it is a work of art that is both engrossing and inspiring.
And beautiful to watch and listen to. Scenes are framed and lit with elegance and simplicity. Orchestral music underscores what we are feeling, not what we are seeing. And the acting —- from the youngest to the oldest member of the cast – is superb.
It’s hard to single out individual characters and scenes as favorites. Mifune, of course, is a masterful presence. His trademark swagger is slightly more restrained here than in his “Samurai” pictures, but this performance is one of the best presentations by an actor of a character with “moral authority” that I have ever seen, perhaps the best. His red Beard is not a Hollywood-ish saint; he is a great man who knows what is right and wrong, works hard, uses wisdom and intelligence, and takes action when necessary. He is not afraid to get his hands dirty and does not ask more of others than he asks of himself. And he is a natural leader.
Another notable aspect of the movie is the way seasons are used to demonstrate the passage of time. Sometimes all we see is a snowfall through a partially open window – but the way it is photographed is stunning. Or we see ice melting and water dripping off the roof, or cherry blossoms swaying. All elements are carefully photographed (with Kurosawa’s trademark telephoto lenses) in careful composition with the human characters, even when the people are moving about.
I recommend this movie.
The English subtitling is fairly good but not perfect. There were a few instances where it was initially confusing, usually when a character not on camera was being referenced, where that reference would later prove to be important. And there a re a lot of interlocking characters in this movie. But that is a small item.
This Criterion DVD edition also has an excellent commentary track but I found the details to be much less interesting than the film itself. As much as I was interested in learning how different scenes were filmed, by the end of the movie, I really didn’t care. This film is a work of art that stands on its own.
on 2012-03-07 15:25 by Dennis D. McDonald
Roger Ebert says it better than I can: