We live in a cruel and indifferent universe, so we must act with kindness and charity. That’s the dominant theme of Akira Kurosawa’s works. But that theme was never stated as clearly, as forcefully, or as didactically as in Red Beard, the final work of Kurosawa’s most productive and artistically successful period.
I don’t remember how often I’ve seen Red Beard. I remember seeing it for the first time at Wheeler Auditorium, probably in the late 1970’s. I saw it at least one other time theatrically, at the UC Theater. My wife bought me the Criterion DVD soon after it was released. I revisited that DVD last night, as part of my project of watching all of Kurosawa’s films in chronological order.
A sprawling, three-hour epic, Red Beard was Kurosawa’s most ambitious film since Seven Samurai. But unlike the previous epic, this one can in no way be considered an action film. There’s one fight scene, played for cheers and laughs, just before the intermission. Kurosawa wasn’t interested in swordplay here, but in the grinding, sickening, dehumanizing effects of poverty.
Yet the film was a hit when it opened in Japan in 1965. Kurosawa was a commercial filmmaker, and it’s hard to think of another of his films with a more unambiguously happy ending.
Set in the mid-19th century, Red Beard concerns itself with the staff and patients at a medical clinic serving those at the low end of the economic spectrum. Toshiro Mifune plays the title character, the gruff but idealistic doctor who runs the clinic. This is a man who’s not above blackmailing a government official to keep his little hospital alive or even to help an individual patient, but who then feels guilty for doing so.
We get to know the clinic and its leader through the eyes of a young, proud doctor assigned to work there as an intern (Yûzô Kayama). With a planned career path that includes becoming the Shogun’s personal physician, the last thing this man wants is to waste time at a charity hospital (he arrives thinking he’s just making a social call). You can probably guess his character arc; as I said, Kurosawa was a commercial filmmaker.
Along the way, we meet a great many people living in the clinic’s sphere, including another young doctor, women doing the clinic’s manual labor, and assorted patients. A happy life seems nearly impossible for the later—life itself is a constant struggle and insult. The only true happiness comes from helping others, and embracing that particular struggle.
Red Beard was Kurosawa’s last film with actor/movie star Toshiro Mifune, ending a collaboration that started 17 years and 15 films earlier with Drunken Angel. Both films were about a charitable doctor working in a slum clinic, and the effect that doctor has on a less-altruistic young man. In Drunken Angel, Mifune played the young man; in Red Beard, he was the doctor. Their work together had come full circle.