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Red Beard

Movie Information

In Brief: Akira Kurosawa's 1965 film is rarely cited as one of his best — and I can't imagine why. It's a long film — 185 minutes, with an overture and an intermission — but not a single one of those minutes is dull. If, as I've read, Kurosawa set out to make "something so magnificent that people would just have to see it," I think he succeeded — even if only in the long run, since the film seems to have underperformed on its original release. The problem, I think, is that rather than the epic audiences expected, Kurosawa instead gave them a small-scale drama about a young doctor, creating what might be called an epic of humanity. An altogether beautiful film.
Score:

Genre: Drama
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Starring: Toshirô Mifune, Yûzô Kayama, Tsutomo Yamazaki, Reiko Dan, Miyuki Kuwano
Rated: NR

Red Beard (1965) — a sadly overlooked and underrated film — is of great historical note in the career of Akira Kurosawa. It would be his last collaboration with actor Toshiro Mifune, his last black and white film, and his last film in true widescreen (2.35:1). It also — owing to its failure at the box office (it took three years to even get a US release) — marked the end of Kurosawa finding easy financing for his films and left the director depressed and creatively as sea. (He wouldn’t have another film for five years.) Red Beard presented itself as an epic. It’s over three hours and showcased as an “event” picture, but apart from an earthquake sequence and one fight scene, it’s a fairly simple film — one concerned entirely with humanism. The story is nothing more than an arrogant young doctor (Yuzo Kayama) coming to learn to care about his chosen profession (rather than view it as path to riches and honor) thanks to his experiences with a gruff, but deeply caring, older doctor (Mifune). In fact, I’ve seen one critic dismiss the film as being nothing more than a really long Dr. Kildare programmer from the late 1930s, which strikes me as arrant nonsense. It isn’t the story that matters here, so much as it’s the film’s deeply felt humanity (not to mention its cinematic beauty). Kurosawa’s stated intent to create “something so magnificent that people would just have to see it” seems perfectly reasonable to me. I guess it depends on what you think is magnificent.

Classic World Cinema by Courtyard Gallery will present Red Beard Friday, August 2, at 8 p.m. at Phil Mechanic Studios, 109 Roberts St., River Arts District (upstairs in the Railroad Library).  Info: 273-3332, www.ashevillecourtyard.com

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

6 thoughts on “Red Beard

  1. Sean R. Moorhead

    I definitely agree that this film is woefully underrated — in America, at least; it’s one of Kurosawa’s most popular in Japan. I think Donald Richie really hit the nail on the head when he compared its essential quality to the mellow glow of a fine cello.

    I do feel obliged to note, though, that it was Kurosawa’s next film, Dodes’kaden, that was a critical and financial failure. (It’s one of my favorites, but it is very strange and uncharacteristic: the plotting is free-range and the production design is hyper-stylized; Kurosawa, who was trained as a painter and entered the artistic life illustrating romance mags, personally hand-painted oddly colored shadows all over the set.) Red Beard was one of the top-grossing films of the year domestically — Kayama’s presence all but guaranteed that — the reason it nevertheless failed to endear Kurosawa to the studios was that he already had a reputation for expensive productions (he had one of the sets on Throne of Blood remade because he could pick up anachronistic nails with his beloved telephoto lenses), on top of which he insisted on spending two years to age the sets and props for Red Beard.

    In any case, I kind of understand the complaint that Kayama’s character is a little too callow when he arrives at the clinic — I mean, he has to be told outright that he should care about the poor — but it works for me insofar as (1.) I’ve met real people who were a lot worse and (2.) he’s a fully-developed character who begins to grow pretty much immediately, not just the recipient of a moral message.

  2. Ken Hanke

    I will glady defer to your Kurosawa expertise (I certainly don’t claim it), but everything I’ve read has Red Beard referred to as a flop.

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