What do you expect from a film? Full-on entertainment? Then what could be the possible requirements from an entertaining film? Romance, fight, tragedy, humour, sensuality, favourite stars, beautiful cinematography, remarkable acting, moving background scores, extravagant sets, believable costumes, pertinent social message, stirring dialogues and most of all, a wonderfully crafted story? “Red Beard” has all these elements and then some more.
This is Akira Kurosawa's 24th production, filmed in 1965, against the backdrop of 19th century Japan. This is his last black and white film and also the last film featuring his most favourite actor till then, Toshirô Mifune. Kurosawa did 16 films with Mifune.
“Red Beard” is significant for another reason as well: After this, Kurosawa had difficulty getting funds for his projects. An interesting statistic is that he had made 24 films till 1965 since his emergence as a filmmaker 22 years back, and only 7 films in his remaining 28 years after “Red Beard”.
To me “Red Beard” is a social epic and it's still very contemporary. This is primarily a story about doctors and healthcare, and then it turns its gun towards the society. The viewer finds a doctor named Noboru Yasumoto, who has come to a Koishikawa clinic; he was forced to come here. He had done his training from Nagasaki and intended to be a physician for Shoguns. Instead, he was sent to a rural clinic for further training by his father. Life is really harsh in Koishikawa. Noboru rebels and feels that Dr. Kyojô Niide, whom everyone calls “Red Beard” (played by Toshirô Mifune), might fire him. An interesting case -- a psychologically disturbed young woman whom people call “Metis” or “man-eater” -- grabs Noboru's attention. One night the patient goes into Noboru's room and tries to seduce and kill him. Red Beard arrives at the final moment and saves him. This whole incident changes Noboru's attitude.
Again, I will not disclose the whole story though I doubt it'd dampen this film's unavoidable charm.
In the first half the audience sees stories of patients. Kurosawa wanted to portray the social issues and his rage against them through the film as well. Through “Red Beard” the audience hears: “Poverty is a political problem they say, but what has politics ever done for the poor? If it weren't for poverty half of these people wouldn't be sick.” Or “If you shut your eyes at a frightening sight, you end up being frightened.”
Kurosawa had always been keen on background scores. In this film he introduced multiplier effect and four channel sound for the first time. Sound of the ambiance and use of background scores made each scene more vibrant. Cinematography of this film can be a training manual for professionals. Kurosawa used two cameras to shoot most of the scenes with telephoto lens. Kurosawa wanted the camera to follow the actor, and not the other way around.
The writer is an actor and theatre activist.