Red Beard, the last Kurosawa-Mifune collaboration, is a film for these times — it’s about healing and hope
Could there be a better time to talk about Red Beard? It was the great Toshiru Mifune’s 100th birthday this week. A couple of weeks earlier, it was the great Akira Kurosawa’s 110th birthday. The film itself celebrates its 55th birthday this week.
But forget these anniversaries, or even the cinematic milestone that this 1965 production was the last film this actor and director made together. It’s the subject that’s so vital now. Red Beard is ostensibly the story of two doctors: Dr Niide aka “Red Beard” (a magnificent Mifune) and the much-younger as Dr Yasumoto (Yūzō Kayama). But it’s really a story about healing: physical healing, emotional healing, social healing.
Taken strictly on the surface, here’s what happens. It’s the 19th century. Dr Yasumoto has recently finished his studies, and he dreams of serving the shogunate. He’s appalled that he’s been tricked into working with Dr Niide, whose clinic is in the proverbial middle-of-nowhere. What use is his expensive education — in a Dutch medical school in Nagasaki — here, amidst patients who are “slum people, full of fleas and lice”? On his first day, he is taken around the place. He stops outside a room filled with people awaiting treatment. He sniffs the air and says, “It smells like rotten fruit.” His guide says, “It’s the smell of the poor.”
So you think the film is going to be a rural melodrama, a “message movie” about how this arrogant young man learns that being a doctor is more than about knowing the human body and knowing what medicines to prescribe. It’s about patience, kindness, understanding — all of which will be demonstrated (i.e. “taught”) by the gruff Dr Niide, who’s given to stroking his short but thick beard. (Its colour is something we take for granted, given that this film is in black and white. Kurosawa’s first film in colour was the one he made next, Dodes’ka-den. It came a full five years after Red Beard.)
So, yes. Again, taken strictly on the surface, Red Beard is all of those things: a rural melodrama, a “message movie”, all of those things that usually do not add up to a Great Movie™. But Kurosawa — who saw the film as a departure point in his career, in the sense that the pre-Red Beard films are different from the ones he made after — does something magical in his running time of a little over three hours. He focuses on a handful of incidents and lets them play out fully.
Take the incident with Otoyo, a twelve-year-old girl who’s rescued from a brothel and sheds her fears and learns to trust people, the way a cruelly treated pup would take its time to warm up to the first humans to show some form of kindness. In a truncated form, this might have turned sickly-sweetly sentimental, but Kuroswa draws you in with the skill of Dickens or Dostoevsky. A banal one-line subplot becomes a deeply felt humanitarian treatise. It’s like the films of John Ford, whom Kurosawa worshiped. A lot of hip, younger viewers tend to dismiss them as “corny”, but scratch the surface and you’ll find enough to write a library's worth of books on.
At first, Otoyo resists any “treatment”. But one day, she sees a little boy stealing some gruel from the clinic’s kitchen. The women who work there are outraged. They scream and set out in search of the “little rat”, who returns after they have left. Only Otoyo is in the kitchen now. He goes to the vat of gruel again. She sees him, but stays silent. By now, the other women are returning and they see this scene from the window. After the “little rat” scampers away with the stolen food, they turn to Otoyo in anger. “There’s no helping this girl!” they exclaim. “Pretending not to see it!”
But her behaviour towards the thief is a result of the physicians’ behaviour towards her, especially Dr Yasumoto. Dr Niide explains it to him. “She hated everyone before. But now she doesn’t know what to do with this sudden love for you. Her feelings will include others one day. We must wait for that. It seems that they’re all complaining she let the thief go, but the new kindness in her may have made her pretend not to see.” What a beautiful way to show how our acts of love can travel and make their presence felt beyond the immediate objects of our affection.
Every time I read something about the outbreak we are besieged by, I keep thinking about Red Beard and what it tells us about people. Is the film “logical”? Hell, no. A lot of the conditions being treated are psychiatric in nature, which makes Dr Niide some sort of super-doc, who can heal bodies and souls. Is the film sentimental? Of course. But then, so is the story of Florentino Ariza, who falls for Fermina Daza. After she marries someone else, he saves his heart for her for 50 years, nine months, and four days since the time he first declared his love for her. You might have heard of the book: Love in the Time of Cholera.
This reference to Gabriel García Márquez is not entirely accidental. In October 1990, the writer visited Tokyo during the shooting of Kurosawa’s penultimate film, Rhapsody in August, and the transcript of their conversation was published in the Los Angeles Times. When Kurosawa asked Márquez if he had seen Red Beard, the writer replied, “I have seen it six times in 20 years and I talked about it to my children almost every day until they were able to see it. So not only is it the one among your films best liked by my family and me, but also one of my favorites in the whole history of cinema.”
Now, this just means that Márquez liked the movie a lot, which is not exactly a universal stamp of greatness. But fans of Red Beard will say that it needs no such external validation.
Its greatness comes from what’s within, from the fact that this story about doctors and healing contains — surprisingly, astonishingly — one of the most devastating love stories ever put on film.
It’s told in a flashback, and the humanity is everywhere. It’s in the man who’s betrayed. It’s in the woman who betrays him. It’s in the scene where they accidentally run into each other, years later, and she breastfeeds “another man’s child” in his presence, as he looks away.
Red Beard plumbs the depths of human misery and leaves you with hope. It is, as I said, a film for these times.
Baradwaj Rangan is editor, Film Companion (South).
All images from Twitter.
Updated Date: Apr 03, 2020 14:43:15 IST
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