January 28, 2009

Red Beard

1965 film. Directed by Akira Kurosawa. Written by Akira Kurosawa, Masato Ide, Ryuzo Kikushima, and Hideo Oguni. Based on the novel by Shugoro Yamamoto, and the novel THE INSULTED AND THE INJURED by Fyodor Dostoevsky.

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Noboru Yasumoto is a bit of a prick. A hot young doctor who just finished studying European styles of medicine, he thinks he's been sent to Edo to be the new physician for the local Shogunate. Imagine his surprise when he finds himself at a rundown old clinic that caters to the poor ... for free!

I'm sure you can see where this goes. Yasumoto starts out snide and uncaring, but a series of circumstances bring him to realize his gifts can benefit all of humanity. It's a classic hero's journey and Kurosawa never once strays from the well-worn path, but his execution is just so sharp that it almost feels new.

Yuzo Kayama is wonderful in the lead role. As Yasumoto initially rebels by refusing to treat patients or don the standard uniform, Kayama keeps us from hating the character by playing up his suspicions when the head of the clinic constantly asks to see his notes. They are filled with new, special medical knowledge, skills he payed and trained hard to learn. It's understandable that he would see this as some plot to rob him of that info. But then he inevitable gets put in his place when, as he finds himself unable to watch an old man die, or passes out in the midst of a violent surgery, Yasumoto learns that all his knowledge is nothing without experience in the field.

It's a bit strange to see Toshiro Mifune take a supporting role in his last film with Kurosawa (especially in a part that would have typically been played by veteran actor Takashi Shimura), but he's wonderful as Kyojo Niide, the head of the clinic who's often nicknamed Red Beard because ... well, because he has a thick reddish beard. He initially seems like a stern, tyrannical taskmaster, but there's a kindness to his method that slowly draws the unwilling into acceptance. Even Yasumoto.

The first half of the film is the basic mentor/pupil story as Yasumoto earns his education. Through the various episodes of patient after patient, he not only goes through a series of lessons, but we get wonderful glimpses into a world familiar to Kurosawa fans: a time when bloated, constipated bureaucrats do nothing but consume while people work and toil for an uncertain future and children beg or steal for food.

The second half takes a sudden twist as Red Beard drops into the background so Yasumoto can take on his first full-time patient. Borrowing heavily from the Nellie subplot in Dostoevsky's The Insulted and the Injured, sometimes adapting the material almost word for word, Yasumoto finds a 12-year-old girl (skilfully played by young Terumi Niki) trapped in a brothel, frees her, and sets about doing his best to repair both her physical and emotional damage. Just as in the book, it's a beautiful story where the two sometimes switch roles in terms of who's taking care of who as both use one another to support their own broken hearts. The novel threw in an extra, unnecessary twist that spoiled the whole thing for me, but Kurosawa writes that bit out and allows the characters to grow in ways Dostoevsky was too pessimistic to allow.

I'm not sure how the rest of the story lives up to Yamamoto's original novel, as I couldn't find an English translation, but I don't doubt that Kurosawa has made it his own, as he has time and time again. Though the film runs just over three hours in length, there was never a moment where I wasn't captivated by this story, these characters, this world. There is a bit of a shadow over the picture, yes, what with it marking the end of a remarkable era in Kurosawa's work, but I couldn't imagine that time ending on a richer note than this.


For more information about this film, check out its IMDB and Wikipedia pages. It can be purchased as a special edition DVD, or as a bare-bones DVD in a boxset of 25 Kurosawa films.

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