‘There’s always some story of great misfortune behind illness.’
Red Beard is a tale of transformation about a young city doctor came to work in a non profitable clinic for poor rural patients run by a noble dictatorial doctor known as Red Beard. He’s proud, stubborn and radical yet well experienced doctor. The clinic soon became a prison for newly came apprentice. He tried to be a rebel, breaking the rules of clinic so that the Master might dismiss him. But his attempts turned futile when he was needed by the doctor to support him in handling many emergency cases. His encounters with an eye witnessed death, strange cases and relationship with a lady patient soon transformed him into an unselfish and responsible doctor.
There are few moving Kurosawa moments in the film is the one where the Doctor left the apprentice to witness the last breaths of dying man and in single frame he captured both patient’s painful gasping of last moments and the disturbing helplessness expressions of an amateur doctor witnessing first time the dying man and then one in the climax. The sublime relationship between a poor kid and a girl named Masae becomes the most touching one till it reaches the climax where along with other ladies, she keep shouting his name to well as per one of Japanese myth to save his life. Like many of his films, Kurosawa kept a surprising entry for his favorite actor Toshiro Mifune playing the doctor Dr. Niide aka ‘Red Beard’. For the most part of the story or screen time, he remained in a shadow; unpredictable in approach but a keen observer of human physique and mind. Like a Zen Master taking right decisions that transform his disciple-the new doctor.
Red Beard is simply a noble cinema by Master but compared to many of his masterpieces and other films that I’ve seen, this one seems weaker one on many fronts. It’s too slow, didactic and melodramatic and dragging one with duration of more than three hours. Among many of it’s subplots the one regarding the dying patient and his tragic love story seems quite dragging and melodramatic affair for half an hour; it would be much better if Master had used something less dramatic and yet moving transformative part here. Doctor’s fight with men at brothel is also improbable and then again stretching sickness part- first the girl followed by the young doctor nursing each other. The restraint and subtleness of his earlier masterpiece ‘Ikiru’ is quite missing here. Perhaps Master attempted too many sub stories here and so many transformations of characters; but he ends it so well where we see his genuine touch.
Among many of Kurosawa’s over budget cinemas, ‘Red Beard’ was too heavy investment both in terms of time and money; started with six months plan-ended with two years stretch. What is the saddest outcome of the film was that with this film it ended the 20 years long and 16 films together great actor-director combination. Toshiro Mifune, who remained inseparable force of his cinema suddenly turned his face to the Emperor and never turned back again. So what’s the reason? Here is what another legend and his long admirer-friend Satyajit Ray noted in his ‘Our Films, Their Films’-
“Mifune had signed an exclusive contract for 6 months and had grown a beard for the part. As the shooting dragged on, Mifune had to keep turning down offer after offer. While the film was in production, he did nothing to jeopardize its interests. But from the moment shooting ended he has been a stranger to Kurosawa, with no chance of rapprochement in sight…The fact that RB went away over budget was Kurosawa was cold not care less about. All that mattered to him was perfection, which he achieved in the film. The critics applauded the film. It also had a long run, but not enough to bring back the cost.”
Kurosawa deliberately took 2 years to produce ‘Red Beard’ so that his actors and sets had the necessary real & live effect that he wanted to portray. It’s with this film that AK became absolutely unbankable director by Japanese producers; the reason why it took 5 years to finish his next film ‘Dodes ka-den’. Checking his filmography one may notice that AK had made almost a single film a year since his debut. However unfortunately ‘Dodes ka-den’ turned out as the biggest flop of his career and under terrible shock Kurosawa attempted suicide but miraculously survived! Perhaps he was destined to live longer for his second spell. He returned with a bang- a Russian film ‘Dersu Uzala’ bestowed with ‘Best Foreign Film Oscar’. Will talk about it in the next post.