Red Beard marks the end of an era for the great Japanese director Akira Kurosawa. It is his last film in black and white, his last film in Tohoscope, and his last film with long-time partner Toshiro Mifune.
Without Criterion’s DVD bonus materials, it would be easier to dismiss Red Beard as one of Kurosawa’s least effective films.
- Audio commentary
- Liner notes essay
Red Beard is set in 19th century Japan, in a rural hospital. Yasamoto (Yuzo Kayama), a young doctor fresh out of medical school, dreams of serving great men. Instead, he is assigned to this backwater to care for people with neither wealth nor power.
Red Beard (Toshiro Mifune) heads the institute and becomes master to Yasamoto’s pupil. Their relationship is uneasy at first. Red Beard sees great potential in Yasamoto, but thinks him cocky and lacking humility. Yasamoto sees Red Beard as a petty dictator in an insignificant rural hospital, a big fish in a small pond.
Through a series of isolated episodes, Yasamoto comes to appreciate Red Beard’s wisdom and bedside manner. Red Beard is as interested in curing the heart as he is in curing the body. His example grows in Yasamoto, who begins to take a stronger interest in serving the needy, and leaving the constipated elite to be tended by others.
Many secondary characters find their way into this film, including The Mantis, a mental patient who nearly kills Yasamoto, and a young prostitute so demeaned that she cannot fathom the concept of kindness.
Rambling ManRed Beard is episodic. It plays like a TV show I used to follow called Trapper John, M.D., which featured a few key characters and ever-changing conflicts as new patients were wheeled in each week. As with the TV show, Red Beard is defined by its setting rather than its story.
Because of its episodic nature, Red Beard feels long and aimless for a movie. It’s three-hour running time only makes it worse. If not for the skill of the two lead actors, Red Beard might have been intolerable, even to this Kurosawa fan.
What saves the Criterion DVD is the commentary by film historian Stephen Prince, who frames Red Beard in a historical context, offers insights into the literary contributions to the film, and points out the stylistic choices Kurosawa made. His commentary makes it easier to appreciate the otherwise rambling Red Beard.
Picture and SoundThe picture is presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. And although there are some dirt and scratches still on the print, the tonal range is impeccable. Overall, the picture is very good.
Kurosawa, says Prince, was an innovator in sound. Red Beard, for example, was made with four separate channels: dialogue, music, ambience, and sound effects. The Criterion DVD indeed has ambience sent to the rear-channel speakers, although there is some mixing of music and effects across the front three speakers.
It would have been good to know how Kurosawa would have had liked to present these four channels in a modern home theater. Would he keep them separate? Did Criterion use an approved mix? These questions aren’t answered on the DVD.
As I mentioned before, the commentary track on Red Beard is indispensable. Although Prince often repeats himself and speaks in a slow Al Gore voice, he brings a great knowledge of both Kurosawa and of the Japan of the 19th century to his audio essay.
For example, he explains that “Red Beard” is probably a reference to the Dutch influence on Japanese medicine of the time. The Dutch were the first to infiltrate Japanese society, and they brought with them knowledge of surgery and western medicine. They were called “red hairs” and their medicine was called “red hair medicine.”
Prince also repeatedly points out that Red Beard was shot entirely with telephoto lenses, and often with two cameras running simultaneously. He repeats that Kursoawa did this because he loves the way it looks. Having this detail pointed out helped me appreciate the director’s intent, and it may account for part of why I felt the movie was often emotionally distant and detached.
Aside from the commentary track, the only other extra features are a theatrical trailer, and a written essay by film historian Donald Richie in the liner notes.
Red Beard, by itself, is perhaps one of Kurosawa’s least satisfying movies. Its length and episodic nature would have been better as a series than as a single film. But with the help of the audio commentary, the film becomes more coherent and more interesting. For Kurosawa fans, the Criterion DVD is one to buy, not to rent, because you’ll want to see it at least twice, once with the commentary.