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Beauty and the Beast

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Beauty and the Beast fall for each other

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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.

Heart Medicine

Criterion's extras make all the differenceRed 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 Man

Red 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 Sound

The 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.

DVD Extras

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.

Conclusion

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.

  • dan: hahahaha...
    this review is laughable. "Red Beard" is one of the greatest films ever. Ask any other film critic, or better yet- watch the movie. June 27, 2007 reply
    • Naeem Khan: I totally agree with you. Red beard is one of the all time great movie in cinema history. kurosawa is alive through his work. his taking is very effective as well. January 11, 2010 reply
  • Mags: I agree with Dan, if you watch the movie without the commentary you might actually find that it´s one of his best films.

    I see what you´re getting at, comparing the movie to a TV show, but you´re wrong. It´s just divided into "parts" and each part has it's own theme and represents character changes in the main characters.

    To say that Red Beard is defined by it´s setting is pure blasphemy. It´s defined by it's characters and the changes they undergo.

    It's too bad many people don't appreciate the slow pace of Red Beard and many other Kurosawa movies. Have our time become so precious we can't even spend an extra our appreciating the art and contemplating life?


    September 25, 2008 reply
  • Andreas: Agreed with the above. This reviewer, for lack of better words, just doesn't get it. June 29, 2009 reply
  • Robert Taylor: I feel like the conclusion of this article perfectly sums up that its author has an inherent misunderstanding of Kurosawa's work and this film. He comments on the length without noting that most of Kurosawa's masterpieces are at least two-and-a-half hours, with "Yojimbo" and "Sanjuro" the exceptions. He then comments on the episodic nature, which is also present in all of the master's greatest works. You can set aside "Ran" since the work its adapting is inherently episodic because of its five acts. But "Seven Samurai" has three very specific acts (the gathering of the samurai, the preparation of the village and the attack itself). "Ikiru" is the same (man learns he has cancer, man bonds with girl, aftermath of death). And so on and so forth. February 9, 2014 reply