October’s here, and I would therefore like to invite you all to the sixth edition of our monthly Akira Kurosawa Online Film Club. This month, we will be facing what is probably our most challenging task yet: Red Beard (Akahige).
There is much that could be said about Red Beard — and I hope that much in fact will be said this month — yet I will stick with the basic facts for this introduction. (In case you are new to the Film Club concept, check out the Kurosawa Film Club page.)
The movie, released in 1965 after two years of production, is based on Shūgorō Yamamoto’s novel Akahige shinryotan, while Fyodor Dostoevsky’s work The Insulted and the Injured provides the source for one of the sub-plots. It would perhaps be difficult to overestimate the influence that these two writers had on Kurosawa’s work, not only in Red Beard but throughout the director’s career. While Dostoevsky provided a direct source for just one Kurosawa movie (The Idiot), the influence of his thinking can be felt looming over all of Kurosawa’s work. Yamamoto’s influence was, meanwhile, more direct — six screenplays with Kurosawa’s involvement were based on his work, with Kurosawa himself filming three (Sanjuro, Red Beard and Dodesukaden), while the other three have been filmed by others after Kurosawa’s death (After the Rain, Dora-heita, The Sea is Watching).
Career-wise, Red Beard is also very much an end of an era for Kurosawa. Not only is it Kurosawa’s last black-and-white movie, but it is also the last film that he made during the “golden era” of Japanese film, with the industry already struggling at the time of Read Beard‘s production. After Red Beard, Kurosawa would find it increasingly difficult to find financing for his ambitious movies, and consequently in the remaining 23 years of his life, he would direct only seven movies, compared to the twenty three that he had completed in the first 23 years of his career. (In fact, if you consider Kurosawa’s career to have ended with his death in 1998 and started with his first own feature film, Red Beard stands right in the middle of his directorial career: Sanshiro Sugata came out in 1943.)
Red Beard was also famously the last film where Kurosawa used Toshirō Mifune, his leading man of almost twenty years. While many possible explanations have been given as for why Kurosawa and Mifune never worked together after Red Beard, with the stress that the film’s lengthy production time put on their relationship often suggested, the issue nevertheless still remains something of a mystery.
At the time of its release, Red Beard was a huge commercial hit in Japan, and Japanese critics hailed the movie as Kurosawa’s magnum opus. According to Galbraith, the reception in the west, particularly the US, was very different. It was not only a tough sell for Toho, but the majority of American critics found the movie too slow and empty of content.
Today, Red Beard in the west is still often left unnoticed under the towering shadow of Kurosawa’s earlier masterpieces and his late epics. In Japan, meanwhile, it continues to be among his most celebrated works, and in fact most people that I have talked to in Japan seem to consider it their favourite.
Let us know your take!