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Film Club: Red Beard (1965)

Red BeardHappy 2014, everyone! What better way to start off a new year than discussing a Kurosawa film? Our film club will be kicking off the year with Akira Kurosawa’s 1965 work Red Beard (赤ひげ / Akahige).

There is much that could be said about Red Beard. The movie, released in April 1965 in Japan, was the result of a mammoth two year production period and is generally ranked as one of Kurosawa’s finest. It is his last film in black and white, and is also typically seen as the end of an era for the director, not only because it is something of a summation of the topics, ideas and thought processes that Kurosawa had been tackling with in his previous films, but also as it was the last film that he would work on under the relative safety of the golden era of the Japanese studio system. After Red Beard and Kurosawa’s Hollywood detour that followed (and which we will be tracing in the coming months), Kurosawa found it increasingly difficult to find financing for his work, and in the remaining 33 years of his life he would end up directing only 7 films, compared to the 23 that he had completed in the first 23 years of his career.

Red Beard was famously also the last film where Kurosawa worked with Toshirō Mifune, his leading man of almost twenty years. What is less often mentioned, but no less important, is that Red beard is also the last Kurosawa film to be written in collaboration with Kurosawa’s long time co-screenwriter and Kurosawa Production executive Ryûzô Kikushima, with whom the director appears to have fallen out during the aftermath of the ill-fated Tora! Tora! Tora! production.

Red Beard‘s screenplay, written by Kurosawa, Kikushima Hideo Oguni and Masato Ide, was based on Shūgorō Yamamoto’s collection Akahige shinryōtan (赤ひげ診療譚), which has sadly not been translated into English. This was the second time that Kurosawa drew from Yamamoto, having also based Sanjuro on the author’s work. Kurosawa would go on to write or co-write four more screenplays based on Yamamoto: Dodesukaden, Dora-heita, After the Rain and The Sea Is Watching are all adaptations of Yamamoto’s work.

In addition to Yamamoto’s collection of short stories, the story of Red Beard also drew from Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Insulted and the Injured, which is available online for free in English translation.

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. The reception in the west, particularly so in the US, was very different. Accroding to Galbraith, the majority of American critics found the movie too slow and empty of content. (387)

It was in October 2008, more than half a decade ago, that we last tackled Red Beard at our film club. Our previous discussions of the film can be found under the Red Beard tag.

Like all of Kurosawa’s films, Red Beard‘s availability on home video is fairly good. For more information, see Kurosawa DVDs.

We will follow Red Beard with Masaki Kobayashi’s film trilogy The Human Condition, which we will be watching in February. For information about its availability and the rest of the film club schedule, see the film club page.




Happy New Year!

Wow, I can’t believe its been so long since we did Red Beard. Its a film I’ve always been in two minds about – I can see the point of some critics that there is something a bit soap opera-ish about elements of the film, but it is so filled with amazing scenes it never fails to captivate me. I do agree that there is something of a magnum opus about it (perhaps self-consciously so), without it necessarily being Kurosawa’s greatest ‘big’ work – for me, Seven Samurai and Ran will always be a little above Red Beard, which I think at times strains a little hard for an epic feel which doesn’t match the story. In this sense, it reminds me a little of later David Lean films, where the scale of the film making sometimes overwhelms the relative flimsiness of the script.


Vili Maunula

It’s an interesting film for sure, and among my personal favourites. It is also technically near perfect, so much so that many seem to consider it a problem.

Having said that, I would still agree that the story content perhaps doesn’t quite rise on the level set by the technical execution. It is also quite didactic when compared to Kurosawa’s more typical habit of ending films with question marks. Red Beard is definitely more of a full stop, a statement rather than a problematisation. Perhaps more so than any other Kurosawa film?



I watched it again (over two nights) this week, and once again I marvelled at how skilled Kurosawa is at drawing the viewer in. Red Beard is one of those films I don’t rematch for pleasure, as my memories of it are of being a little too straightforward, but by the time of the fight in the yard of the brothel I was hooked again. This is I think the only film by Kurosawa that I think I resent a little bit as the emotional tear-jerking is so unashamed and obvious – but it works!

Watching it this time, the film which came to mind oddly enough is ‘Its a Wonderful Life’. What always struck me about that film is that underneath the sentimentality and feel-good ending, it is a very dark film. Not just because the central character so seriously considers suicide, but because at the end George Baileys problems are never really resolved – at the end of the film he is still stuck in a town too small and dull for a man who dreams of seeing the world – all that has happened is that he knows that his life is important. It is almost Ozu like in its conclusion that you can’t fix your problems, all you can do is come to accept life as it is. Most people of course only focus on the feel-good aspects of the film, but if you choose to look at the film coldly, it is as sad and resigned a film as Late Spring.

The relevance of this to Red Beard is that I struggle to think of any other film which combines such melodrama and sentimentality with such a very dark and unflinching look at some of the darkest subjects imaginable – child sexual abuse, poverty so deep children are reduced to stupification from a lack of nutrients, abusive relationships, death in its rawest form, sociopathic behaviours. And all the while, we are shown quite clearly that the protagonist doctors are pretty much helpless to deal with the underlying problems – all they can do is hope for an occasional success and make peoples deaths a little more dignified. To match all that with unabashed melodrama and not a little sentimentality is quite a tightrope walk which I think Kurosawa only just pulls off. Despite the cheery and up-beat ending, like Its a Wonderful Life, the film doesn’t pretend the deeper problems are cured.

Of course, Kurosawa could be accused of a cop-out – showing the worst aspects of life, while sugaring the pill with sentimentality and a happy ending. And I think to a large extent that is true. But in his defence I would note that he used the sentimentality to show things that I think were never shown on film in such graphic detail and with such a cold eye. There may have been plenty of damaged sociopaths on film before the Mantis, but never was it suggested that it was both incurable, but also that a possible cure was itself a form of cruelty, as she would inevitably want suicide when she became less psychotic. Niide’s refusal to either condemn the Mantis or to offer her own abuse as an excuse for it is very striking. She is evil and dangerous, but his duty as a doctor is to help her, and that is all. As for the younger girl, outside of small grim art films, I can’t think of as detailed a depiction of the impact of child abuse on a person as in this film (even if she is cured in a possibly unrealistically short time-span).

I’m not sure I can come to conclusions with this, but I cannot off the top of my head think of any film which attempts to balance such widely divergent topics and tones, successfully or not. At times I think its too much – I certainly could have done without the over intrusive score and the somewhat cliched central relationships (not least Yasumoto’s rather over-neat change from spoiled arrogant pup to caring doctor). But with every viewing I am more and more impressed with the achievement.



My reaction to the movie can be summed up as: So. Much. Exposition. Also, it was so episodic that it didn’t feel much like a cohesive narrative. I didn’t really start getting into it until Sahachi’s deathbed confession about halfway through. Of Kurosawa’s movies with similar themes and settings, I’d rather watch The Lower Depths or Dodesukaden.



Argh – the time to edit my prior entry has passed. I wanted to add that this also struck me as a movie that requires more cultural translation than is typical of a Kurosawa film. Also, in part because of All the Exposition, this film lacks the dynamism that is much of the reason why I like Kurosawa’s movies.




I wanted to add that this also struck me as a movie that requires more cultural translation than is typical of a Kurosawa film. Also, in part because of All the Exposition, this film lacks the dynamism that is much of the reason why I like Kurosawa’s movies.

I think you’ve hit on something interesting there (at least for me). There is a lot of exposition in Red Beard, but I think thats a feature of most Kurosawa films. I’ve always thought of the episodal nature of the film as being a departure from his previous films, but thinking about it, a key feature of most of his films is how self contained each ‘act’ can be. Think of the way the last act of Ikiru is entirely different from the proceeding film, or the way the static and theatrical first act of High and Low is a complete contrast to the later, much more fluid film. And of course Rashomon was really four separate films of the same story in one. I think what differs in Red Beard is that the separate ‘stories’ are digressions from the central story rather than different acts, or self conscious attempts to alter the viewers perspective from subjective to objective. In this way, I see Red Beard as being more ‘literary’ than cinema in that it seems to me to follow the form of a big old style novel rather than a conventional film.


Vili Maunula

I second Ugetsu’s assessment about lawless’s nail-hitting abilities. My understanding is that Red Beard is generally considered one of Kurosawa’s best, if not indeed the very best film, while in the west it has generally been less enthusiastically reviewed. It would suggest that there may indeed be more culture-specific encoding in it than in Kurosawa’s other films.

Red Beard also definitely has a very novel-like quality to it. Or what I actually thought about while watching it the other day was how much in its pacing it resembled a modern television series. I could well see Red Beard as a 10-12 part HBO season, with additional content such as more minor patients and fleshing out the romantic storyline between one of the girls and the doctors, which was never really elaborated on.

Kurosawa had offers in the 1970s to work in television, but he turned them down. It would have been interesting to see what he could have done there. Or what he would do now, if he lived. And would he? David Lynch, Martin Scorsese, David Fincher, Jane Campion and Alfonso Cuarón have all done it, among others.

Another thing that I thought about is how much Red Beard resembles Dodesukaden. Of course, they are both based on Yamamoto’s works. But in many ways Dodesukaden is like Red Beard, but with the central characters removed, allowing more exposure to the smaller stories which show us a variety of challenging and often depressing life situations.

Meanwhile, the use of shadows in Red Beard reminded me of Kagemusha. I don’t remember paying attention to them before, but this time I noticed how many shadows the film contains. Kagemusha, of course, makes clear narrative use of them, while in Red Beard they seem more purely stylistic. I think?



Ugetsu wrote:

). There is a lot of exposition in Red Beard, but I think thats a feature of most Kurosawa films.

True, but it’s usually presented in a more artistically appealing way. Exposition through dialogue usually serves some other purpose such as revealing individual or institutional biases. For example, the conversation that takes place between the reporters near the beginning of The Bad Sleep Well demonstrates their avidity for scandal while also giving us the background necessary to understand what’s going on.

There’s just so much exposition here compared to his other films, and it comes in such big chunks rather than dribs and drabs! With so much of the film focused on past or off-camera events rather than what is depicted directly, the narrative drive that distinguishes Kurosawa’s films is lost.

Normally, I think he’s able to maintains a good balance between showing and telling. A movie that’s all show and no tell can come across as too obscure and difficult to interpret; Steve McQueen’s Shame is an example, as are some Ozu films. A movie that tells at the expense of showing doesn’t engage us as much. In this case, I kept thinking “show, don’t tell,” especially in the beginning, where the setup took an excruciatingly long time.

I see Red Beard as being more ‘literary’ than cinema in that it seems to me to follow the form of a big old style novel rather than a conventional film.

Funny you should say that. I almost mentioned The Idiot in my list of similar Kurosawa movies I’d rather watch. But in this case I think other than the parts that got summarized via title cards (IIRC, mostly the train trip during which Prince Myshkin and Rogozhin meet for the first time), Kurosawa improves on the novel by focusing on its narrative center. The source text badly needed a ruthless editor to cut beautifully crafted writing that didn’t advance the centtral narrative but which Dostoevsky was too enamored of to discard.

Vili wrote:

Or what I actually thought about while watching it the other day was how much in its pacing it resembled a modern television series

I hadn’t thought about it, but that would work better for me as well. You’re also right that some storylines get short shrift, like the other doctor’s romance with the nurse in charge of the Mantis’ care. I agree that Dodesukaden is like Red Beard with the central characters removed, which makes it almost completely episodic and negates the “show, don’t tell” problem because most of the narrative unfolds as it occurs.

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