Happy 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.