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Red Beard: Kurosawa, Art and Existential Humanism

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    cocoskyavitch

    Red Beard is one of my favorite Kurosawa films, despite the fact that I find parts of it incredibly painful to watch. The structure of the film has been called episodic-and as such, looks forward to such omnibus films as Dodesakaden and Dreams. It has similarities, too, to installment television dramas-although Red Beard is a work that lives in the realm of art.

    Kurosawa’s dad told him that one could learn things from films. I suppose, somehow, that, early on, Kurosawa had the idea that films could be something valuable, and instructive. It seems as if the arc of Kurosawa’s career was a search for form that would reveal “truth”. You know how Kurosawa tells of editing the “distraught mother horse” scene in Uma as an assistant D.A. to Yamamoto? He tells how he tried and tried and tried to find the right note..but that it wasn’t until his mentor said, “mono-no-aware” that Kurosawa began to understand an approach to the scene. For Kurosawa that was a breakthrough-that form could express a truth-and that he had to search for that proper form. When Kurosawa tells of this period under Yama-san he describes it as feeling something like climbing a mountain, and feeling the fresh air hitting his face-one feels the world is opening, that possibilities are revealing themselves-it is bracing, joyous work.

    So, here we are, in Red Beard at the opposite end of the career arc. We are not in the bracing, searching, experimental, youthful stage, but in a period of sober maturity, summing-up, concluding a chapter, using all of one’s abilities to make the clearest case yet for one’s beliefs.

    My struggle to understand Kurosawa’s art is related to his search for the best expression of his philosophy-a philosphy that he was writing through making film. Once he had mastered the making of form-was his struggle over? Was it an end to a search? What does Red Beard mean, in the canon? Is it the summation, as suggested by Richard Prince, of all Kurosawa’s earlier themes?

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    Ugetsu

    I haven’t read Prince, but I don’t buy the idea that Red Beard is somehow a ‘summing up’ by Kurosawa. I think there is a certain amount of hindsight at work, seeing the enforced hiatus in work after Red Beard as indicating that it was some sort of end point in his work. I think this is partly Richies fault, he seems to have lost interest after he wrote the first edition of his book, and so set off the idea of a decline after Red Beard to justify his own critical exhaustion. I also get the impression that for a long while Richie and other Japanese cultural critics became enthralled by the more radical and fashionable directors epitomised by Oshima, and so pushed the idea of Red Beard as being an ‘end’ to Kurosawa to justify their change in direction.

    Joan Mellon, in her book on Seven Samurai, makes a very convincing case for this movie as being Kurosawa’s true magnum opus, his ‘big statement’. She argues that both western and Japanese critics have allowed themselves to be misled by the idea that this was some sort of tribute to John Ford and a deliberate attempt to merge the Western and traditional historic movies from the philosophical underpinning of that film. She argues that Seven Samurai sums up Kurosawas belief that the soul of Japan was lost when Japanese society threw out the good as well as the bad of the Samurai code.

    As a thought experiment, I think if you imagined showing a Kurosawa virgin all his key movies in chronological sequence, without telling them about Kurosawas personal and professional difficulties post-Red Beard, and then asked them to identify the key movies, I doubt very much if that person would identify Red Beard as an end point, or summation. I think that person would identify SS, RB, and Ran as three epic highpoints, with a scattering of intellectually more focused or experimental smaller movies around each of these three.

    Of course, I’ve no doubt that after finishing every movie, Kurosawa felt in some way that he made a major statement of his thoughts at the time. But like the rest of us, I’m sure he was continually refining and changing his views. Personally speaking, I knew everything there was to know about the world when I was 18, since then I’ve been in a marked decline.

    I don’t think there is any reason to see Red Beard as anything other than what Kurosawa said it was – an attempt to make a big, sprawling, irrisistible epic, full of drama and ideas. Just like pretty much all his other movies really.

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    Vili Maunula

    I don’t personally think that it was so much a summation as a potential solution to something that Kurosawa had been working on in his previous films, and this is also what I get from reading Prince and Richie.

    As such, it seems different from what had been going on until then — the previous films all seem to end with dilemmas and unanswered questions, whereas Red Beard (to me) finally concludes with something of an answer. It is not Kurosawa’s Tempest, but it does seem to mark an end of something.

    However, we must remember that it would be five years after the release of Red Beard that we would see another Kurosawa movie. Seven years pass between the start of the production on Red Beard and that of Dodesukaden. In between those two, Kurosawa would be involved in two film projects that ultimately wouldn’t materialise under his direction — had both Runaway Train (on which Kurosawa worked intensively on and off for over a year in 1966-1967) and Tora! Tora! Tora! (an intensive two year work in 1967-1968) made it to the big screen under Kurosawa, we might evaluate Red Beard‘s place in the canon differently.

    Yet, Kurosawa himself seems to have considered Red Beard an important point in his career not only at the time of filming it, but also in that 1990 interview with Gabriel GarcĂ­a Marquez that we have already talked about earlier:

    Kurosawa: Red Beard constitutes a point of reference in my evaluation. All of my films which precede it are different from the succeeding ones. It was the end of one stage and the beginning of another. (Cardullo, 147)

    Make of that what you will. Certainly, Ugetsu’s prediction that a naive viewer would consider Seven Samurai, Red Beard and Ran as Kurosawa’s three masterpieces with the other films being viewed as something of experiments around those same themes seems very valid to me.

    I would perhaps have added Ikiru to the list, but last week’s showing of the movie (translated by my better half) at a film club in Budapest has made me think twice. Only six people showed up at the screening, and all of them apparently absolutely hated the film.

    Interestingly enough, earlier this year Red Beard brought in a real crowd, and the response was pretty enthusiastic.

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    cocoskyavitch

    Yay! I am happy to hear that Red Beard gets an audience Vili! It makes me happy to think of folks seeing it for the first time. Were they like, “Wow, this stuff is amazing…who knew?” I hope they were! I love it when really great art sneaks up and surprises-I love how it can astonish you with its freshness, relevance, honesty, detail and truth even decades or centuries after its conception.

    I have this vision of your partner, Vili, acting as a Hungarian Benshi. of course that’s nonsense, but I like the image!

    That the previous audience hated Ikiru is a little surprising. Why, I wonder? What did they dislike? Were you able to find out? Do you have discussion sessions on the conclusion of the viewing?

    Good reminder, Vili, that although we don’t include films in Kurosawa’s ouvre, it doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Although, in some ways, it is as if they didn’t exist. They never had a chance of existing as Kurosawa films in the classic auteur sense. So, though Kurosawa was active with these troubles, he returns to do Red Beard as a signature work.

    In another post, on another thread, Ugetsu mentions some of Red Beard‘s cinematic similarities to some Mizoguchi films, and notes the many interesting women in Red Beard. It really is quite wonderful how Kurosawa gives us so many different women-from the ex-fiancee of Yasumoto, to Osugi, to Otoyo to the Mantis, to the nurses-you might have to go back to “No Regrets for Our Youth” to see Kurosawa follow a woman’s story quite so affectingly as he follows that of Otoyo.

    Ugetsu said above:

    I don’t think there is any reason to see Red Beard as anything other than what Kurosawa said it was – an attempt to make a big, sprawling, irrisistible epic, full of drama and ideas. Just like pretty much all his other movies really.

    and Vili says:

    the previous films all seem to end with dilemmas and unanswered questions, whereas Red Beard (to me) finally concludes with something of an answer.

    I agreed with Vili until i thought about Ikiru – a film with a marked existential humanist “answer”. I wonder if the audience that didn’t like Ikiru didn’t like that film’s “answer”.

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    Jon Hooper

    I wonder why they hated Ikiru. Everyone I’ve shown it to was affected by it, but then I’m quite selective about who I show my favourite Kurosawa films to. I think it’s unlikely that they didn’t like the film’s answer. If that were the case, I think they would have left feeling not quite satisfied. But hate? Were they perhaps the sort of audience who were unable to appreciate a fifty year old black and white film? (or does this sound like the grumbling of a film snob?)

    First time I saw Red Beard, I found it totally gripping. I think as a drama it really works. The journey the young doctor takes is one I think most audiences have little trouble identifying with. I agree, by the way, that Red Beard offers some kind of answer to those questions (or perhaps single question) Kurosawa had been posing, and the answer it presents us with makes it one of his most uplifting films, even more than Ikiru (which surely goes some way towards an answer itself).

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    cocoskyavitch

    Hey Jon, do you think that the unrelenting bleakness of Ikiru is what made Vili’s audience grumble? I mean, the protagonist is dead by the second half of the film. Is that too intense for them? Should death only happen to a “third party” as it does in Red Beard? Our heroes live on in Red Beard.

    Or, (and I hesitate to mention this…) did they find Shimura’s acting maudlin? It’s curious and I would be most interested in knowing what they thought. We’ll just have to sit tight until Vili clocks in.

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    Vili Maunula

    I actually wasn’t there (there just isn’t time), so your guess is pretty much as good as mine.

    I think that it was partly the gloominess of the film that doesn’t go down too well in these gloomy times, as well as the fact that the film perhaps drags a little bit towards the end. At least there was a very similar reaction to Stray Dog a while back, which people hated because of the way the film keeps changing its pace. They felt that the Tokyo montage was too long and boring, as was the ending. Kurosawa films, we have found, are something of a hit-or-miss with this particular audience.

    And indeed, there is something of an answer found also in Ikiru, although I don’t think that it is quite as developed as in Red Beard. I’m actually really looking forward to watching Ikiru again in November, as I just received the Criterion edition. It’s been years since I saw the movie in good quality print.

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    Jon Hooper

    The Tokyo montage in Stray Dog long and boring? Perhaps they meant utterly mesmerising and beautiful, but the wrong words came out? Somehow I don’t think they’ll take to Tarkovsky either.

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    Vili Maunula

    The Tarkovsky films that they have screened have actually been quite well received. Go figure.

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    Ugetsu

    I can understand how an individual can’t thrill to Ikiru or Stray Dog for whatever reason (there are plenty of ‘great’ films that leave me cold), but it certainly is odd that there is a universal negative reaction. Maybe the cultural jump is just a bit too much to take for those not used to Japanese movies – when you watch them a lot (as I do) its easy to forget how difficult it was at first for me to stop paying attention to superficially odd things and focusing on the core narrative. I guess maybe there is a Slavic thing at work with Tarkovsky, etc. The relentless gloom of Russian cinema/literature can be a turn off for plenty of people.

    When I saw Ikiru playing here in Dublin recently, the audience was not a typical one – seemed like a lot of post grad bohemian types gone to seed, if you know what I mean (and nearly all male), but I guess not everyone can get out to an afternoon showing of a 50 year old movie. But the vibe wasn’t so good, I think I was the only one really into it, but maybe everyone else just hid their tears better! Not like the first time I saw Tokyo Story in the same cinema – when the end came, the audience was stunned into silence, people were openly weeping.

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    cocoskyavitch

    Hmmmm…audience reaction to film really is fascinating! I love hearing your experiences, Ugetsu. I saw Rashomon and Yojimbo on the big screen, at a revival house in a double-university town, and both were fabulous-the first was attended by some kids with notebooks, as well as the townies, professionals and university types…the second by a wide range of folks who seemed to already have seen the film but came for the big-screen experience. They laughed in all the right places. Way back I saw Dreams and Ran on the big screen-both at the revival theatre already mentioned, and they were both first-time viewings for me with a savvy crowd that was appreciative but restrained. I vaguely remember seeing Dodeskaden at the same theatre, but it shook me so much that I don’t recall the audience reaction. I was completely a mess and couldn’t stop thinking of the poisoned man and his son. Yeeesh, I still have the creeps thinking about it now. If it wasn’t raining as I left the theatre, I still will always remember it as if it were.

    Jeremy said something way back in an earlier post about feeling strange “sharing” a film you care about with others. I felt a little like that with Rashomon and Yojimbo.

    Red Beard is static, partly because the camera does a fair amount of “tableau vivant”-compositions with the figur parallel to the picture plane. On the commentary, it’s noted that there is an area of “burnout”-a hot area from the lights (Kurosawa liked a lot of light) in some of the scenes-and that is an off-putting, distancing and illusion-breaking thing…I hesitate to say error. The very famous early “presentation of the criminal” in Kagemusha has a similar presentational quality.

    Presentational is formal. It’s like bento boxes: http://justbento.com/

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