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Red Beard: Static

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    Vili Maunula

    Some time ago I mentioned that I would offer a few suggestions as for why Red Beard may come across as somewhat “static”, as suggested by some. Jeremy has noted that, in his view, it is due to Kurosawa’s perfecting his art, and the more I think of it the more valid this argument sounds like. (Even if I don’t personally think of Red Beard as all that static — I would rather call it “contemplative”.)

    There are, however, other reasons that may contribute to the fact that some see the film as “static”. Here is what I would suggest:

    Camera

    As I have already noted, I find the film’s camera to be relatively static compared to Kurosawa’s earlier work. In my view, there is also less “camera trickery” in the movie, although Ugetsu has offered an opposing view. As I noted earlier, I wonder if Ozu’s death at the beginning of filming Red Beard might have had an influence here.

    Music

    Red Beard is also very minimalistic in terms of its music. While I may have missed a few, I counted only 13 instances of actual music in the film, most of them well under a minute long.

    There are, of course, plenty of background noises on the soundtrack, but overall it is a very silent movie. Its minimalism in this way, I feel, feeds into its “static” nature.

    Narration

    In a way, I find Red Beard‘s narrative ambitions to be closer to those of a novel than of a film. With its various characters and situations, there is actually awfully lot compressed into just three hours, and I think that this is one of the film’s most interesting achievements. If most films are in some sense comparable to short stories, Red Beard is definitely a novel, and a thick one.

    What this has to do with the perceived static nature of the film is that whereas most films (including most of those by Kurosawa) have a relatively well defined progression through a beginning, middle and an end, this is not so clear-cut an affair with Red Beard. Perhaps most importantly, our main character is not what I would call an “active mover” in the story — he is rather an observer, much like us (and we are arguably expected to go through the same learning process that he does). The result of this may be that at least for some viewers Red Beard does not fit within the expected narrative model of a movie, and its replacement of action/acting with observation makes it appear static. Similarly, we are never fully introduced to Yasumoto’s full story — whatever happened before he came to the hospital is mentioned only in passing, and we are required to piece things together.

    As Prince and Richie suggest, the over narrative in Red Beard tends towards cyclicity. The film of course both begins and ends with the protagonist’s entrance through the hospital’s gates (after the “new beginning” offered by the marriage), but cyclicity is also evident in the way the film repeats its thematic motif through the various characters who have their own stories within the greater narrative.

    Having said this, however, it must be noted that Red Beard still retains constructs that are very typical to a Kurosawa movie. Most notably, it — like so many other Kurosawa films — posits an important narrative turn almost precisely at the middle of the film: at 1h 33min (of a 3h 05min movie) Yasumoto finally puts on his hospital uniform, with the main theme on the soundtrack stressing the importance of this event. Divisions like these are very typical of Kurosawa, as you probably have noticed.

    You may actually be able to point out further significant “middles” in Red Beard. At 0:46, which marks the halfway point between the film’s beginning and middle, we have Yasumoto taking part in his first medical operation (the surgery). This is immediately after watching Rokusuke dying, and immediately before hearing a fellow doctor explain Niide to Yasumoto, leading Yasumoto to take his first case (Sahachi). We don’t, however, have quite as significant an event taking place at 2:19, the halfway point between the film’s middle and the end. It (loosely) marks the end of the montage showing Otoyo’s taking care of Yasumoto. More precisely, it has Otoyo reading one of Yasumoto’s medical books — perhaps noting her growing interest in caring for others?

    The main character

    Finally, I think that one strong reason for the perceived “staleness” of Red Beard is the way in which the main character is not very charismatic or even all that interesting. This is probably partly because of the role of an “observant” that I mentioned before, and as such is a calculated move from the writers. Perhaps, the idea is that the less we are given about Yasumoto’s background and his thought processes, the more we can associate ourselves with him.

    Yet, I cannot but feel that Yuzo Kayama is not the perfect man for the role — other actors could probably have made the character more interesting to follow even within the confines of the role. Whether this was also a calculated decision from Kurosawa, I don’t know, but I would suggest that with a leading man as “static” as we have here, it is no surprise that some (as has been the case) may find the movie uninteresting and difficult to maintain interest in.

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    Ugetsu

    I’m still mulling over a post I’m hoping to make on this topic, but I do think that as a film it lost focus – it doesn’t have the single vision of most of Kurosawas work. I personally never found it static at all – I found it very dynamic and gripping. But as I said on another thread, its Mizoguchi comes to my mind when I think of it, not Ozu. Perhaps one issue is that it doesn’t have those rapid changes of pacing that Kurosawa often uses. I also think that the acting was uneven – Yasumoto seemed to be acting in a very naturalistic way, while other characters/actors were more theatrical, even down to the make-up (on the little boy, for example). I think a lot of this comes down to the long shooting – its inevitable I think that this will lead to an unevenness.

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    cocoskyavitch

    Still Life

    There is a tradition of Dutch still-life painting of the 17th century in which great care and extreme attention to verisimilitude visually presents a cornucopia of flowers, fruits, (lemons especially) lobsters, fish, mussels, clams, dead hares, dead fowl, rich table appointments such as; silver ewers, golden bowls, Turkish carpets (used as table dressings in the 17th century, or on the wall-rarely on the floors) small sculptures, imported ceramics in blue and white and crystal of every shape and design. These lavish still-lifes (or, even better-the French term-“nature morte”: nature, dead) presents at first viewing a world of luxury items and fixin’s for a feast displayed proudly. Well, there’s that-(and I won’t get too involved at this second in the political reasons for this trend.) However, these images are rarely quite so straightforward, and many display a symbolism of objects and relationships with the intended message “memento mori” or, “remember death”. For example, an insect hovering about fruit reminds us that flesh decays (rotten fruit attracts insects). Pearls on the table are often symbols of vanity, and while a stag’s head may represent a successful hunt and an upcoming banquet, it also clearly represents death. The somewhat “static” or moribund or “too perfect” or “uneven” aspects Red Beard may have something to do with the intended message of the film, as well as something to do with the choice of “objects” (stories/characters) within the “still life” (film).

    Ugetsu, I also find Red Beard deeply moving! But I get some of what Vili and Jeremy are saying. As I write, I review scenes, mentally.

    Here’s an odd thing-just now I was “recalling” the scene behind the tenement where Minoru Chiaki, the prostitute, Bokuzen Hidari are observed by the tinker…and then-wait a minute-that’s from The Lower Depths! I had imagined the characters as the patients in Red Beard! Well-some of them are, in fact! They’re bit spots for the most part, but some of our firends are there. It’s funny, the characters from The Lower Depths could comingle with their older selves in Red Beard. And, they would fit right in rather nicely wouldn’t they? The prositute would be a patient for…I dunno, nervous disorder. And, Minoru Chiaki-heck, it would be great to see him!!!! The younger Mifune could be the patient of the elder Mifune. What a crazy thought. But, it would work, wouldn’t it? The thing then, that you see missing in Red Beard is the humor that’s in The Lower Depths, and, dare I say it-some of our old friends are missing, (Chiaki) and those who are there are strangely second-tier or muffled.

    I would like to mention that I do love the Kurosawa players, and seeing old friends is always a treat. Eijiro Tono, who also appeared in Ozu films has become more and more dear to me on repeated viewings. Of course I loved Bokuzen Hidari from the get-go-who wouldn’t? And, Atsushi Watanabe has become very loveable, and one of my favorites Kamatari Fujiwara…that guy rocks! He blew me away in The Lower Depths is freaking hilarious in The Hidden Fortress and plays a pivotal scene in Red Beard. Gosh, how much affection for those guys! But-didja note that none of them-none of the old players is as “close” (as opposed to “distanced”) as in other Kurosawa films? First of all, we only see Takashi Shimura for a second! He’s just complaining about payment…nothing about his character, his personality-he’s just a bit player here.

    The main characters in Red Beard are the new folks-and, they are good! Ugetsu mentions “uneven” and I see what he is pointing to…

    Vili says the film is static, and Jeremy calls it “too perfect”. They both are noting this distancing thing that starts going on in Kurosawa’s later films. Critics note it in Ran and Kagemusha, too. They think it has something to do with the camera. I love those films as well, but it’s true isn’t it? Distancing is my term, I guess, but has a relationship to “static” and “too perfect”.

    On my first viewing of Red Beard I was mourning the loss of Mifune. I watched, waiting for him to be amazing a loveable-and it didn’t happen. That was weird and disappointing and depressing-but, only for a bit because I began to care so much about the other characters, and the development of their characters and storylines. Nonetheless, I cannot separate my sense of loss (knowing I am losing the Mifune-Kurosawa cooperative) from the film. And, our old friends, save Nakadai, will not show up much in the later works. Sad. Memento mori.

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    Ugetsu

    Great post coco. Funny you mention Dutch painting – for some reason I always associate Vermeer (and some of his contemporaries) with Ozu. Partly the care of composition, but on a deeper level I find that I have some of the same emotional response to a Vermeer as to some of the quieter scenes in Ozu. The same sense of beauty and depth in portraying the completely ordinary.

    This is as much a question to those of you (i.e. all of you) who know more about art than me. The pictorial nature of many of the scenes in Red Beard were very striking to me. On second viewing, some remind me very strongly of Renaissance paintings with a religious theme. Sorry I haven’t worked out how to do stills yet, but two that stand out in my memory are the death scene with Sahachi, where the villages crowd around the body – it reminded me of paintings of the adoration of Jesus by the Magi. Another striking (and funny) scene is in the brothel, just inside the doorway where the thugs challenge Niide and he tells them to go outside to wait for him. As he is standing up to the leader, to the right of the screen one of the thugs is flirting with a prostitute. For some odd reason this reminded me of da Vinci’s Last Supper, with Jesus in the centre, but on either side odd little things are going on (I know this is a common form of composition of the period.

    Am I reading too much into what were just very formally composed scenes or was Kurosawa deliberately injecting some Christian iconography into the film?

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    cocoskyavitch

    Ohmigosh you have given me chills, Ugetsu-Mantegna’s Dead Christ comes to mind immediately in connection with Sahatchi’s death: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Lamentation_over_the_Dead_Christ_(Mantegna).

    I feel fairly certain that Kurosawa’s painterly sense of composition allows him to use edges, unusual perspectives (the well scene) and strking compositions. The funny thing is, anyone who studies art or art history will have these spatial feelings in their blood-I tend to think the compositional similarities have more to do with the subject (Christianity is big on death, right?) than a conscious reference…but, again, wouldn’t it have been great to ask the master himself? There are still so many questions I have for him!

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