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Red Beard: Yasumoto and the women

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    Ugetsu

    I’m about to put forward an interpretation of this film which is very different from the usual or at least any that I have read. In particular, I suggest that the most common interpretation (i.e from Richie, etc), that the focus is on the pupil/sensei relationship is incorrect. I’m suggesting that the core of the story is (or at least was intended to be) about Yasumoto alone, and specifically the role the women he encountered allows him to grow as a man. In short, Red Beard is about how women shape men by action, while men shape other men by word and example only.

    My thinking about this is influenced by a number of puzzles I’ve had about the movie. The first is the looping backstory of Yasumoto’s fiancé. On the one hand it seemed an extraneous storyline and something of a distraction, but I was curious that she only appears in body at the very end, while she is the only character (apart from his parents) referred to as part of his pre-hospital days. It also seems to be reflected in an odd way in the story told by the dying man Sahachi (in that story, we never see the jilted man). Therefore, the story of his failed engagement inscribes a circle in the movie, providing both a start and a finish. This whole incident, is seemingly irrelevant to the central story as it does not relate in any way to the hospital or the patients, and yet it pervades the whole narrative.

    The other key issue is not in the movie itself but is the issue of Kurosawa’s estrangement with Mifune, and the professed unhappiness of Kurosawa’s scriptwriting partner (I can’t quite remember which one – Kikushima?) with Mifune’s performance. The only thing I can possibly think that could be wrong with his performance is that he is simply too strong, too dominant within the story. In other words, Kikushima thought that Mifune unbalanced the narrative by focusing the audiences attention on Niide.

    We know that the perennial concern of Kurosawa was the search for self-actualisation of his main characters, the search for a truer self, as well as the meaning of integrity and goodness. We have a character (Niide) who seems to have, Buddha-like, found this before the film begins. In the Kurosawa sense he is therefore uninteresting. We follow instead Yasumoto’s path to maturity and his true calling. The six key steps to his growing maturity would seem to be:

    1. He is, just before the film starts, dumped by his fiancé. We don’t know why, but since we see what a self regarding asshole he is, its not hard to imagine. But maybe in Sahachi’s story of his dead wife we are given a clue that she agreed to the marriage out of duty to her family, but that she may then have fallen in love with someone else?

    2. Yasumoto is given his first lesson in humility by Niide’s insistence that he witness the last hours of a man’s life.

    3. Yasumoto is led – through a combination of curiosity and lust – to get too close to the web of a dangerous woman, who (in what must surely be an oblique reference to vampirism and the implied eroticism) marks his neck and draws blood. He learns not to underestimate the power of a woman’s sexuality.

    4. Yasumoto learns a little (by way of a story told by Sahachi) what true love can do – both good and bad.

    5. Yasumoto attempts to rescue the young girl from her entrapped mind. But in a wonderful switch (my favourite part of the film), she actually saves him – she nurses his body, but also saves his rotting soul by her purity and generosity.

    6. Yasumoto marries – but is given express permission by his wife to reject the comfortable life. In return, he shows how much he has learnt by openly and generously forgiving his ex fiancé.

    You note from the steps I’ve outlined that Niide (and other male characters) only influence Yasumoto by example and verbal guidance. The women all influence him by their direct action upon him. I am putting forward the notion that this is actually the core theme of the film. The film is saying that men influence us as good examples. But it is women who physically mold men, for good or ill.

    But why is it not generally understood this way? I think its Mifunes fault. He is such an immense figure that he dominates the movie. Note how he was clearly instructed by Kurosawa to stay very still, to control his body, to say relatively little (except of course for the fight scene). But Mifune was physically incapable of being anything other than a dominating presence. I think it was never the intention to have Niide as the central character. He was supposed to be Yoda to Luke Skywalker but turns into Yoda as played by Marlon Brando. He unbalances the film, drawing our attention away from the main story. So if Niide had been played by more subtle actors, for example, by Takashi Shimura or Chishu Ryu (who, incidentally, seemed to look younger in this film that in Tokyo Story!), the true narrative structure might have been clearer.

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    Vili Maunula

    It is certainly an interesting reading that you put forward here, Ugetsu. I am not sure if I can fully agree with all of the interpretations, but I will need a little more time to think it through before responding.

    It would help if managed to get through a mild food poisoning that I am currently suffering from. The second one in a week! 😆 (Too much work, too many food poisonings and other recent headaches — both literal and figurative — are my excuses for the recent silence…)

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    Ugetsu

    Sorry to hear about your illness, take it easy on the goulash! :mrgreen: Plenty of yoghurt should do the trick.

    (but hold off watching Iriru for now, not a good movie to see for someone suffering stomach pains 🙄 )

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    Vili Maunula

    😆

    Actually, in both cases it was yoghurt that caused the food poisoning. So, perhaps more goulash then?

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    cocoskyavitch

    Oh Vili! So sorry about the recent bouts of illness! I hope you are back in good health, now. Maybe I had food poisoning once-it’s hard to tell the difference between that and a bad flu, so I can’t be sure-but, man, thought I was gonna die! Hope it was not so vile for you, Vili, and that you are fine again!

    (I have been following world economic events-and, as you know, things have been “volatile”. Although your tummy was upset by yogurt, the economy is enough to make anyone sick. A recent report on NPR described Hungary as having been brought into the EU without some economic safeguards in place. It looks as though the bailout of the forint is actually working, though, and I hope that’s the case. We’re all connected now, and the failure of any economy means trouble for everyone. I’m curious to know if you’ve felt any repercussions from the world economic instability?)

    Back to tummies: This may be incredibly OCD, but I make a bento box lunch for work the night before or early in the morning so that I have good things to snack on, and a reliable, healthy, non-toxic lunch: http://justbento.com/handbook/lists/bento-archive-list-1

    It’s very stupid to be involved in the aesthetic to the degree that I am. Although I do not cut out my hot dogs into the shapes of octopi and squid, (don’t eat hot dogs, actuallly) I do use cookie cutters to make lunch meat and cheese slices into shapes, occasionally (but i try not to eat processed meat and cheese). I’m not this crazy: http://www.toplessrobot.com/2008/09/super_terrific_japanese_thing_anime_bento.php

    no rthis crazy: http://www.pinktentacle.com/2008/04/bento-lunches-decorated-as-album-covers/

    But, they are pretty wonderful!

    Ugetsu, your analysis and elucidation of the scenes involving the women and their effects on Yasumoto seem to serve as a corrective to all the nonsense we’ve always read about Kurosawa not really concerning himself with women. Red Beard not only tells the story of the effects the women have on Yasumoto, but the women’s stories are an education in and of themselves for the audience as well. The kindliness of the cooks, the tragic mania of the “Mantis”-the transformation of Otoyo-these are stories of women in a dangerous, hurtful world. How compassionate and aware that Kurosawa saw and revealed this! Well sure, that’s right-the novel came first-but Kurosawa surely made a world and its people tangible and real in his film! Of course, how we process art and interpret art’s meaning must always be quite personal, or else we wouldn’t have this, from a post on IMDB:

    “kurosawa is aruably one of the best film directors. he made some great films. however, in red beard, he uses female characters that are ‘wacko’ and dangerous.

    one woman apparently seduced and killed three men, and is shown nearly seducing and killing a 4th. another woman marries one man, then abandons him, and marries a different man, and has a baby with him. then she commits suicide by pulling husband no. 1 into her body as she holds

    a knife against her abdomen — and therefore abandons husband no. 2, and her baby she had with him.

    another woman is depicted as a sadist prositute manager who is trying to force a young girl into prostitution. and the young girl is depicted as ‘wacko’. another woman is depicted as somewhat irresponsible in watching over her sister, the ‘wacko’ seducer/killer, when she gets distracted by having an affair, and her ‘wacko’ sister gets loose.

    i like this film, but the depiction of women seems to fit a negative stereotype. since kurosawa was born and raised in a sexist society, one could expect that he would portray women in a sexist way, which he sometimes does.”

    I would hasten to say that I not only do not see Kurosawa’s depictions as sexist-I see them as remarkably astute and compassionate, and aware. There are good women and bad, good men and bad in this film.

    So, Ugetsu, you see the film as being about the women who transform Yasumoto-and you’re on to something, although I personally don’t have so much deep feeling for Yasumoto, and find him to be a plot scaffold on which to hang these human stories. I don’t disagree with your thesis, I just find Yasumoto’s character a bit less sympathetic than, say, had a young Mifune been in the role. I know the actor was a pop star and had a large audience (he was also in Sanjuro, wasn’t he?), but for me he lacks something. It’s quite distressing to admit that, because it would be great to love that guy. He’s awright, just not great.

    I know that often Kurosawa films are about transformation. But, this time, the transformation is not so meaningful to me, it is only one of actions that underscores the big idea in the film. The big idea (and probably it had to be this big-Kurosawa wanted to do something incredible in this film, so he needed a really big, important message) :

    human beings deserve dignity,

    and that those who extend the respect that allows for human dignity to others are heros (or else we wouldn’t call the film Red Beard).

    In fact, without dignity, humans may be so damaged that they become insane (the mantis) or suicidal (the lover of Sahachi, and Chobo and his family) or deeply harmed and on the cusp of being lost to humanity (Otoyo). I dare say that the reason I am so deeply moved by this film and the reason it is so loved in Japan is that the message is one that affects every single living human being, and by extension carries the most important message of any of Kurosawa’s films, and carries it the most emphatically.

    The holiness or sanctity of life itself must not be violated, and we must respect it, and respect other human beings. What makes someone evil? Lack of respect for human life . The madam, for example, and to a lesser degree, the fat rich guy.

    Mifune has one great scene where he shows this incredible compassion and patience: that’s the scene where he tries to give Otoyo her medicine. Ohmigosh, both Otoyo and Mifune are so freaking amazing-the first time I watched it I was afraid that Mifune would explode! His patience, sweetness, compassion…stole my breath away, and was so unexpected! This is what I mean-my heart leapt and I loved him so much for trying again and again until he gentled her fears and succeeded in helping her. Mifune was such a sweet bear! And, Otoyo’s reactions were equally amazing. Thinking about her stunned laughter and her frozen face astonishes me. It is one of the most emotionally affecting scenes!

    There are scenes of incomparable beauty in Red Beard that use sound in such masterful ways. Ugetsu mentions Sahachi meeting his lover on the bridge with the wind chimes sounding-in my little head, this poignant, temporal, mono-no-aware feeling of beauty’s transience and life’s transience implies a respect for life and illustrates the human appreciation of life’s value and fragility. The beauty of that scene is unforgettable-as is the very first meeting with the umbrella in the snow!

    Ugetsu also mentioned the scene with the well, which gives me chills! The voices calling down the well, the amazing shot! (Jeremy did some work on trying to scope out how it was accomplished) again, sound and image creating a “mutual multiplier” effect.

    The overwhelming aesthetic of this film is that of a reverence for life based on intimate knowledge of human pain-it has Buddhist and Franciscan and “ahimsa” and existential humanist qualities-

    and there’s something of the creepy quality we have in old churches in Sicily where the bones of saints are kept in crystal coffers, covered with rich embroideries, a face masked, and maybe a skeletal hand visible under the hem of the garment. Spooky death-mindful stuff, and there’s that in Red Beard. That’s where the power lies.

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    Ugetsu

    from a post on IMDB

    I’m inclined to despair when I read posts like that. I wonder what sort of mindset someone has to watch a movie like Red Beard and come away with that sort of idea. I suppose since its imdb we can be kind and assume its a teenager who wrote it.

    The overwhelming aesthetic of this film is that of a reverence for life based on intimate knowledge of human pain

    Beautifully put… thats it in a nutshell.

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    Vili Maunula

    Ugetsu’s original post offers an interpretation of Red Beard that identifies the film’s central theme as Yasumoto’s inner growth attained through his interaction with women, instead of his relationship with Dr Niide which, Ugetsu suggests, has been the most common reading of the movie in the literature.

    I will have to start by noting that I am personally not quite so certain if the master-student interpretation has in fact been the default approach to the movie. Prince, as far as I can see, doesn’t discuss it in The Warrior’s Camera, and Yoshimoto certainly doesn’t, but then again he barely writes anything at all about the film in Kurosawa: Film Studies and Japanese Cinema.

    Richie, it is true, spends most of his essay in The Films of Akira Kurosawa talking about Mifune, but this is quite typical of Richie who, I sometimes feel, is actually more fascinated about Mifune than he is about Kurosawa. And even Richie does not really seem to directly discuss the master-student relationship — or at least what I get out of the essay has more to do with Yasumoto’s spiritual growth and what Richie calls “the chain of good”.

    But this is perhaps somewhat beside the point.

    Ugetsu’s thesis is that “Red Beard is about how women shape men by action, while men shape other men by word and example only”. I find this a very interesting idea, and certainly when considering the various characters in the movie, a pattern like this can be seen to emerge. I would, however, hesitate to call it the central theme of the film. In fact, I am not entirely sure if I personally would even be comfortable saying that it is a premeditated part of the story.

    One reason for this is that for me the suggested line between action and example is somewhat blurry. When one considers the patients, it is true that the Mantis and Otoyo are characters of action, while Sahachi and Rokusuke (the dying man) serve more as something akin to sources of “word and example”. The idea that Sahachi’s story about his wife could give us a relatively direct insight into Yasumoto’s own relationship is also something that I could very well go along with. However, I am not sure if Rokusuke’s daughter falls well into this theory — her lengthy story seems to me belonging far more to the “word and example” category than action.

    But the real problem for the interpretation is Niide, although not entirely quite in the way Ugetsu suggests. It may be that I haven’t quite grasped the difference between action and example, but in my view Niide, if anyone, molds Yasumoto through his actions. Yasumoto learns both by observing Niide’s actions, as well as at times by being the target of them.

    In my view, Yasumoto’s inner growth is to a large extent fuelled by his understanding that no one is a saint, but that one can do good if one recognizes one’s own shortcomings. This is a motive that repeats through each and every story that we encounter, and it is nowhere more strongly suggested than in the character of Niide. However, it may well be that the scriptwriter who was dissatisfied with Mifune’s performance (who I checked was actually Hideo Oguni, see Nogami p.268) was correct in saying that Mifune was a little bit off here — some of Niide’s reactions perhaps come across as hypocritical rather than sincere, for example the way he condemns his own actions after the incident at the brothel or how he considers himself a coward for blackmailing the magistrate. This is of course my personal view, but I think that Mifune is indeed a little bit off here, Niide should be more torn between his actions than what Mifune’s acting suggests. As a result, Niide is more two-dimensional a character than he perhaps could have been.

    Of course, I have no idea whether this is what Oguni was referring to. But in any case, I don’t actually consider Niide too central a character in the film in the way Ugetsu suggests. On the contrary, Mifune’s presence is just about perfect for someone who is not the protagonist of the story, but still remains the titular character.

    Finally, I would also like to respond more directly to step 5 of the six steps Ugetsu suggest are the key to Yasumoto’s growth. Ugetsu writes:

    5. Yasumoto attempts to rescue the young girl from her entrapped mind. But in a wonderful switch (my favourite part of the film), she actually saves him – she nurses his body, but also saves his rotting soul by her purity and generosity.

    I would say that Yasumoto’s growth has already started before this incident. The scene that I would recognize as the turning point is 1:33:10, where Yasumoto finally puts on his uniform. And even this scene goes back to earlier moments in the film — I would say that the point when Yasumoto first begins his spiritual learning is his encounter with the Mantis, and being saved by Niide.

    Consequently, I wouldn’t say that Otoyo is there to save Yasumoto’s soul, not in the way Yasumoto is there to save hers. She does, however, play an important part as a nurse, or something of Yasumoto’s own double, as well as an echo of the Mantis — like I have suggested before.

    Coco: The overwhelming aesthetic of this film is that of a reverence for life based on intimate knowledge of human pain

    That is indeed excellently put, Coco!

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    Ugetsu

    First off Vili, sorry this isn’t a detailed comment, like most of us I’m suffering from time and work pressures….

    Your response is terrific, and I really can’t argue with it in detail, especially what you say about Niide and Mifune. I would just like to add a few points to clarify some points I was making.

    I will have to start by noting that I am personally not quite so certain if the master-student interpretation has in fact been the default approach to the movie.

    You’ve read so much more than me, so I accept that – I’ve been maybe too influenced by Richie. But I do think the assumption that there is a master/sensei relationship in Red Beard (and all Kurosawas movies) is central to Cox and his interpretations – although of course you are aware of my opinion of him. I think Mellon may have alluded to it as well. I’ve also come across the notion in a few more ‘general’ writings on the topic, but most of those probably got the idea second hand from Richie, etc.

    I am not entirely sure if I personally would even be comfortable saying that it is a premeditated part of the story.

    My argument against this would be the notion that while it is not found in every one of the subplots – it does seem (to be) to be a pervasive theme in so many of them, especially as they relate specifically to Yasumoto.

    would say that Yasumoto’s growth has already started before this incident. The scene that I would recognize as the turning point is 1:33:10, where Yasumoto finally puts on his uniform. And even this scene goes back to earlier moments in the film — I would say that the point when Yasumoto first begins his spiritual learning is his encounter with the Mantis, and being saved by Niide.

    This is one interpretation I would disagree with you. My reading of his ‘growth’ as a character is not that he achieved maturity when he decided to devote himself to the hospital, but when he decided to forgive his ex-fiance. While its obviously important that he put on his uniform, to me this is simply an extension of his self-importance. He has turned from being a self indulgent young man who doesn’t even pretend to care about others, to an arrogant do-gooder. Anyone who knows people in the medical field knows that there is a certain ‘type’ of personality you find – (a favourite staple of the likes of ER and other soaps) – the ‘rescuer’ someone who is superficially devoted to helping others, but really its all about presenting themselves as a saint. I think its significant that immediately after he puts on the uniform he is immediately presented with two ‘problems’. One is the woman who rushes up to him with her sick baby. He seems a bit shocked and nonplussed, then he sends her to the hospital (note that he didn’t actually do anything for the baby). He is then met almost immediately with his future bride, coming to beg forgiveness for her sister. And of course, he brushes her off. Not with the viciousness we can imagine he might have done a few days previously, but he still does it.

    I am still pretty convinced that the central turning point in his growth is when he falls ill. He is delighted by being given this vulnerable young woman to ‘cure’. But I think her key role in the film is that it is the girl who teaches the lessons (not just to Yasumoto, but also to the hospital female helpers).

    Yasumoto learns both by observing Niide’s actions, as well as at times by being the target of them.

    Maybe I’ve forgotten some key scenes, but what struck me about the scenes where Niide and Yasumoto are together is that Niide at no time ever tells Yasumoto to do something (apart from hand over his notes). Niide goes about his work, only talking to Yasumoto when he wants to point out that what he did is not necessarily the right thing to do (i.e. blackmail, lying to patients, beating up security guys).

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    Vili Maunula

    Ugetsu: My reading of his ‘growth’ as a character is not that he achieved maturity when he decided to devote himself to the hospital, but when he decided to forgive his ex-fiance. While its obviously important that he put on his uniform, to me this is simply an extension of his self-importance. He has turned from being a self indulgent young man who doesn’t even pretend to care about others, to an arrogant do-gooder. Anyone who knows people in the medical field knows that there is a certain ‘type’ of personality you find – (a favourite staple of the likes of ER and other soaps) – the ‘rescuer’ someone who is superficially devoted to helping others, but really its all about presenting themselves as a saint. I think its significant that immediately after he puts on the uniform he is immediately presented with two ‘problems’. One is the woman who rushes up to him with her sick baby. He seems a bit shocked and nonplussed, then he sends her to the hospital (note that he didn’t actually do anything for the baby). He is then met almost immediately with his future bride, coming to beg forgiveness for her sister. And of course, he brushes her off. Not with the viciousness we can imagine he might have done a few days previously, but he still does it.

    I am still pretty convinced that the central turning point in his growth is when he falls ill. He is delighted by being given this vulnerable young woman to ‘cure’. But I think her key role in the film is that it is the girl who teaches the lessons (not just to Yasumoto, but also to the hospital female helpers).

    These are very intriguing observations, Ugetsu. That brief scene with the sick baby is something that I have at times pondered about, and you are certainly right about Otoyo’s role in molding the people around her.

    While it doesn’t necessarily need to have anything to do with the way we approach Kurosawa’s movie, it would be very interesting to read Yamamoto’s novel and see how the story with the fiancé is dealt there. It is unfortunate that so few of Yamamoto’s works are available in English, considering the influence he clearly had on Kurosawa.

    Vili: Yasumoto learns both by observing Niide’s actions, as well as at times by being the target of them.

    Ugetsu: Maybe I’ve forgotten some key scenes, but what struck me about the scenes where Niide and Yasumoto are together is that Niide at no time ever tells Yasumoto to do something (apart from hand over his notes). Niide goes about his work, only talking to Yasumoto when he wants to point out that what he did is not necessarily the right thing to do (i.e. blackmail, lying to patients, beating up security guys).

    That is actually pretty much what I wanted to suggest with my comment. Niide doesn’t talk much, he acts.

    Actually, I don’t remember if I have mentioned this already, but I have a conspiracy theory about what actually happened with the Mantis. 🙂

    The film conveniently cuts off from the Yasumoto-Mantis scene when Niide steps into the room, and all we have is the doctor’s word on what happened. Considering how manipulative he can be (think of the rich patient or the magistrate), I would say that there is a possibility that Niide is not telling the truth here.

    Now, it is possible that within that second or two that it must at the very most have taken Niide to get from the door to save Yasumoto, the Mantis indeed managed to cause Yasumoto’s injuries. Somehow though, I feel that a possible alternative course of events is Yasumoto fainting, Niide tearing the Mantis off without much trouble (he has absolutely no trouble with a dozen thugs, does he?), and then faking the injuries. Now, instead of just saving Yasumoto he can actually say that he saved his life, which kick starts Yasumoto’s “conversion” towards first accepting Niide, then the hospital, and finally his fate and himself.

    Obviously, not much in the movie backs this interpretation, but the turn of events just plays so nicely into Niide’s hands, and feels so cliché that I am ready to doubt the good (manipulative) doctor’s account. At least, I consider it a possibility.

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    Ugetsu

    Now, it is possible that within that second or two that it must at the very most have taken Niide to get from the door to save Yasumoto, the Mantis indeed managed to cause Yasumoto’s injuries. Somehow though, I feel that a possible alternative course of events is Yasumoto fainting, Niide tearing the Mantis off without much trouble (he has absolutely no trouble with a dozen thugs, does he?), and then faking the injuries. Now, instead of just saving Yasumoto he can actually say that he saved his life, which kick starts Yasumoto’s “conversion” towards first accepting Niide, then the hospital, and finally his fate and himself.

    Interesting idea. When I first saw the scene when Niide is helping Yasumoto recover, I remember thinking that it was odd to have bandages on his forearms. Since Kurosawa is usually scrupulously accurate in matters of violence, I thought it was odd that Niide would have been injured there rather than on his hands, which would seem much more likely (not that I’m an expert in disarming mad hairpin armed women). He also seemed at pains to show the injuries (by having his sleeves rolled up (which would seem to be out of character). So you may well be right that this little possibility was left in there as a teaser.

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    cocoskyavitch

    Hey, no. I don’t think Niide would self-aggrandize to win over Yasumoto. It doesn’t seem part of his character, to put himself up as hero or savior-especially in a lie. It’s also too convoluted-too many steps-and, besides, Niide seems to want to do something not be seen as something.

    To charge too much money from a fat patient is one thing, and to break the bones of some thugs is another, but to injure a fellow doctor to make him believe that you saved him so that he can change…too many steps, too convoluted and too much emphasis on the persona of Niide. (And, Niide seems to disdain any artifice…it’s why he is so gruff…he wants to cut to the chase, hasn’t got time to develop a flowery bedside manner. But he does think deeply about what is good for his patients, and listens to their real problems with compassion. Don’t you think?). Yes, Niide has contradictions in his character, and sometimes acts expediently, pragmatically, in a way that is in direct contrast to his ethics. But, these are simple things done out of need.

    That’s just my take. The film collapses for me if I can’t believe in Niide.

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