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Red Beard: Artifice and Acting

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    Something I’ve meant to comment on before but which I found so noticeable in Red Beard as to be obtrusive is the theatricality, even the artificiality, of many of the performances. Much of Kurosawa’s work exhibits this flair for the dramatic, and it doesn’t usually bother me; in fact, it enhances such films as Seven Samurai and Throne of Blood. But it sticks out like a sore thumb in Red Beard and affects my ability to stay immersed in the movie’s narrative because I believe in the authenticity of what I’m watching.

    The blocking bugs me and some of the histrionic performances bug me. Otoyo’s is the one I remember best; I don’t think I had this problem as much with the Mantis, although I thought her scenes could have been filmed more effectively. I also had a problem with many of the other patients, the pathos of whose situations was overemphasized. Since these performances don’t ring true for me, those aspects of the movie come across as phony and manipulative.

    To some extent this may be due to the contrast between those performances and others that are more naturalistic — I’m thinking of Yuzo Kayama’s performance as Yasumoto, the actor who played Dr. Mori, and even Toshiro Mifune as Dr. Niide — and the need for cultural translation I mentioned in another thread. But I never before had such a sense of discomfort about so many performances as I had when watching Red Beard.

    It should be noted that there are Kurosawa movies in which the theatricality is toned down; the acting in One Wonderful Sunday and The Lower Depths is about as close to naturalistic as Kurosawa movies get. Other than adhering to noir conventions, Drunken Angel, Stray Dog, The Bad Sleep Well, and High and Low (which I’m in the middle of watching) feel more “real” and less “artificial” than many of his other films.



    I certainly agree that Kurosawa’s decision to go for quite an expressionistic and theatrical style of acting has made this film a little less accessible than it might be, and also makes it seem a little more dated. When I first got into Kurosawa’s films, I found the stylised acting style in some films quite hard to take It was only after watching Throne of Blood and Ran that I really appreciated where he was coming from. I think Kurosawa’s love of Noh and silent films (in the latter of course they frequently used highly expressive actors to communicate without words) is a constant throughout his films. However, I prefer his Noh tinted films to those which are more overtly theatrical, such as with The Lower Depths. But above them all, I much prefer his more ‘naturalistic’ films, even though all of them usually have some sort of theatrical tinge to the acting (usually from Mifune of course). I think maybe Ikiru is the only Kurosawa film in which all the acting is purely naturalistic, and its perhaps not insignificant that it didn’t feature Mifune.

    There is no doubt I think that Kurosawa deliberately went for the type of expressionistic acting he used in The Idiot for Red Beard (by ‘expressionistic’ I mean a style which owned much to silent films, and could generally be described as ‘western’ in style). The more ‘Japanese’ style we saw in Yojimbo and Throne of Blood would not have suited this film I think. I do find it interesting though that while with The Lower Depths Kurosawa quite deliberately did not take away its theatrical origins – in fact, he quite brilliantly I think emphasised these aspects while never making it any less cinematic – with Red Beard he does the opposite – takes a quite naturalistic story, builds a huge cinematic scale set, and then films many scenes in a very deliberately staged manner, often reflecting religious paintings (such as the death scenes). I find this all very curious – sometimes highly effective, sometimes less so.

    The main problem for me likes not with the theatrical nature of the acting, but the somewhat uneven performances – Mifune is unusually low key and naturalistic, while other performers are working on a much higher key. This is something which I think became more marked in his later films, especially post Ran. I do wonder sometimes if it was simply a case that Kurosawa liked actors too much, and wasn’t dictatorial enough to insist on a unified style (in contrast to Naruse, Ozu and Mizoguchi, all of whom could be extremely tough on their actors, even favoured ones).



    I had forgotten Ikiru; I agree that it’s pretty naturalistic, although there is arguably a component of “ham” in the portrayal of the bureaucrats. And it’s probably accurate to point to discrepancies in acting style as at least part of the culprit in Red Beard, but I think some of the performances — mostly in more minor roles — would strike me as over-the-top even if that contrast didn’t exist.

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