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The final collaboration between director Akira Kurosawa and Japanese icon Toshiro Mifune is one of Kurosawa's most ambitious, personal, and heartfelt films. Set in 17th century Edo, Red Beard (1965) features Mifune as Dr. Kyojo Niide, known as Red Beard to the interns and nurses at the public clinic and hospital he runs in the slums of the city. The three hour film follows the education of the spoiled, insolent young doctor Yasumoto (Yuzo Kayama, Mifune's co-star in 1962's Sanjuro and Toho's hottest young star at the time). He has been educated in the state-of-the-art Dutch medical schools in Nagasaki and has every expectation of an appointment to the court medical staff, thanks to his family's position and connections to the court. Sent by his father to visit the clinic, he's appalled at the primitive conditions and the pathetic state of the patients and dumbfounded when he's assigned to intern under the charge of Niide. Gentle beneath his gruff exterior and bearded face, but fierce in the face of greed and selfishness and cruelty and, worst of all, indifference, Mifune's Niide is the fighting angel of the slums who has dedicated his life to tending the poor; he fights not just disease and abuse, but poverty and ignorance. "He has the body of a man in his forties, but his wisdom is like that of someone in their sixties or seventies," explained Mifune of the character. "Nobody really knows how old he is. He's ageless." But Niide is also a practical man well aware of the real world in which he lives and works. When beset by a dozen young thugs who arrive to retrieve a patient, Niide fights them off with a mixture of martial arts and medical insight, wrenching limbs and breaking bones until they all are left writhing in pain on the floor. Being a doctor, he's careful not to cause any permanent damage.
Yasumoto defies Niide at every turn, refusing to wear the uniform, breaking the rules and flaunting his disdain as if he were above treating such riff-raff, all the time pushing Niide to fire him. But Niide is more patient than Yasumoto realizes, and the exposure to the suffering, the poverty and the wounded pride of the poor slowly gets under his skin and breaks through to his humanity. Finally donning his uniform, he joins Niide in rescuing a twelve-year-old girl from the abuse of a brothel and begins his education. All of which occurs before the intermission. Niide almost takes over the film in the second half as he nurses the skittish, suspicious twelve-year-old girl back to health and becomes so dedicated that he collapses under the work strain. "He saw too much of the world," explains Niide to a visitor as the girl tenderly watches over the delirious and exhausted Yasumoto. "Growing pains, you might say." Kurosawa wears his social politics on his sleeve and the script offers simplistic psychological explanations, but his compassion and generosity of spirit gives the film a compassion that infuses the characters and elevates the drama beyond the simple lessons.
Based on a novel by the author Shugoro Yamamoto (who had written the original novel that Sanjuro was based on), Red Beard was originally developed by Kurosawa for his former assistant director Hiromichi Horikawa. As the screenplay (written with longtime collaborators Ryuzo Kikushima and Hideo Oguni) took shape, Kurosawa found himself increasingly drawn to the characters and he put every effort into turning the story into an epic production. Though the film takes place predominantly inside the clinic walls, Kurosawa built a small town around the clinic, which is seen largely in the background of exterior scenes or outside of the clinic windows. He became obsessed with accuracy, building key sets with wood and roof tiles over a hundred years old and aging the costumes and hospital bedding through constant washing and wearing to get a convincingly worn look. He even fussed over the look for Mifune's beard (which the actor spent three months growing) to register the right shade to suggest red on black and white film. After weeks of tests, they finally resorted to a foul-smelling oil-based bleach, which Mifune endured in his dedication to the character.
Kurosawa turned to familiar faces to fill out his cast. Tsutomi Yamazaki, a major supporting character, plays a mysterious, ailing man whose story touches Yasumoto; he got his big break when Kurosawa cast him as the kidnapper in High and Low (1963) but is best known to American audiences as the truck driver and noodle connoisseur in Juzo Itami's international hit Tampopo (1985). For the role of a beautiful but homicidal patient who seduces Yasumoto, Kurosawa turned to Kyoko Kagawa, who had played Mifune's devoted, servile wife in The Bad Sleep Well (1960) and High and Low. She was cast against type and made the most of the opportunity, doing research in psychiatric wards to create a convincing character of a seductive psychotic. Yasumoto's father is played by Yasujiro Ozu regular Chishu Ryu.
Kurosawa began Red Beard with the stated intention to create "something so magnificent that people would have to see it." Originally scheduled for a fifty-day shoot, Kurosawa took two years to shoot Red Beard, the longest shoot of any Japanese production to that date. It caused tensions between Kurosawa and Toho, and between Kurosawa and Mifune, whose dedication to the character and the project prevented him from appearing in any other films while shooting continued. The actors worked to exhaustion and Kurosawa (like his young hero Yasumoto) was hospitalized for several weeks from overwork and illness. It also became one of the most expensive productions in Japanese productions to that time, which created further tensions as the Japanese film industry was in decline, assaulted by lavish American productions and the popularity of television.
The effort paid off. Red Beard was the biggest film of 1965 in Japan, both commercially and critically. It took Kinema Jumpo's Best Film and Best Director honors and Toshiro Mifune won his second Best Actor award at the Venice International Film Festival. American critics and audiences were less impressed and it took decades for it to be recognized as one of Kurosawa's great works, but in Japan it has always been one of the most beloved of his films and Kurosawa himself sees it as a major turning point in his career. "Red Beard constitutes a point of reference in my evolution," he told author Gabriel Garcia Marquez in 1991. "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."
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Screenplay: Masato Ide, Ryuzo Kikushima, Akira Kurosawa, Hideo Oguni; Shugoro Yamamoto (novel "Akahige shinryotan")
Cinematography: Asaichi Nakai, Takao Saito
Music: Masaru Sato
Cast: Toshiro Mifune (Dr. Kyojio Niide, 'Akahige' ['Red Beard']), Yuzo Kayama (Dr. Noboru Yasumoto), Tsutomu Yamazaki (Sahachi), Reiko Dan (Osugi), Miyuki Kuwano (Onaka), Kyoko Kagawa (Madwoman), Tatsuya Ehara (Genzo Tsugawa), Terumi Niki (Otoyo), Akemi Negishi (Okuni, the mistress), Yoshio Tsuchiya (Dr. Handayu Mori), Eijiro Tono (Goheiji), Chishu Ryu (Mr. Yasumoto), Takashi Shimura (Tokubei Izumiya), Haruko Sugimura (Kin, the madam), Kinuyo Tanaka (Madame Yasumoto, Noboru's mother).
by Sean Axmaker