Akahige (Red Beard) (1965)

This post includes descriptions of various plot points, which descriptions could be construed as spoilers.

My piano teacher in high school was also the school’s music-department chairman and conductor of the orchestra and dance band. He later went on chair the BYU music department. His wife had an operatic career of some sort. He had black hair and a permanent five-o’clock shadow but his wife told me one time, apropos I don’t remember what, that his beard came in red when he let it grow out. I never saw that happen.

Barbarossa (Emperor Frederick) drowned on June 10, 1190, in the Saleph River, as his army was approaching Antioch from Armenia during the Third Crusade.

That’s what I know about red beards.

Possible beard marathon: Red Beard, Yellowbeard, Blackbeard, Bluebeard, Silver Beard, and Janice Beard.

Or, for those who like lists: The King’s Beard; Growin’ a Beard; The Lady and the Beard; Spock’s Beard: Don’t Try This at Home; The Man with the White Beard; The Dreaded Beard; Beard Club; Beard & Co; Beard & Moustache Experiments Nos. 1-4; Beard the Lion; Bested by a Beard; Bothered by a Beard; Hello, Fred the Beard; Enter the Beard; Father’s Beard; Isaac Singer’s Nightmare and Mrs. Pupko’s Beard; Sam’s Artistic Beard; Snow Beard; The Beard; The Winter of the Beard; Why Father Grew a Beard; and With Peter Beard in Africa: Last Word from Paradise.

Asking friends who would know about red beards in Japan: there aren’t any natural ones, or any natural red hair, either. The occasional dark brown, but no red. Kurosawa bleached Mifune’s beard, which took Mifune three months to grow, to give the impression of red on black-and-white film stock. It didn’t work for me.

The movie is inspiring me to tug at and rummage around in my own beard like Mifune does in his. On occasion, he acts as if he’s surprised that it’s there.

Executive plot summary: (a) wise old doctor, (b) upper-crust-up-and-coming-young-doctor-to-the-elite-with-modern-ideas-and-no-particular-use-for-the-poor, (c) clinic for the poor. (d) conflict and learning of Life Truths by the young doctor.

Executive summary of director’s message: The poor are human too, and deserve care and respect. (My first take, after watching the movie.) Suffering is necessary for growth and the development of a moral personality. (My second take, after reading a little about Kurosawa and watching the movie again.) There is a lot going on in Kurosawa films, relating to the auteur, the economic state of the industry, the director’s desire to make history with film, an East/West dichotomy running through his films… You could write a book. In fact, several folks have. (My third take, after wishing that I had just watched the damn movie and left it at that.)

The problem is, now that I’ve dipped my toe into the ocean of Kurosawa cinema knowledge, anything that I write in this review will seem, to me at least, too simple and incomplete to be satisfactory, in view of all the complexities of the film and the rest of the director’s oeuvre that I’ve been exposed to. This review isn’t a summary of the salient, it’s the result of one blind guy feeling the elephant. Can’t stop now, though; probably describing the elephant’s knee here, rather than the animal’s total corpus.

The director’s message, the one about the poor, is not a message of any particular interest in the U.S., today or ever. If you’re poor, why aren’t you rich? The U.S. labeled Slumdog Millionaire a feelgood movie – the U.S. of A., where Henry Fonda/Tom Joad, if he were alive today, would still be pissed off.

I remember reading about Japanese attitudes toward the poor and homeless a long time ago, those attitudes chiefly featuring denial of the existence of a problem. From the ’60s boom (“The Economic Miracle”) through to the early ’90s, almost all Japanese were middle class. Poverty, if it happened to crop up here and there, was a sign of mental illness, laziness, terrible luck, or some moral lapse. I called my nephew, back from many years in Japan with his Japanese family, to ask him about the current situation there, at least where he lived, in the vicinity of Kyoto, in re poverty. He said that indeed, since the ’60s, there hasn’t been any poverty. The homeless, what few there are, are mentally ill males. If asked about poverty, he said, the typical Japanese response would be “Poverty? This isn’t the United States. We’re all the same here, not like there. But there is poverty in places like India and Africa. We should donate something to those poor souls.”

So says my nephew, and according to articles like this one, his remains the majority view in Japan, although there is a large and growing poor subclass that has come into being in the last twenty years of economic stagnation in the country. Many college graduates have trouble getting on a career track. Red Beard was made in 1965, at a time when poverty and its relationship to the government was ceasing to be the post-war social issue that it had been when Kurosawa was making movies in the ’40s and ’50s. However, Kurosawa did not trust the materialism and apparent prosperity that were emerging as a result of privileged, opaque government/business relationships, and his movies of the time show it. Red Beard itself is set in the early 1800s, a time when the young protagonist could begin with a disinterest in and scorn for the poor, but then grow to see them through different eyes. However, Kurosawa was commenting on the current situation in Japan. He returns to the subject of the poor, in modern times, in his next film, Dodes’ka-den (1970). The trailer for that film includes the following narration: “This is a story about bizarre people in a bizarre town. But it is a story about people you know. The sorrow, nobility and cruelty of humanity, blended with humor into a beautiful melody.” That is, it’s a movie about folks living in slums, with a trailer framed for those to whom slums are a foreign concept.

However, Kurosawa’s primary focus is not on poverty or governmental inefficiency in this or in his previous films,  I learn, after focusing on the poverty throughout the movie. In the ’40s and ’50s, the Japanese were struggling with the consequences of their defeat in the war. The fire-bombing of Tokyo (50%+ destroyed) and other cities, followed by the twin nukes, were closer to Kurosawa’s audiences for  Drunken Angel, Stray Dog, Ikiru, Roshomon, and Seven Samurai, than 9/11 is to us. In Red Beard, at first, I didn’t pick up on Kurosawa’s persisting, basic message to his countrymen, his message following the catastrophe of defeat and the discovery of so many who had placed their faith in their government that their government had been lying to them – that message being summed up in a quote from Drunken Angel (1948): “Willpower can cure all human ailments.” That is, Kurosawa believed that morality is based upon a person’s choices when, for example, that person is faced with poverty or stultifying bureaucracy. As an existentialist, he believed that the individual’s personality determines the individual’s fate. Many of the patients at the clinic in Red Beard are there because of the ill effects of poverty, but as the film makes clear, their illnesses are a sign of pain and damage in the spirit, in the mind, in the soul, not just in the body. The chief protagonists in the movie – the old doctor, the young doctor, and a twelve-year-old prostitute, know or learn that caring for others is the true basis of humanity. Early in life, Kurosawa witnessed human savagery and he never forgot it; his belief system provided a way forward for himself and his country; a system that did not prevent him from becoming increasingly pessimistic with age. (He attempted suicide in 1971; his brother also committed suicide.)

A recent study suggests that after bottoming out in unhappiness in the 40s, most of us become happier as we age into our 50s, 60s, and 70s. Unless your artistic vision changes and you can no longer find funding for your films, as happened with Kurosawa in the years following Red Beard.

The young doctor, who arrives at and gets stuck in Doctor Red Beard’s clinic, has studied at Nagasaki and wants to be physician to the Shogun. (All of Kurosawa’s principal protagonists are men, with the exception of Yukie Yagihara in No Regrets for Our Youth (1946). ) He is not happy at the prospect of ministering to the poor. Japan was long closed to the West, with the exception of the port of Nagasaki, which was opened to the Dutch in the 1600s. Foreigners were called “red-haired persons” and Dutch medicine, as represented by the Dutch doctors in that port, was referred to as “red-haired medicine.” To study in Nagasaki was to learn the medical techniques of the West. For the young man to now be stuck in a rural clinic run by a tyrant named Red Beard was perhaps meant to suggest, in part, that Red Beard was a bridge between old and new, traditional and newly enlightened, and between the medicine of body and mind. Or perhaps the title is ironic.

In my first take, as I mentioned above, I thought that Kurosawa, perhaps mainly, was teaching his ’60s audience about the meaning of poverty, or reminding them of its existence. For example, a seven-year-old boy sneaks into the clinic repeatedly to steal gruel. The dueña of the kitchen hates this, calls the boy a little rat, and chases him relentlessly. Yet when she hears his story (he’s poor and he’s hungry all the time and so are his parents and his brother), she is humbled and weeps. Message to audience: the boy is deserving of your pity and caring; if this hardened, responsible, hard-working woman can be touched to the quick by this boy and his situation, so should you be… However, a moment’s thought suggests that this woman already knows everything there is to know about poverty. She works in a clinic for the poor. She’s older and experienced. Why is the boy stealing gruel? Because he’s hungry. Duh. If the dueña thinks that he’s a rat, it’s because she’s a hard-hearted old gal, and no tale of woe is going to change that – unless she’s ordered to knuckle under by the script. And Kurosawa doesn’t leave it there. He takes the boy and his poverty to the next level and to the level after that. Poverty is bad; get that through your thick skulls. Take a goddamn stand… But no. For Kurosawa, pain and suffering are necessary, essential, for spiritual growth. As with the operation scene in the movie, when Red Beard must get into a young woman’s abdoment, you must not look away; you must absorb the trauma; this is how you grow; Kurosawa himself witnessed death and destruction in his youth and did not forget it. An earthquake scene in Red Beard draws on Kurosawa’s memories of the great Kantō earthquake of 1923, which killed up to 140,000. Kurosawa’s brother took him out to see thousands of corpses and told him not to look away; if he did, he would remain frightened; if he didn’t, he would be enlightened. Up through Red Beard, Kurosawa did the same with his heroes. The highest morality is to help others. Originally, this was Kurosawa’s solution to the problem of post-war recovery and he preached it in his movies. The point is reiterated many times in Red Beard.

Kurosawa’s ideas, that through trauma you can change for the better, are strange in Japan, where social standing is so important. He often uses illness as a metaphor for the problems caused by government in post-war Japan. In Drunken Angel, a doctor treats a gangster who has TB. The gangster is involved in black-market corruption; the government allows mosquitos in puddles. In Ikiru (1952), a government bureaucrat has cancer and, faced with death, discovers how inefficient – useless – the government is. But in Red Beard, even as we are shown the illness, Red Beard is dismissive of the possibility of changing the structural problems that cause it, and tells the young doctor so; hope lies in the response of their patients to the pain and injury visited upon them in their lives. The film begins to expand Kurosawa’s canvas to the many and varied problems of Life. It ends optimistically, but there is gloomy pessimism ahead in, for example, Dersu Uzala (1975), Kagemusha (1980), and Ran (1985), with Kurosawa becoming increasingly detached, as did Hitchcock in his later career. The narrative in Red Beard weakens in the movie’s final act, in the sense that Red Beard and the young doctor recede, the focus turns to a young girl, a young boy, and specific small acts of kindness – an unexpected turn in the third hour of a major movie, with Kurosawa’s dramatic organization not so clear on a first viewing. This is a harbinger of Kurosawa’s growing lack of interest in the strong narrative drive of his earlier movies. His next production contains virtually no narrative at all and although he includes it again in Dersu Uzala, Kagemusha, and Ran, he drops it for good in his final four films.

The movie shoot took two years to get in the can, rather than the scheduled fifty days that Kurosawa originally planned. This means that everything, and I mean everything, that you see on the screen and hear in the movie, is there on purpose and for a purpose. Red Beard was Kurosawa’s last movie with Mifune after they made sixteen together. Why? Mifune couldn’t do anything else for two years. I wonder if that had anything to do with it. There was some sort of struggle or conflict between Mifune and Kurosawa during those two years, but I don’t know the details. The movie was one of the most expensive made in Japan to that date and created concern in the industry before its release. Meanwhile, Kurosawa was hospitalized at least once with exhaustion.

Red Beard represents a dividing line between Kurosawa’s twenty-four films of the previous twenty years and his seven of the next thirty. It marks the beginning of his struggle for funding, which persisted for the rest of his career. The movie was hailed as a masterpiece in Japan and it was the biggest film of the year, winning Kinema Jumpo‘s Best Film and Best Director awards, but it flopped elsewhere. There were a lot more – a very lot more – art houses in the U.S. in the ’60s than there are now, and I suppose that Red Beard appeared in some of them, but I don’t remember it.

Remember it? Who am I kidding? The only Japanese movie that I clearly remember seeing in the ’60s was Woman in the Dunes (1964), and that one probably encouraged me not to go to any others. I also remember watching Mothra (1961) on TV. That was the one about the giant moth that left a contrail when flying around way up there. I guess big moths don’t flit as much as little ones, because the contrail was always a straight line.

Red Beard was also the last movie Kurosawa made in which a man learns and grows and experiences some sort of enlightenment. It was his last movie with a charismatic, heroic figure in it, which may be one reason why he never used Mifune again. Mifune, what a presence! He electrified his audience’s right from the start in Drunken Angel and he’s no different in Red Beard. (Speaking of heroes, although Kurosawa joined the Proletarian Artist League at the age of 19, and was jailed for it, he never participated in a political movement again. His heroes are always solo, not part of a group.)

Before I forget: I notice that Kurosawa was born in the same year as my dad, 1910.

Red Beard was also Kurosawa’s last black and white movie, and his last wide-screen movie (except for Dersu Uzala (1975), which he made working with the Russian film industry). He switched from 2.35:1 to 1.85:1 with the growth of TV. I remember Ran (1985) as a widescreen extravaganza, but Kurosawa shot it 1.85:1.

Japanese cinema made and released more movies in the ’60s than in any other decade; the Japanese New Wave was at its height; but TV and Hollywood were taking their toll. Kurosawa’s artistic epiphany, leading to a drastic change in the content of his movies, came at the worst moment for him, $$-wise. Commercially, after Red Beard it was all down hill or downhill for Kurosawa wrt funding. He acquired a reputation with some in the industry of being almost insane in his emphasis on detail. In Red Beard, for example, he shoots a scene in the town with a shop fully stocked, fishermen in the river with their nets, a bridge, etc., etc., for a brief (but highly effective) scene. His budgets became insupportable in the new economy of cinema. Historical films (jedai-geki) were adopted by TV and Japanese cinema went low-budget/soft porn. To make a point, Kurosawa made his next movie for less than a million, with a 28-day shoot; unfortunately, it flopped at the box office.

Further cause for Kurosawa post-Red Beard angst:  a tendency arose to displace him in critical studies with the “modernists” Ozu, Mizoguichi, and Oshima.

Nevertheless, Kurosawa told Gabriel Marquez that every movie he made was different from the one before, and Red Beard marked a significant point in his evolution. Speaking of which, Kurosawa’s career can be divided into four parts: early films; post-war reconstruction, with the hero as protagonist (culminating in Red Beard); the four pessimistic films with a wider world view (culminating in Ran); and the psychological, biographic final works.

Back to the movie: The young doctor arrives at the clinic for a visit and discovers that he’s been shanghaied, if that term is appropriate in this context. He is rebellious but it doesn’t take long – two patient deaths, an operation, and nearly getting his throat slit – for him to begin getting with the program. This is a case where the emotional impact of melodrama hits you or doesn’t, but even if it doesn’t, two and a half hours of movie remain, during which Kurosawa will have several more goes at you… By the halfway mark, he has presented us, and the young doctor, with four distinctly melodramatic stories. In fact, he lays it on with a trowel. Such is the quality of the cinematography and acting, however, that I was engaged. Maybe about to raise my eyebrows, but, in the event, they stayed down.

The young doctor is enlightened by intermission. Three stories are behind us with a fourth begun, and Kurosawa rolls out the piece de resistance, to mix metaphors. He begins with Red Beard confronting thirteen (I counted) brothel enforcers. He breaks one bone in each. Dude. Kurosawa’s last high-spirited fight scene. Did I mention that I’m going to learn Japanese just so that I can growl and shout in that low guttural voice? I went to a Japanese wedding and we took turns at the microphone and I was soooo tempted to go gutteral in English, but I didn’t… I could also use a little Japanese vocab because my daughter and her boyfriend are leaving to work in Osaka in a couple of months.

Now the young doctor is assigned his first patient. We’ve already watched what seems like a whole movie at this point, and so… Intermission. Intermissions were big, back in the day. Every blockbuster had an intermission. What happened to intermissions? Got to get audiences in and then out again?

The young doctor’s first patient after the break is a twelve-year-old refugee from a brothel, a twelve-year-old (the actress was fourteen when shooting started, sixteen at the end). Her story draws from Dostoyevsky’s The Insulted and the Injured. The initial scenes between doctor and patient  jerked a few tears from me.

Being intrigued with actors I didn’t recognize helped. Mifune stays back behind his beard. The young doctor on the road to enlightenment is played by Yûzô Kayama, who wasn’t especially familiar to an Asian-movie beginner like me. (He was Toho’s hottest young star at the time, Mifune’s co-star in Sanjuro (1962).

I read somewhere that Red Beard contained a number of under-dramatized scenes. At first I thought, oh yeah, slow scenes. But slow scenes can be present for a variety of reasons, not necessarily dramatic ones; in fact, most often, not dramatic ones, in the Asian context. Kurosawa wasn’t big on slow scenes in his films up to and mostly including Red Beard (as opposed to long scenes and long takes). He does introduce  a number of slow scenes in Red Beard as one more step in his directorial transmogrification. But if anything, his dramatic scenes are over-, not under-, dramatized. Set me straight here if you know better; Kurosawa can’t; he’s dead. The melodrama in Red Beard, which begins at an emotional  pitch well above the level at which many movies leave off, continues to build until I sat thinking, this is the guy who made Seven Samurai (1954), Hidden Fortress (1958), Yojimbo (1961)? He’s not wearing his heart on his sleeve here, he’s holding it under our noses taped to the end of a long pole. But I was moved and I guess that’s what counts.

With respect to long takes and other photographic and editorial techniques in the movie that I noticed or that were pointed out to me (the movie provides a class on zoom photography and long takes):

– Kurosawa had a formal system all his own for shooting his films. He didn’t follow Hollywood conventions, which is a big deal, because we get used to seeing the same type of shots and some of Kurosawa’s camera work can present initially as, for example, using poor jump cuts or continuity errors. He doesn’t care (I mean, he’s in heaven so who knows, but he didn’t care at the time that he made his movies).

– When the young doctor is visited by a deranged patient in the first act of the movie, his interaction with her includes a single take of five and a half minutes. There are plenty of other long takes in the movie, too.

– When the patient enters the doctor’s room, because Kurosawa is using a zoom (telephoto or long) lens, the doctor and patient appear to be face to face; but then Kurosawa cuts to a perpendicular shot and we see that the two are at opposite ends of a long room. The cut plays like one of those continuity errors mentioned above. This happens multiple times in the movie. Before Red Beard, Kurosawa set up cameras at right angles like this from time to time; after Red Beard, it became his configuration of choice. Flat from one angle, separated from the other. A metaphor? A move toward metaphoristical cinematography? It can be a striking affect. In a scene in the garden between doctor and nurse, the two are  together, cut and they’re apart with a tree between them, cut and they’re together, cut, they’re apart. Multiple cameras shooting at the same time, together with zoom lenses and long takes, are good for the actors; the cameras stay out of their way and they can play their parts in real time. Kurosawa never used the wide-angle lens favored by, for example, Welles and Scorsese. There are many shots in Red Beard in which the characters in a scene appeared crowded together, stacked up, because they are being photographed from a distance. This can lend a strange intimacy to some scenes – crowd scenes in a closet.

– In the 5.5-minute take, the camera doesn’t move, but as the doctor slowly comes closer to the patient, it zooms in a bit four times, keeping the two at either edge of the frame. The action and score distract us from the zooms. Pans and zooms can be tough to do with a telephoto lens because any twitch in the axis is magnified.

– Kurosawa favors the wipe (a line moving across the screen to erase one scene and replace it with another).

– I found out what a “key light” is. Unsurprisingly, it’s the principal light used in a scene, to highlight and impart dimensionality. In Red Beard, there are several scenes in which a face is lit and the rest of the frame is left in gloom.

– Kurosawa uses reverse-field cutting throughout his films… Let me back up. Kurosawa places cameras where and how he wants, according to his own rules, as I mentioned. He does not follow the rules of Hollywood. His flouting of continuity by using zoom photography and right-angle camera placement is one example of this. Another example is that, whereas Hollywood places several cameras and leaves them there for a scene, Kurosawa might move the cameras such that some shots in a scene are taken from unique positions. As for those  reverse-field cuts: this is not the same thing as reverse-view cuts, where, for example, two characters are facing each other and we switch back and forth between their faces. Kurosawa will cut to a 180-degree shot in general without observing Hollywood’s 180-degree rule, which is that you always keep two characters’ right-to-left perspective the same. If you cross the 180-degree line when you move, their right-to-left shifts to left-to-right.  (In Hollywood, reverse field shots are used to denote subjectivity: what the character is seeing or thinks that he sees.) Also, Kurosawa will shoot with two cameras pointing in the same direction, with one farther back. Cutting between the two displays the same scene with different width of field and different flattening. I’ve been dipping into The Warrior’s Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa, by Stephen Prince. Interesting stuff! Unless you have to take a test on it.

Other movie notes:

– Who does steady, heavy, very heavy rain better than Kurosawa? And wind? And wind with dust in it? After a long, still take (not under-dramatized, mind you), a dusty wind montage, spelling danger, fills the screen with motion and energy. Red Beard also contains some nifty falling snow and the earthquake mentioned above.

– Who does sitting on tatami better than the Japanese in their historical dramas? After a couple of hours watching Red Beard, the sight of a Western man sitting in a chair with his legs crossed seems positively strange. I used to sit on my knees (seza) for an hour or two in group therapy but that was years ago and now when I try it with my grandchildren, the backs of my knees hurt and my feet cramp in the arches. Bummer. But at least I’ve still got arches, and my nephew tells me that seza will eventually pull off your kneecaps. Hopefully, now that he’s an Oakland A, Hideki Matsui will stick to chairs, and to the bench in the dugout.

– Kurosawa was one of the masters of sound. In Red Beard, he finally had four tracks to work with and throughout the movie, the musical score pauses to allow him to show it off. Homework: difference between diagetic and ambient?

Red Beard ends on an upbeat note. The three major protagonists each aid healing, in part through Western medicine, in part through Eastern mysticism, including calling down a well to bring back a soul on the verge of departing. This, Kurosawa still belived at the time, these small acts of good, were the best way to deal with the ills of life and the world. I felt some regret during the closing scenes, because  Kurosawa’s career as a highly productive, popular filmmaker was drawing to a close with them. He was about to begin a 28-year struggle to fund his mature aesthetic and moral vision, making only two movies in the ’70s and two in the ’80s. Of course, he was making masterpieces, so that counts for something.

5 Responses

  1. An utter pleasure to read and ruminate upon. As always.

  2. A most interesting essay – and one which I will re-read after watching a few more Kurosawa films.

  3. You know more about Kurosawa than I, but I am happy to enlighten with Japan factoids! I’ve seen enough of his films to know that I prefer action (Yojimbo) to moralizing (Ikiru) and that while Dodesukaden was a fun time, Dreams was just plain weird. (Woman in the Dunes is also really cool. Maybe I was just a faux hip college student at the time though.) It’s not just Kurosawa however – the Japanese in general seem to lack subtlety when they bring out the Hammer of Emotion. Maybe because they so rarely do so in day to day life?

  4. This is one of my favorite reviews of all time. Happy to read it again.

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