Red Beard

Red Beard – Akira Kurosawa – 1965

Akahige CoverOriginal title: Akahige
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)
Year: 1965
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Duration: 185 min.
Genre: Drama

Red Beard

It is only the first time I pick a Kurosawa film to write about. Red Beard is not one of his most famous ones, but it does appear to be among his best. Its length of just over three hours is not very inviting for a casual film watch so it should be saved for a more serious moment. The story can be summarised in very few words. It is about a young doctor who seems destined to end up becoming the shogun’s personal doctor. With a life full of luxury and taking care of silly little pains and minor injuries ahead, he is sent to a remote area to become the apprentice or understudy of the local doctor whose nickname is Red Beard. Supposedly it is because he has a red beard (ghee, surprise), but since it is a black and white film let’s just be gullible and assume they put some red dye in Mifune’s beard. Anyway, the area where Red Beard lives and operates is remote and any sort of luxury is nowhere to be found. They have to make do with the few things they have, and so immediately after his arrival the young doctor rebels against his presence at the remote village and against the ways of his master.

I don’t think this main plot line is very exciting at all, but that’s not really what matters or what makes this film so great. As they say it is not the destination, but the journey that counts. I feel this is especially true for this film. There is such immense character development in this film that it almost makes the ending irrelevant. The film is cut into two pieces, or at least it was on the BFI disc I have. After about 1h45m there is a short intermission, a nice moment for a bathroom break and soda refill. I personally found the first half to be a little unbalanced, caused for a big part by a typical Kurosawa fighting scene. After the break a young girl, Otoyo, is introduced and for me that was when the film really got going. After a bit of a rough start the three hours were over before I knew it.

Red Beard also marks the end of an era. It is the last time Toshirô Mifune starred in a Kurosawa film. They had been making an unbelievably long list of great films together (Stray Dog, Rashômon, Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, The Lower Depths, Yojimbo, Sanjuro, High and Low and even more). Of Kurosawa’s top pre-1965 films Ikiru is the only one that does not star Mifune. During the filming of Red Beard, that took almost two years (!), their relationship cooled and supposedly afterwards they never spoke again. Kurosawa didn’t make a new film until 1970, Dodes’ka-den, which kind of flopped. He attempted suicide and eventually his career was ‘saved’ by the Russians with whom he made Dersu Uzala in 1975. After that he made a few more films, some really great (Kagemusha, Ran, Dreams), and he passed away in 1998. But back to 1965. For Red Beard Kurosawa had one of the biggest sets ever made. Almost an entire small village was built and in order to get shots with particular weather types Kurosawa had no problem waiting until the next winter or spring to shoot his scenes. This must have been maddening for the people involved, but in Kurosawa’s defense, the scene in the snow is probably one of, if not the aesthetically most beautiful scene one of the entire film.

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