Red Beard was the 16th and sadly last film that Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune made together; an epic production that took two years to complete and strained their lengthy working relationship to breaking point. But many see this as Mifune’s crowning glory, as he took on the role of the ill tempered but saintly like head doctor, Kyojo Niide, or as everyone close to him calls him, Red Beard.
The film starts with the arrival of a young and aspirational medical graduate, Dr. Noboru Yasumoto (Yuzo Kayama), who has just finished an internship in Nagasaki, where he learnt of Dutch medical practices, he is an ambitious but overly arrogant doctor who is mortified to find out he will not be treating royalty and high ranking officers, but the poor and feeble at Red Beard’s clinic. He starts the movie loaded full of animosity, refusing to remove his own kimono in favor of the hospital uniform. He keeps his own medical notes private, fearful that Red Beard will simply steal the knowledge he gained in Nagasaki for his own ends, rather than for the good of the patients.
We follow Noboru through his first term at the hospital and find out more about the nurses, doctors and various patients. Kurosawa’s humanism is even more evident in Red Beard than anything else from his cannon of work; as good lives are not always rewarded with longevity, yet even the most hopeless cases are worth fighting for, as life is a commodity far more valuable than wealth, power or social standing.
Noboru goes through a very gradual change, that sees him more invested in his new job, with pearls of wisdom falling from patients lips along with their terminal breathes, Noboru learns that the health and safety of others is far more important than his own pride. As he dons the uniform for the first time, he takes a huge leap forwards and as he strips off the formal clothing of high society, he becomes purely a doctor, with no concern for hierarchy or honor, but focused on healing those that most need his help.
The narrative is spliced with several stories told by the patients, each a study in heartbreak, which may seem a little heavy handed, but act as a signifier to the resilience of human beings and how they are able to heal from the most traumatic events, so long as they are cared for patiently and tenderly.
Noboru’s transformation seems to run parallel with us finding out more about Red Beard, and how his cold and gruff exterior hide how honorable he truly is. He could have been a sickly sweet character, too nice to connect with, but Mifune plays him perfectly, with a performance that gives us a character who is the epicenter of the entire narrative. For those that are fans of Mifune’s sword swinging skills, you will be happy to know that there is one lengthy fight sequence in which Red Beard destroys a band of thugs, only to reset their bones and treat to their wounds once the dust has settled, an amazing twist on a familiar trope.
At 185 minutes, it is a long film, but Kurosawa’s attention to detail is seen in everything from the props and sets, to the dialogue. A two year project that nearly bankrupt Mifune, as no other film would hire him with such a scruffy looking beard, it is one of those movies that can rightly be called a masterpiece and deserves far more credit than it is given today.