Saturday, August 12, 2017

Akira Kurosawa | 赤ひげ (Akahige) / Red Beard


by Douglas Messerli

Masato Ide, Ryuzo Kikushima, Akira Kurosawa, and Hideo Oguni (writers, based on the stories of Shūgorō Yamamoto and a novel by Dostoevsky), Akira Kurosawa (director) 赤ひげ (Akahige) / Red Beard / 1965, USA 1966

Kurosawa’s 1965 masterwork, Red Beard, based on a group of short stories by Shūgorō Yamamoto, is, accordingly, episodic in its structure. But it is all also, oddly enough, a kind of epic, running for 185 minutes and with a full musical interlude; but unlike the large epic Hollywood westerns (a form that Kurosawa also was attracted to) or the biblical dramas so popular of the 1950s and early 60s, this work is an epic, hard to imagine, about the late 19th-century medical profession. One might even describe it as an epic about dying. And, even more unusual, its major narrative strategy is wound around a series of death-bed confessions.


     If you think this film might be problematic for those very reasons, however, you would be mistaken. The adventures of the young Dr. Noboru (Yasumoto Yūzō), who feels he has been mistakenly assigned to the rural medical commune run by Dr. Kyojō Niide (Toshiro Mifune, in his last film with Kurosawa), are utterly fascinating, as the bitter young man slowly grows to see his profession less as a way to gain high position—Noboru, who studied in a Dutch medical school, had  hoped to be the personal physician of the Shogunate—than to help the poorest among him to survive and die.

      Niide’s methods of doctoring might be described as something closer to involving the spiritual than medical operations. Yes, the run-down clinic/settlement house he runs, is kept sparklingly clean, and its doctors, living in almost Spartan conditions, are asked at all time to wear medical uniforms, and when needed he does perform operations that seem to be far ahead of some 19th-century hospitals; but, more importantly, the skeptical head doctor realizes that those down and out, literally “smelly” folks for which he cares, more often simply need to be heard, given something to eat, and allowed the peace to properly end their lives.

      The various “confessions” that the film’s director weaves together include a mad woman, nicknamed “The Mantis,” (Kyōko Kagawa), who has killed a husband