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.
The various “confessions” that the film’s director weaves together include a mad woman, nicknamed “The Mantis,” (Kyōko Kagawa), who has killed a husband and two lovers who attempted to sexually approach her, and who almost kills the proud Noboru; an old man Rokusuke, who dies of heartbreak after his wife leaves him for a younger man and whose daughter, forced to marry the same man, rejects Rokusuke’s offer in friendship in later years; a beloved neighborhood hero Sahachi (Tsutomu Yamazaki), who, after his own wife kills herself, spends the rest of his life trying to help out everyone he meets; and a twelve-year-old girl, Otoyo (Terumi Niki), whose internment in a local brothel has so thoroughly traumatized her that she will allow no one to touch her, and spends most of her time scrubbing floors.
The Otoyo story, based on a Dostoevsky novel, is perhaps the central one, since it involves her cure by caring for Noboru after his attack, and her allowing a young boy, who steals food from the clinic kitchen to help feed his family, to escape, and, later, secretly bringing him food that she herself doesn’t eat. When the boy is finally caught stealing from a merchant, his family determines to kill itself en masse by consuming rat poison.
The confessional act, accordingly, is absolutely appropriate to Kurosawa’s theme. A daughter who has rejected a father, a husband who has unwillingly helped to kill his wife, a beautiful woman who, after being raped, cannot resist killing off her admirers, and a young child who, beaten and raped, finds it hard to communicate, all enter Niide’s humble church-like space to help relieve them from their suffering. Using a mix of shocking truths and gentle lies, the priest-doctor Niide helps the patients who might otherwise have nowhere else to turn in order to comprehend what has happened to them. Is it any wonder, in the end, that the young doctor Noboru, when finally called home, determines to stay on? He has found a calling in which he thought was simply a career.
Los Angeles, August 12, 2107