This last collaboration between director Akira Kurosawa and actor Toshiro Mifune was released in 1965, and it’s a three-hour episodic super-soap opera about the emotional education of a callow young doctor under the tutelage of a gruff older one, set in a slum clinic in 19th century Japan. It’s one of Kurosawa’s more controversial films in the sense that it has not always been kindly received, its detractors seeing it as a slow-paced hybrid of “General Hospital” and “Dr. Kildare.”
But while there’s no denying that there are stretches here of egregious sentimentality mixed with a handful of dramatic clichés, the story, which Kurosawa and his co-writers adapted from a novel by Shugoro Yamamoto, has the sweep of a 19th century epic told with an uninhibited intensity. There’s enough tragedy here, some of it devastating, for a half-dozen films; if a hybrid is suggested, it’s more Dickens crossed with Dostoyevsky than anything you’d see on daytime TV.
When young Dr. Yasumoto (Yuzo Kayama) shows up at the impoverished Koishikawa Public Clinic, he’s under the impression that he’s been sent there to pay his regards to the clinic’s chief, Dr. Niide, aka Red Beard (Mifune). Yasumoto has plans to become a doctor at the royal court of the Shogun, but finds that he’s been assigned to intern at Koishikawa, something he has absolutely no desire to do. He’s instantly at odds with the clinic’s autocratic head (a nicely restrained performance by Mifune, who by this time merely had to show up to radiate authority) and determined to leave the first chance he gets. But slowly he’s drawn into the clinic’s milieu and the lives of its unfortunate clientele. It’s the story of his discovering his basic humanity, his journey from arrogance to humility and an understanding of his connection to his fellow beings.
This could be a corny saga in lesser hands, but Kurosawa is unrelenting in his depiction of suffering and the viewer never gets the impression that we’re getting a softly sold story of moral redemption. When Red Beard tells Yasumoto to spend the night watching an elderly patient die — it’s a solemn event, he says, from which the young doctor can learn much — we don’t get a sanitized movie death, but a cruel and horrible one. When another dying man confesses the complicity he feels in his wife’s suicide, his story, which we see in flashback, is a painful telling of missed opportunities. And the one story that does lean toward a relatively happy resolution involves a 12-year-old girl whom Red Beard rescues from a brothel and turns over to Yasumoto, who’s given the job of “curing” her of the pain that has made her nearly catatonic.
Red Beard is an amazing film, an effective mix of old-fashioned storytelling and uncommon realism. There are times when you may feel a little sheepish at being so expertly manipulated, but its basic humaneness is sincere and powerfully conveyed.
Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Monday at 7:30 p.m. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.