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Red Beard (1965, Akira Kurosawa)

Red Beard has a Dickensian faith in regular working people.

Red Beard (1965, Akira Kurosawa)
Photo: Janus Films

Ben Begins:

The liner notes to the Criterion edition quote Kurosawa on Red Beard: “I wanted to make something that my audience would want to see, something so magnificent that people would just have to see it.” Instead of the quantitatively vague “people,” he should have said everyone. The film truly has something for everyone. Red Beard really is magnificent for its grand variety of scenes and wide range of mini-stories, all integrated into the central narrative with plot relevance, thematic significance and visual elegance. The entertainment value of the thing is off the chart. At the same time, all of the auteur’s elements are on display. The sheer stylistic density of Red Beard would be enough to single it out as the director’s definitive work. But what really seals the deal is that Red Beard is Kurosawa’s most fully developed and by far and away his most positive humanist statement. While very successful in Japan, that the film was not a commercial success upon its release overseas is downright bizarre to me.

In our discussion of Ikiru (1952), we addressed the desperate post-war circumstance conditioning that film. Kurosawa had achieved international celebrity two years prior with Rashomon, a forlorn search for justice that denies the possibility of absolute truth. Approximately 15 years later, Red Beard is coming out of a time when Japan is undergoing protectionist re-assimilation into the global capitalist system. This happened under Most Favored Nation terms of trade that allowed both domestic tariffs and non-tariff access to the US market, still in its own economic Golden Age. In short, prosperity is trickling down for most as promised. Life is a hell of a lot better than it was immediately following the bombs when many in Japan were actually dying of stomach cancer. Kurosawa himself was probably at the peak of his powers and popularity. In retrospect we can observe that Red Beard caps his own Golden Age and his own retrospective observation about his ambition for the film at the time supports this. At that moment, Kurosawa indulged in the goodness of humanity without even the slightest trace of cynical restraint.

Red Beard has a Dickensian faith in regular working people. The basic notion is that even if they don’t do the right thing at first, they’ll come around to the right thing in the end. The moralistic adoption of the orphan at the end of Rashomon rings false. Red Beard is sincerely about this kind of love. All the characters are adopting each other all over the place in every conceivable way. Plot-necessary villains aside, the best is brought out in everyone. There’s a few Gift Of The Magi mix-ups, with less happy conclusions than O. Henry would have provided, and even some inexplicable weirdness for the sake of campfire ghost story thrills, but it’s all benign at the end of the day. The film is tremendously uplifting; outstandingly positive; deep comedy. This is no small achievement considering the whole show is about dealing with death. I dare Disney to enter Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward and come out alive, never mind alive and well as Kurosawa does. Alive and kicking is more like it; as in, kicking ass aesthetically on behalf of booting butt ethically.

Red Beard takes on the gloom of human doom just as directly as Ikiru. But whereas Ikiru takes a solitary existential approach to human mortality, Red Beard takes a fully communitarian approach that celebrates the human spirit without recourse to spiritualism. This difference plays out politically in plain relief. The protagonist in Ikiru, Watanabe, undergoes a private transformation that allows him to undertake a personal project with radical political ramifications. The telling of this is sublime but unrealistic insofar as the character transcends suffering alone and acts without the support of associates. The protagonist in Red Beard, Yasumoto, is publicly mentored by the title character to discard his aristocratic snobbery and voluntarily enter into the collective work of alleviating the suffering of others. The realism attending this is as anti-Disney as anti-Disney can be. Forget the healing arts, the medical craft is explicitly reduced to nothing more than palliative care. But even more remarkable, the division of labor in the hospital is fundamentally egalitarian. I dare say, it’s socialistic.

On the face of it, Ikiru and not Red Beard is the more political film. Ikiru eviscerates the government bureaucracy for both its feudal vestiges and false American promises in the face of proletarian poverty. But I maintain that Red Beard is ultimately the more political film. It’s just that its politics are embedded in an ideal of a humane society. Red Beard presents a microcosmic model of a perfectly cooperative and, at bedrock, non-hierarchical polity. The medical clinic is a mini-village of ethically transparent social relations. Note that the economic basis of this unalienated little town is in no way utopian. The dependence on the state for financing and the need to extort inflated service fees from the wealthy in the real world is all too plain. Similarly, the little boy who steals rice from the hospital kitchen sends the same signal in the other direction. But the way everyone gets along and cares for each other shoulder-to-shoulder, it’s as groovy as a hippie commune.

The social leveling depicted in the context of living and working together does not erase the designations of skilled and unskilled labour as this accords to men and women respectively. Unlike Ikiru, Red Beard does not have an implicitly feminist organizing principle. Nevertheless, the social leveling within the division of labor is very pronounced. Initially it is hinted that the character of Red Beard is a ball-busting tyrant. He turns out to be the farthest thing from it. Instead of a boss, he is an example. Not a ruler, a leader. As the film progresses, everyone working at the hospital is shown to be performing different but equally valuable work. And their status within the organization is revealed to be equal too. That the hospital is not exclusively a work site but is also the worker’s residence is not trivial in all of this. The egalitarian work ethic in Red Beard runs so deep, it applies to those residents of the hospital who do not work, properly speaking; the patients. I would go so far as to say that the patients do work. Their job is to die. To die with dignity.

I am stretching beyond the literal to the metaphoric, to be sure, but one thing is for certain. The patients have status equal to the health care staff, including the doctors. This is ground zero for the egalitarianism of the film. This is the large leveling. The point is not that everyone has to die sometime and that it is possible for anyone—even an elite medical professional—that dying will entail horrible suffering. That’s an individualistic leveling with which any liberal can be comfortable. No, the leveling between the doctors and the patients is class leveling. This is true literally insofar as the doctors come from privilege and the patients from poverty. But it may, and I say should, be interpreted at a much more general anti-elitist and class-analytical level.

On behalf of this, in my estimation the key chapter in the story is the transformation of young doctor Yasumoto into the patient of the girl rescued from the whorehouse. This role reversal is more than some moralistic sermon about walking that empathetic mile in the other guy’s shoes. And never mind the fabulous dialectics about his illness being her cure. The big news is that they are made into equals. Everything about the clinic resonates out from and replicates in miniature this leveling. And of course, everything in the film as a whole resonates out from the clinic and is meaningful only in relation to it.

Red Beard

Dan replies:

What’s so profound about Ikiru, for me, is that it is a movie made by a man who still had forty years of living to do. Kurosawa wasn’t a young man, but Ikiru has the wisdom the we associate with seniority. That is, the lessons Watanabe learns and the way he reshapes and rededicates his life, this feels like the kind of signature statement you’d expect of an artist as he nears the end of his career, not as he was approaching the apex of his talents. The film is really quite remarkable in this regard alone, never mind the rest of the things (performance, cinematography, editing, score and more) that serve to emphasize its excellence.

Red Beard, on the other hand, tells the story of a young man. It is the sort of artistic comment you’d expect to see at the beginning of a career, a mission statement for the director’s art. Yet with Red Beard, Kurosawa is rededicating himself to such matters just as his powers begin their slow decline into mere good-ness. It is the film that marks, for many of us, the end of Kurosawa’s greatest period. It would be an interesting experiment to show these two films to someone who has never heard of Kurosawa and ask the viewer to guess the age of the filmmaker in both cases. I suppose it is yet more proof of the artist’s superior skills and expansive outlook on life that he was capable of making an older man’s film when he was younger and a younger man’s film when he was older.

I completely concur on Kurosawa’s indebtedness to Dickens. (All that’s missing is a “god bless us, every one” at the end of the poisoned child/family episode). But I’m going to say something that will be anathema to those who hold literature far above film in the pantheon of artistic endeavours. I believe that both Ikiru and Red Beard are better than pretty much all of Dickens’ work. They have a more clearly enunciated understanding of the social reality of the characters. Kurosawa does not rely upon artificial conventions, such as the kind of coincidence that mars the ending of Great Expectations or Oliver Twist, or the sudden emergence of a savior, the benevolent benefactor, to get his characters out of jams. Conclusions emerge out of reality in Kurosawa and sometimes those conclusions are damned bleak (Ikiru, Lower Depths, Ran). And even the relative optimism of Red Beard is well-earned and does not happen without substantial emotional and material costs to the characters.

I like your idea that the clinic is, first of all, a socialistic enterprise, in that there is little to distinguish between the various ways that different people with a variety of skills and training provide health services at the clinic. I’m also down with your suggestion that since they all live in the same place where they work, the clinic is sorta one big hippie commune. I am also certain that the curing of the young doctor by the damaged girl is a key to “unpacking” the film’s core message. This passage falls pretty much at the film’s center. It is the heart and soul of Kurosawa’s film, as it is in these moments that the young doctor’s physical cure and socio-political consciousness are guaranteed.

And speaking of Yasumoto’s transformation, you compare it to Watanabe’s in Ikiru and find it much more realistic. I have to agree. Think about this by considering which of the two characters we are better able to identify with. Watanabe’s conversion takes place pretty much all on his own (once he escapes the writer and the bubbly fellow employee), and his ability to stick it out, to maintain the course of his cause while all about him conspire to make it nigh-impossible, strikes me as the kind of superhuman achievement that few of us could really aspire to emulate. Yasumoto, conversely, is converted through deed after deed, through immersion in a world that wears down his arrogance and self-involvement, that pretty much dares him to remain separate and distinct from it. Further, once Yasumoto throws himself into the fray and joins the cause, he has a network of support that would be pretty much essential for most of us who decided to dedicate our lives selflessly to greater/higher causes.

As for the patients’ job being to die with dignity, that is indeed an interesting notion. Of course the doctor’s job is to bear witness to the death, which carries with it the responsibility to remember the life that is lost. It adds a significance and a weight to the patients’ passing that a doctor is there to record the memory. Even deeper than this, I think, the doctors at the clinic record much more than simply the memory of these patients’ deaths, but also their entire lives. This is why the stories that they tell of their patients—and which the patients tell of themselves to these doctors—are also the great levelers. We see that these are people, despite their poverty and suffering, who have led lives of no small consequence, and they are as worthy of remembrance and commemoration as any of the shoguns that Yasumoto might have ended up tending to.

Then Ben:

Your observation of the doctors’ work of bearing witness was entirely neglected by me and your treatment of it supports my thesis, so thank you. Yet I want now to take your treatment and turn it inside-out too. You are absolutely correct that the doctors validate the lives of their patients by listening to their life stories. Red Beard explains to Yasumoto explicitly that this is in their job description as far as he’s concerned. But at the same time, this witness-bearing validates the lives of the doctors themselves. And they need this validation desperately. Why? Because as I’ve already noted, according to the film, medical science is little more than palliative care. The doctors cannot literally save lives but they can metaphorically save lives and this work of memorization is what empowers them to do the dross, futile toil of easing a person into that good night.

What the above interpretation shows is that the doctors and the patients need each other. The role reversal that best demonstrates this is not some superficial, symbolic recognition of the other. It is actual, practical reciprocity. The pivotal event in the story, the curing of the doctor by the damaged girl, is not just the curing of the doctor. That would be merely a moment of half-leveling (hence, not really leveling at all) from the perspective of the doctor-as-patient. No, the curing of the doctor by the damaged girl is also and maybe even moreso the undamaging of the girl, the curing of the girl by the girl herself, from the perspective of patient-as-doctor. That her efforts to heal another constitute her own self-empowerment is supported by dialogue, by the way. She tells Yasumoto that Red Beard told her as much. The upshot of this genuinely mutual aid is that it becomes impossible to say who is taking care of whom—and that’s precisely the point! The leveling is real and has established the solidarity of equals. Sure, sure, it’s all about love. And later Red Beard explains to Yasumoto that the girl will have to learn to spread her love to the whole hippie commune, and of course the Tiny Tim type tot is the vehicle for this. But there are politics inside that love.

And then Dan:

And you love to get inside politics. But what about the action outside the commune? You touched on the magnificent variety of the film. The film certainly is as full of wide-ranging elements as any Kurosawa. Hell, he even throws a gratuitous samurai showdown into the mix, to see if we’re paying attention. This scene is extremely emotionally gratifying but is also intellectually dishonest given the tenor of what has gone before. The fact that Red Beard is able single-handedly to dispatch so many foes without sustaining even a bruise is a terrible betrayal of the film’s otherwise stellar realism.

But Christ! When Kurosawa pans across the carnage after Mifune has leveled that entire crew, I felt like I was looking at a miniature of the wounded soldiers in the Atlanta scene in Gone with the Wind. The sounds of the bones being broken is later matched by the sight of these beaten deadbeats crawling around in the dust with compound fractures. Pretty grizzly stuff. Later on, Red Beard gives some lip service about how he should never have done it, that a doctor’s job is to heal, not to hurt. This is hot air given that he was trying to do just that (trying to protect the girl from further harm) and these soon-to-be vanquished foes were preventing him from doing so. He had no alternative. To leave the girl there, alone, would have been an even greater abrogation of his duties as a doctor, no? So, the message is that the martial arts were called for. It’s an outstanding action sequence, but it’s cowboy crap.

Red Beard

Back to Ben:

Hey, I love to get inside politics so much, I’m going to get inside the politics of the action outside the commune. For me, the lack of realism has to do with Kurosawa failing to take the group principle outside of the hospital. The source of the problem is that the egalitarianism of the clinic is not carried into the fight scene. It borders on gratuitous violence—however brilliantly crafted—because it is a phony succession of duels fought and won by our hero all by himself. That Red Beard combats with the surgical precision of, uh-huh, a surgeon, that he fights like a technician and not a sportsman, that he is conducting a ruthless military campaign and not playing at war like a perverse dilettante—none of this saves the scene from being bogus. It is bogus because—to cop a line from the cartoonist Spain Rodriguez, who once rode with a bike gang—ten guys can kick the shit outta anyone. And the offer of Hippocratic guilt afterward as a rationalization is the lame icing on the bogus cake.

I can easily imagine an alternative version of the fight scene that supports my egalitarian interpretation of the film. Instead of Red Beard going it alone, he and Yasumoto, together, fight it out with the gang, whose numbers are realistically reduced, but who still outnumber our two. Because the odds are against our two, this means that rather than a heroic clean sweep we get a genuine scrap. Shucks, some phony drama can occur, pretending that the outcome is uncertain. Of course, this is neither here nor there because the good guys win the battle, beaten up but not beaten back. In other words, instead of Clint Eastwood (Yojimbo), your basic buddy-comedy fight scene, but played completely seriously. Red Beard and Yasumoto should have limped home with the girl they rescued, bringing in a few minor wounds of their own to be licked by the rest of the hospital staff. Why Kurosawa went with the necessarily fake cowboy rather than the potentially realistic buddies is beyond me. Bloody thrilling bit of business though.

Back To Dan:

Want some sex to go with that violence? The fight scene may be gratuitous but it makes perfect sense in the main plot. The sub-plot about the psychotic female patient who tries to seduce/murder Yasumoto is not so easy to connect. It’s inclusion shows the Kurosawa definitely pulled out all the stops for Red Beard. This character plays into some standard figures in Japanese fiction; the creepy, mysterious “dark” lady who makes regular appearances in J-Horror films these days. (See The Ring or Pulse or The Grudge for contemporary examples).

But I think she’s also there for another reason. Red Beard and Yasumoto have a conversation about whether her psychosis can be attributed to her horrific upbringing full of sexual abuse. Red Beard rejects this excuse. He says that many girls have suffered similarly yet they haven’t turned into murderers, so this cannot be used to justify the woman’s behavior. The whole nurture/nature thing is up for grabs at this point, but Kurosawa seems (rightly, I think) to be abandoning it as quickly as he seizes on it. After all, while it might be interesting to argue how much of each play a part in determining who were are, the truth for these doctors is that such information is not particularly useful. They cannot cure the larger disease in society; they are only able to address the symptoms in individual patients. There are clear limitations on the ability of medicine alone to cure what really ails us.

Ben Again:

I must admit that I don’t know what to make of the kiss that almost happens with the spider woman. I mentioned before that unlike Ikiru, Red Beard does not challenge patriarchal assumptions. The way sexuality is brought into the relation between Yasumoto and the would-be psycho killer would seem to support this. The sexist routine of a crazy bitch coming on to a fine fellow in order to destroy him is as old as the hills. But in Red Beard, more is at stake. (Namely, my political interpretation—ha!)

Nutty sexuality undermines the potential for real solidarity between romantically social equals. Remember, for much of the scene it is unclear if she really is nuts and dangerous, and just as uncertain whether or not Yasumoto, still resistant to his destiny, will become her renegade ally. They are equals up to this point in the narrative. Yasumoto is on her level insofar as he has not taken on the responsibilities of being a doctor; indeed, he is getting drunk. But even more, the two of them originate from the same aristocratic class. Then she makes her move and any hope of friendship between them falls apart, to put it mildly. Seems a shame to bring this about by way of a sexist trope.

On the other hand, and contra my initial assertion, there is perhaps a faint glimpse of feminism in the film. I am thinking of the long recollection of the dying patient who recounts how an earthquake made a tragedy of his love life. This is almost a movie unto itself. Of course, it is intended to explain why this man was so respected by his community, what motivated him to be a good person in the first place. What is interesting to me about his tale is that his tragedy involves the breaking of a bond between real romantic friends, true married equals. The marriage custom in 19th-century Japan that arranged for a wife to “belong” to her husband is under severe scrutiny in the tale as this custom leads to the unintentionally assisted suicide of the man’s wife. Yasumoto’s wedding at the end of the film contradicts this modern sensibility, however. He informs his bride that as his wife she will have to accept his vocational calling. This being a masculine take on Mother Theresa’s devotion to the poor does not get it off the sexist hook.

As for your comment about the larger meaning of palliative care in Red Beard, I agree that the film points beyond the clinic to implicate the broader society with respect to what really ails us. On this score I cannot emphasize enough the house call to the rich patient’s house. This visit to the magistrate is a very short scene, but it speaks volumes. Here the power of money and the ruling authorities are attacked outright. I dared to say previously that Red Beard is socialistic. Now we come to the anarchist aspect within this, the reddest part of the beard, if you will. The owning and governing class is identified as a ’’tax” on the resources of the commune and therefore must be “ripped off” in return. That this is essential to the material subsistence of the hospital was set-up at the start when it was explained that the facility is pathetically under-funded by the state.

In case the corrupting influence of moneyed power remains unclear to the audience, the message is driven home when Red Beard is questioned by the rich man’s henchman. The latter cynically disregards any palliative purpose in order to supposedly articulate a realistic position about the futility of medicine. It is on this basis that he ridicules any rationale for its market worth. Red Beard does not dispute the stupidity of putting a price-tag on medical service, but he turns the point on its head to retrieve the palliative purpose—among social equals! Yes, you cannot put a price on caring for the sick who live and work side-by-side with the healthy, all together in an egalitarian society.

And finally, Dan:

You touched on the tragic tale told by Sahachi (Tsutomu Yamazaki), about the earthquake that brought terrible sorrow into his life. One of Red Beard’s more memorable sequences, it unfolds in a detailed reminiscence that is as visually stirring as it is emotionally wrenching. You are right that this is almost a movie unto itself. But I want to highlight that it is simultaneously vital to the main story. It leads to one of Yasumoto’s deepest epiphanies. Yasumoto does not receive wisdom suddenly, but gradually, and it is in this that Kurosawa’s film achieves the miraculous. The layers of Yasumoto’s egoism are worn away, one patient at a time, and nobody lets the scales fall from Yasumoto’s eyes like the noble, self-sacrificing Sahachi. Despite his own poor health, and the ill blows that life has dealt him, Sahachi chooses not to cave in to bitterness or cynicism, but instead toils away ceaselessly to provide his fellow patients with their basic necessities. It is fitting then that the young doctor learns from the humble Sahachi that contentment comes only when he gives himself up to the downtrodden people he has at first scorned. It is in Sahachi’s testimonial to the restorative powers of selflessness that Red Beard achieves something as majestic and poetical as a Shakespearean soliloquy, and as moving and precise as a Verdi aria.

Sahachi’s understanding is rough and ready compared to the sophisticated consciousness of Red Beard, but both of them are Yasumoto’s teachers. And the two of them teach out of the same lesson book. In making him represent an ideal of human conduct, Kurosawa may have felt a personal connection with the character of Sahachi. After witnessing the aftermath of the 1923 Tokyo earthquake and subsequent riots, Kurosawa commented that the scene was one of unimaginable horror. He saw “corpses charred black, half-burned corpses, corpses in gutters, corpses floating in rivers, corpses piled up on bridges, corpses blocking off a whole street at an intersection, and every manner of death possible to human beings displayed by corpses.” He tells us that when he tried to turn away, his brother would not allow it, telling him to look at the devastation carefully. The best of Kurosawa’s films are a challenge to look into our greatest fears and at our most terrible afflictions, whether personal or systemic, without turning away. Arguably the best Kurosawa film, Red Beard does not turn away.

Red Beard

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

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