Directed by: Akira Kurosawa
Starring: Toshirô Mifune, Yûzô Kayama, Tsutomo Yamazaki, Reiko Dan, Miyuki Kuwano
Red Beard (1965) — a sadly overlooked and underrated film — is of great historical note in the career of Akira Kurosawa. It would be his last collaboration with actor Toshiro Mifune, his last black and white film, and his last film in true widescreen (2.35:1). It also — owing to its failure at the box office (it took three years to even get a US release) — marked the end of Kurosawa finding easy financing for his films and left the director depressed and creatively as sea. (He wouldn’t have another film for five years.) Red Beard presented itself as an epic. It’s over three hours and showcased as an “event” picture, but apart from an earthquake sequence and one fight scene, it’s a fairly simple film — one concerned entirely with humanism. The story is nothing more than an arrogant young doctor (Yuzo Kayama) coming to learn to care about his chosen profession (rather than view it as path to riches and honor) thanks to his experiences with a gruff, but deeply caring, older doctor (Mifune). In fact, I’ve seen one critic dismiss the film as being nothing more than a really long Dr. Kildare programmer from the late 1930s, which strikes me as arrant nonsense. It isn’t the story that matters here, so much as it’s the film’s deeply felt humanity (not to mention its cinematic beauty). Kurosawa’s stated intent to create “something so magnificent that people would just have to see it” seems perfectly reasonable to me. I guess it depends on what you think is magnificent.
Classic World Cinema by Courtyard Gallery will present Red Beard Friday, August 2, at 8 p.m. at Phil Mechanic Studios, 109 Roberts St., River Arts District (upstairs in the Railroad Library). Info: 273-3332, www.ashevillecourtyard.com
In Brief: Akira Kurosawa’s 1965 film is rarely cited as one of his best — and I can’t imagine why. It’s a long film — 185 minutes, with an overture and an intermission — but not a single one of those minutes is dull. If, as I’ve read, Kurosawa set out to make “something so magnificent that people would just have to see it,” I think he succeeded — even if only in the long run, since the film seems to have underperformed on its original release. The problem, I think, is that rather than the epic audiences expected, Kurosawa instead gave them a small-scale drama about a young doctor, creating what might be called an epic of humanity. An altogether beautiful film.