“Nothing’s so solemn as a man’s last moments.”
Akahige is the beginning of Kurosawa’s later career; when his output became less prolific and dealt more with sprawling ideas (this one running over three hours) and a more determined, less specific approach to storytelling. 1965 also marked an end for black and white film in Kurosawa’s filmography and his final collaboration with longtime collaborator, Toshiro Mifune. Known for his unparalleled use of widescreen, Red Beard is the final of these as well. The film is based on an anthology of short stories by Shugoro Yamamoto and Dostoevsky’s The Insulted and the Injured, both of which share humanistic qualities present in much of Kurosawa’s work.
Dr. Noboru Yasumoto (Yuzo Kayama), an arrogant novice educated richly at the Western-influenced port of Nagasaki, dreams of being the personal physician of the Shogunate – an affluent career in correcting cataracts and such work. His family and contacts are wealthy and reputable so he is confounded when, for his postgraduate work, he is sent to the rural Koshikawa Clinic as understudy to Dr. Kyojo Niide (Mifune), Red Beard. Adapting to his new post and having to follow Dr. Niide’s firm policies cloud his ambitious mind for a good portion of the film early on. For Yasumoto, his position is one wherein he may innovate and excel. When Niide demands to see his medical notes, Yasumoto refuses. Niide views a physician’s work as belonging to the medical community, not to be hoarded by aspiring practitioners. By breaking every rule, Yasumoto hopes to be dismissed from Niide’s service and moved to a more comfortable locale where he can be independent. His self-image is great, but he also has a genuine interest in helping others: at his worst, his bleeding heart is blinded by his ego. He hears Red Beard’s wisdom, “Even bad food tastes good if you chew it well,” as practical as it is humourous, and is encouraged by the other employees of the clinic, “He’s unfriendly to people he likes.” It is once he begins meeting with the doctor’s patients that he finally sees worth in Niide’s methods.
We meet Sahachi who sells the goods he crafts to help support the patients at the clinic. With his failing health however, he soon becomes too ill to work. We learn of Sahachi’s past, riddled with earthquakes and lost love, as a reason for his insistent selfsacrifice. Yasumoto’s introduction to The Mantis is the longest shot in the film. The gossip he had heard before of her, of outright violence and murder, is contrasted by her initial subservience to him – but this is also dangerous for she is well-versed in getting physicians to respond to her feigned vulnerability. We meet also, Rokusuke, once a gold lacquer merchant, now dying of liver cancer. Niide’s lesson for Yasumoto is simply to watch the man die. Niide believes in alleviating a patient’s suffering as much as possible especially when there is no cure to their ailment. To comfort, one must be able to look death in the eye. It is a harrowingly moving scene that consists of gasps and horrified looks. It is Niide’s intention for Yasumoto to relinquish his literal mind towards a greater understanding of death: its mysticism, its inevitability, and finally one’s acceptance of it.
In this film, Kurosawa is associating and, in many ways, predicting the far reaching consequences of, the incursion of Western medicine in Japan, an emphasis on the physical, and the dismissal of any spiritual or psychological facet in one’s analysis. It is a reaffirmation of Kurosawa’s views of existentialism in that the personality of the individual determines his fate; a transitional film, where such topics as social politics and conventional heroism give way to detailing the philosophical and existential struggle we all must endure and bear others through.