Red Beard is not one of Akira Kurosawa’s best films. I applaud the film’s premise while I think its execution feels dated and overdrawn. Known for being the last collaboration between Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune, Red Beard is a noble attempt but leaves us mostly underwhelmed.
- Director: Akira Kurosawa
- Writer: Masato Ide, Akira Kurosawa, Ryuzo Kikushima, Hideo Oguni
- Cast: Toshiro Mifune, Yuzo Kayama
A young Dr. Yasumoto (Kayama) is assigned to work in a rural clinic in 19th century Japan. As part of this mandatory professional experience, he finds himself forced to follow the teachings of Dr. Niide (Mifune), a wise older doctor who is known as “Red Beard”. While Dr. Yasumoto is bent on defying the traditional teachings of Dr. Niide, each deliberate assignment with a new patient will bring him closer to understanding the deeper implications of life, career, and the ability to have an impact on others.
Considering the plot, I should love this film. At a time when medicare is a charged topic of conversation, here is a story about a young doctor coming to terms with his own selfishness and the suffering of others. But despite the humanistic tendencies of the film, Akira Kurosawa doesn’t so much miss the mark as much as goes overboard in belaboring his message. With a run-time of three hours, what is essentially a simple story, Kurosawa’s film feels like a tired attempt to create something approaching an epic. As we could expect, Mifune’s acting is strong and the highly compositional photography of Asakazu Nakai is of high quality. After all, Nakai is the man behind the legendary cinematography of Seven Samurai and Ran. By milking the melodrama beyond what is necessary, Kurosawa fails to conjure up any significant emotional depth.
I concede that Red Beard is a sound film on a technical level. Without attempting to take away Kurosawa’s rightful place among Japan’s most legendary directors, I sense that much of his stature is greatly elevated by the contributions he made to his country. With Rashomon in 1950, he opened doors for himself and for future Japanese directors, and this definitely nothing to scoff at. Red Beard is not on the level of Kurosawa’s greater films, with its drawn out scenes often feeling like poverty porn. I swear I wanted to like this film. With a great director, a great actor and a story focusing on the makings of a compassionate doctor, what’s not to like? Well, in this case, the attempt hardly goes beyond a lofty idea executed with technical precision. Ironically, however, the story unfolds with a heartbeat that feels artificial.
Brief Words for Mr. Ebert:
Mr. Ebert started his review of Red Beard by calling it “a passionate humanist statement”. While I agree with this claim, I think this is almost as much as I could say about it. Interestingly, Ebert’s second paragraph immediately jumps into a brief discussion about how Red Beard marks the end of Kurosawa’s focus on exemplary characters, turning later to more flawed ones. While this is noteworthy from a historical standpoint, it doesn’t so much justify the assessment of this film as a great one. Another element of Ebert’s review that sticks out is the heavy acknowledgement of composition and cinematography, serving as further indication that other elements are missing. Ultimately, the strongest elements of this film involve its attempts to convey life lessons and the visual way in which each scene is presented. Ebert contended that the film’s duration was necessary in order to convincingly show the young doctor’s evolution into a more selfless being. However, I think plenty of creative options exist in order to accomplish the same thing in less time. Ebert’s explanation feels mostly theoretical and scholarly at this point.
Good, Bad or Great Movie: BAD
Do you like Red Beard? Do you consider this film to be Good, Bad, or does it stand up as Great?
Next week’s review: Stroszek
Years ago, ScreenCrave contributor Jaime Lopez privately began tackling Roger Ebert’s “Greatest Films” list, a monolith of celluloid currently comprised of approximately 363 films (more if you count the trilogies, the Up docs and Decalogue). Lopez has set himself to put these remaining films’ “Greatness” to the test–reviewing both the movies themselves and Ebert’s response. By taking on Akira Kurosawa’s Red Beard this week, he now has 345 under his belt and less than 30 films left to go.