Red Beard (1965)

Viewed April 8th


A young doctor comes into the service of Red Beard, an older, more idiosyncratic mentor.

This Akira Kurosawa film (the last the director would make with Toshiro Mifune) is all about creating a cinematic world. The very first moments involve following an outsider through the doors of Red Beard's hospital. It's immediately a challenging, uncomfortable place full of impoverished sickness and folk medical philosophies. Another young doctor who is a few days away from leaving, tells us that this mass of people would be better off dead, and we may agree with him. But because the character we're following feels the same way, we're willing to go along and see what develops. When our young doctor meets Red Beard and, in a great shot, Mifune turns to the camera, revealing his eyes, Kurosawa calibrates it all so well that our feelings match the young outsider doctor's--we are suddenly more compelled to stick around in this world and see what this man, with these powerful eyes, is up to. In what follows there are no short cuts, we did ever deeper into the world, bearing the site of abjection tempered by bursts of action plucked straight from samurai or horror films until we seem to feel that this cinematic world's unique architecture is carving out space in our brains. When the young doctor is at work, we can imagine that Red Beard actually exists and is busy in some other room of the hospital at the same time. When the young doctor chooses to turn down a more respected, better paying job with the Shogun in favor of staying with Red Beard, the film has convinced us this is clearly the correct course of action. And by the end, Kurosawa has so thoroughly built this unlikely cinematic world that our opinion about the fate of the impoverished masses has totally changed: they would, in fact, be better off alive.