A statement on humanity
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Red Beard marked the end of the golden age of Akira Kurosawa. After red beard he found it extremely difficult to get financial backing for his projects and went on to make only 7 more films in the next 30 years. But Red Beard enabled Kurosawa to make a statement he had only hinted at in High and Low. The sufferings of man can be alleviated only if we are able to help one another.
Kurosawa chooses the setting of a clinic for the poor to make this statement, which is perfect since no other place would have enabled him to tell the stories he wanted to tell. The story begins with a young doctor named Yasumoto, educated in modern medical practices at Nagasaki, coming to visit the clinic at the behest of his father. He is there to meet the chief doctor at the clinic Dr. Niige, who is more popularly referred to as ‘Red Beard’ due to his beard being a shade of red. Yasumoto finds the clinic to be not to his liking and he is even more distraught when he learns from Dr.Niige that he has been tricked into coming there as a replacement for another inept doctor.
Yasumoto is not at all thrilled at working in the clinic. He believes that his knowledge would have helped him become the doctor of the shogun which would have enabled him to be very wealthy and famous. He is proud and arrogant about his education and even boasts that he knows more about medicine than the Red Beard. He believes that the Red Beard only wants to steal his notes and studies. He also learns that he cannot quit the job as he has been appointed by the magistrate himself. Therefore he decides to be such a nuisance that the Dr.Niige himself will be forced to throw him out of the clinic.
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With this intention in mind he goes about breaking every rule at the clinic. He even refuses to wear the uniform of the doctors at the clinic. But the Red Beard slowly manages to draw him into the daily affairs of the clinic and manages breaks down his resistance one by one. It is through Yasumoto’s interaction with the various patients and his subsequent transformation that Kurosawa propels the story forward.
The narrative of this movie is mostly episodic. Each one of the cases that Yasumoto encounters at the clinic gives a new perspective of life to the young doctor. Kurosawa paints the larger picture with the help small, seemingly innocuous characters. The genius of the man is very evident when he is able to give the proper depth and development to each of these characters.
Yasumoto realizes his own naivety when he is forced to deal with a psychopathic child abuse victim, referred to as ‘The Mantis’. The mantis is a beautiful young lady who seduces her victims before murdering them with her hairpin. The young doctor barely manages to come out alive off this encounter with her.
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He realizes that he is yet to acquire the mental fortitude to be a doctor when he collapses after witnessing a surgery for the first time. When the Red Beard asks him to tend to a dying man named Rokuskue, Yasumoto is unable to bear the poignancy of death. He is not even able to be alone in the room with the old man and is visibly relieved when the nurse takes over from him.
Yasumoto is also profoundly influenced by the life stories of these patients. Be it the hopelessness of ‘The Mantis’, or the grim and harsh reality of Rokuskue’s life and death or even the undying love of the saintly Sahachi; who works relentlessly to help others even while he is poor and dying. In fact it is from Sahachi that Yasumoto learns the importance of the uniform he had refused to wear till then. Sahachi tells Yasumoto that the uniform represents a beacon of hope to the poor as it identifies a clinic doctor who would take care of them even when other wealthy physicians wouldn’t. Yasumoto is so influenced by this that after Sahachi’s death he starts wearing the uniform.
Yasumoto’s growing up is completed when he is placed in charge of curing a 12 year old girl rescued from a brothel by the Red Beard. The girl’s illness is as much psychological as it is physical, mainly due to the cruel treatment that she had been subjected to by others at the brothel. Yasumoto is so immersed in curing her that he himself falls ill in the process. The Red Beard however uses this opportunity to cure the girl further by putting her in charge of nursing Yasumoto. Her treatment is completed when she tries to prevent another young boy from the path of crime.
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The movie is not without its flaws. At times the movie moves forward at a snail’s place. Sometimes you just feel the dreariness to be unbearable and strangely it makes you detached from the emotional bind that is so necessary in such movies. Sometimes you just wish that Kurosawa would get a move along in telling the story.
Having said that, the movie, which clearly pales in comparison to the master’s other movies, still manages to be head and shoulders above most other movies even now. Kurosawa’s attention to detail is very evident in the movie. And his use of light and shade is as amazing as in any of his other movies. Red Beard is a movie which would lose half its effect if it were to be shot in color.
It is said that Kurosawa took 2 years to make this movie. The production was so tense that it brought to an end one of the greatest collaborations of movie history; that of Toshiro Mifune and Akira Kurosawa. Although Mifune gave another towering performance in the movie, he was so frustrated by the never ending schedule of the movie that a conflict between the two was inevitable and they never worked together again. This was also the last of Kurosawa’s black and white movies.
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In spite of all this Kurosawa was undeterred in making a most poignant statement on humanity. He tried to show that love for a fellow human being is more important than acquiring all the wealth and fame in the world. Above all Red Beard makes the statement that there is nothing more important in the world than being able to help lessen the pain and sufferings of others. And the is the overall message of the film.
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