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Red Beard

Interest in Kurosawa has never been greater. The Criterion Collection recently released Rashomon. The British Film Institute just mounted a retrospective of his work. Criterion is showing some of his films in collaboration with the Sundance Channel on cable television. And the Film Forum in Manhattan in 2002 is presenting a Kurosawa & Mifune Film Series, sponsored in part by Janus Films. Akahige ("Red Beard") (1965) is certainly a capper to the long collaboration between Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune, which comprises some 16 films directed by Kurosawa, and Mifune's appearance in a host of additional films either written or produced by Kurosawa. What's surprising is that Akahige, despite winning numerous international film festival awards at the time, isn't more known or honored in the United States. The film is a deceptively simple story of a young doctor Noboru Yasumoto (Yuzo Kayama), who comes to work under protest in an obscure charity hospital in Edo (in the 1800s) called Koshokawa Clinic. Under the influence of Dr. Kyojio Niide (Toshiro Mifune), nicknamed "Red Beard" because of his fiery appendage, he learns the true meaning of life and his purpose in it. Ostensibly based on a novel by Shugoro Yamamoto, Akahige also draws upon Dostoyevsky's The Insulted and the Injured for a major subplot. It's a story that is both deep and sweeping at the same time. The film continues Kurosawa's obsession with existential humanism, of which it is a culmination of his views (his films hereafter, all without Mifune, are darker, and bleaker). As the pinnacle of his artistry, Akahige towers over not only most of Kurosawa's other films, but over most of the movies in Japan, where it is revered as a "must see." Kurosawa's care with the story and image is masterly (it took the director a year to shoot the film), and everything holds together. Criterion has done another marvelous job with its DVD release of a Akahige. The disc contains the whole movie (which is over three hours long), and offers a very clean anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) from restored elements, which means it looks better than it ever has on home video. The disc also recreates the original soundtrack, with was four-channel stereo, very expensive for the time and basically unheard until now. Thus, Red Beard also sounds better than it ever did. Masaru Sato's westernized score, with its quotes from Brahms and others is delicious, and adds much to the effect of the film. Supplements are limited but important. The theatrical trailer is unusual in that it advertised Kurosawa as much as the movie. The most significant extra is the commentary track by Kurosawa scholar Stephen Prince, who may comes across like he is reading from a prepared text, but at least he knows what the hell he is talking about. His treatment of the last few minutes of the film is just as likely to make you weep as the narrative he is augmenting. Eight-page production booklet with an excerpt from Donald Richie's book. Keep-case.
—D.K. Holm

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