[box cover]

Red Beard: The Criterion Collection

Home Vision Entertainment

Starring Toshiro Mifune, Yuzo Kayama, Yoshio Tsuchiya,
Tatsuyoshi Ehara, and Reiko Dan

Written by Ryuzo Kikushima, Hideo Oguni, Masato Ide,
and Akira Kurosawa
From a novel by Shugoro Yamamoto

Directed by Akira Kurosawa

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Review by D.K. Holm                    

I. Movie Mysteries, Chapter 23

There are several enduring mysteries that haunt the history of cinema. Who killed Thomas Ince, if anybody, on William Hearst's yacht? Who really directed The Thing from Another Planet, Hawks the nominal producer, or credited helmer Christian Nyby? Who really directed Poltergeist, a film that looks like a movie by producer Steven Spielberg, who was ostensibly shooting E.T. at the same time, and which doesn't look at all like a film by credited helmer Tobe Hooper, who has never worked for Spielberg again? Why did Jerry Lewis suddenly become a sponsor for the Muscular Dystrophy society?

And perhaps the most enduring mystery of all is: Why did Toshiro Mifune stop working with Akira Kurosawa? Or vice-versa?

Curiosity about this puzzle is evoked yet again by the near-simultaneous DVD release of Kurosawa's late masterpiece Akahige ("Red Beard") (1965) and the publication of The Emperor and the Wolf, a joint biography of Kurosawa and Mifune by Stuart Galbraith IV, a book that fails in its mandate to solve this very mystery.

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 is presenting in 2002 a Kurosawa & Mifune Film Series, sponsored in part by Janus Films, and features new translations and subtitles by Linda Hoaglund on Throne of Blood, I Live in Fear, Stray Dog, Drunken Angel, The Bad Sleep Well, and Seven Samurai (after its Film Forum engagement, the show goes on tour).

Akahige is certainly a capper to their long collaboration, which comprises some16 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. It's certainly not because of the story, which is right in line with the kinds of films that most American reviewers and Oscar voters take seriously.

II. Red Beard: The Plot

The narrative comes in several large chunks. The first chunk is the introduction of young doctor Noboru Yasumoto (a popular young actor named Yuzo Kayama). The scion of a well-off family destined for a position on the Shoganate medical team treating, as Tom Lehrer might say, "diseases of the rich," he thinks he is just getting a tour of an obscure charity hospital in Edo (in the 1800s) called Koshokawa Clinic.

The tour, by a doctor about to depart the clinic, ends with Yasumoto's introduction to Dr. Kyojio Niide (Toshiro Mifune), nicknamed "Red Beard" because of his fiery appendage, which seems to go with his stern demeanor. Yasumoto is then shocked to learn that he has actually been assigned to the clinic!

This is an affront to his dignity, and in the next portion of the film, he puts up passive resistance to the notion of treating the poor for free. His main act of rebellion is to resist wearing the drab doctor's togs.

In the course of several days, Yasumoto sees an old man die, observes an operation on a young woman (from which he faints), and is fooled into helping a madwoman who has set out to stab him, as she has others.

This episode culminates in the slow death of Sahachi (Tsutomu Yamakazi). A hanger-on at the clinic, he seems to have devoted his life to doing good works there. But he is himself ill, and on his deathbed recounts a harrowing, and moving, tale of desire and tragedy, which spurred him in his path toward doing good works. This flashback is something of a precursor to a similar one in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Listening to this tale with the clinic's patients and employees, Yasumoto finds himself unaccountably moved. The next day, in the most quietly inspiring moment in the film, he finally dons the doctor's uniform and sets about to become a part of the community.

But his trials are not over. Yasumoto receives a visit evoking his own bad memories. Then Red Beard drags him to a brothel nearby to rescue an abused child (this portion of the narrative is based on dire facts about prostitution in 19th century Japan). They wrest the withdrawn, ill-tempered child, named Otoyo (Terumi Niki), after a dazzling fight between Red Beard and the brothel's bodyguards, in which the good doctor uses his knowledge of the human body to carefully fracture many bones. Bearing Otoyo back to the clinic, Yasumoto is told by Red Beard that the girl will be his first patient (and at this point there is an intermission).

Now that Yasumoto is integrated into the environment, his task is to acclimate Otoyo to a non-abusive way of life. He helps her overcome her immediate illness, but then he too falls ill. In return, Otoyo cares for Dr. Yasumoto. Kurosawa's insight is that often the best means for overcoming one's personal woes is to dedicate oneself to the aid of others, but also he is illustrating a chain of "good," which culminates in Otoyo helping a young boy (Yoshitaka Zushi) through his mortal illness.

III. Why Red Beard is a Masterpiece

Ostensibly based on a novel by Shugoro Yamamoto (who also penned the source for AK's films Sanjuro and Dodeskaden), 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 not only over most of Kurosawa's films, but over most movies in Japan, where it is revered as a "must see."

Akahige is another lesson in attention to detail — a lesson fruitlessly taught in the past by Welles, Ophuls, Kubrick, Hitchcock, Ford, Scorsese, and so many others. Kurosawa's care with the story and image is masterly (it took the director a year to shoot the film). Everything in this movie holds together.

IV. So Why did Kurosawa and Mifune Break Up?

Officially, nobody knows. And you're not going to find out from Galbraith's book The Emperor and the Wolf (Faber and Faber, 823 pages, $40, ISBN 0 571 19982 8). Though Galbraith does a massive job of accounting for the making of almost all the films by Kurosawa with and without Mifune, and also Mifune's whole career, it reads too much like a play-by-play chronicle. And may I also say that it has the worst index I've seen in a while. When you finally find "Mifune, separation of Kurosawa and," it has 14 citations, almost none of which have substance, and it leaves out one page (384) that goes a long way to explaining what may have caused the break up.

Though the book can't or won't give a definitive answer to this pressing question, one can guess just from watching Red Beard. In the past, Mifune would have played the young doctor, and one of Kurosawa's stock company members would have played Red Beard. But now, Mifune was old enough to play the wise sensei. And that may have been the problem. Either the director or the actor may have realized that Mifune may have simply outgrown the director's films. It's hard to imagine Mifune in any of Kurosawa's later films the way we have them now (though they might have been different with him in them). The union of Mifune and Kurosawa was a long phase, but it was a phase. Neither of them could live up to the characters they had created on the screen.

V. The DVD

Criterion has done another marvelous job with its DVD release of a Akahige. The single disc contains the whole movie (which is over three hours long) and offers a very clean anamorphic transfer (2.35:1). An eight-page insert reminds us that the transfer was "created on a Sony Vialta Datacine form a 35mm fine-grain master positive. To further enhance the image, the MTI Digital Restoration System was used to remove thousands of instances of dirt, debris, and scratches." Red Beard looks better than it ever has, on tape or Laserdisc.

But Criterion isn't finished. The disc also recreates the original release 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, whose book The Warrior's Camera is the only competing text to rival Donald Richie's groundbreaking tome. The great thing about Criterion tracks is that, with rare exceptions, the speakers come prepared. This means that sometimes Prince comes across like he is reading from a 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. There's also an eight-page production booklet with an excerpt from Donald Richie's book.

— D.K. Holm

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© 2002, The DVD Journal