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The Criterion Collection presents
Red Beard (1965)

"We can only fight poverty and ignorance, and cover up what we don't know."
- Red Beard (Toshiro Mifune)

Review By: Jon Danziger  
Published: November 10, 2002

Stars: Toshiro Mifune, Yuzo Kayama
Other Stars: Kyoko Kagawa, Terumi Niki, Yoshitaka Zushi, Kamatari Fujiwara, Tsutomu Yamazaki
Director: Akira Kurosawa

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 03h:05m:08s
Release Date: July 16, 2002
UPC: 037429168820
Genre: foreign

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

Those who haven't seen any Kurosawa films frequently seek out the right Western director with whom to compare the Japanese master, and in many respects the obvious one to point to is John Ford—what the cowboy is to Ford, the samurai is to Kurosawa, and just as Ford had John Wayne, Kurosawa had Toshiro Mifune. But Red Beard may have a greater affinity with the films of David Lean than with Ford's; at least it points out the inadequacy of the comparisons, as, for Westerners, anyway, Kurosawa towers over Japanese cinema in a way that no single American director does, from any period or in any genre.

Set with terrifically specific detail in the nineteenth century, the movie has a stately, almost leisurely approach—it runs better than three hours, and even includes a five-minute intermission. Yet though it's told in a rather grand manner, this isn't an attempt at epic filmmaking. (Kurosawa certainly was capable of that, perhaps most notably in Ran.) This movie has an intimacy that's more frequently associated with stories told on a smaller scale; for all its heft and weight, Red Beard is principally a coming-of-age story.

Yasumoto (Yuzo Kayama) is the callous young doctor newly assigned to the Koshikawa Clinic—he has studied in Nagasaki, and has been aiming to be a doctor to the shogunate, and this detour to the clinic, ministering to the poor, seems to him to be a terribly wrong turn. Yasumoto considers the clinic as little more than a warehouse for the sick and indigent, as essentially death's waiting room, and he's ready to believe all the worst things he's told about Dr. Niide, the clinic's director—the russet tint to Niide's facial hair has earned him the nickname Red Beard. (So we're told, anyway; the movie is in black & white.)

The title character is played by Kurosawa's leading man of choice, Toshiro Mifune, and he demonstrates the charisma and screen presence that made him such a towering figure in mid-century Japanese cinema. If you're used to seeing Mifune in other Kurosawa pictures, it's a little unsettling at first to be in his company here as a medical man who steadily keeps his own counsel; his confidence that brims over in movies like Yojimbo and Throne of Blood aren't part of Red Beard's repertoire. Instead, Mifune finds the soulfulness in the doctor, a good man in a hard world, laboring on behalf of those who cannot fight for themselves, against the nearly insurmountable obstacles that come from being in the lower social castes. The Japanese style of acting can be very different from the Western one, and while to my mind Mifune overdoes it with his character's trademark gesture—fiercely stroking his beard at emotional moments—it feels very much of a piece with the rest of the film. Whenever Mifune is on screen, he commands the attention of not only the audience, but of all the other characters in the movie.

There's something decidedly episodic to Yasumoto's journey from callow med student to caring doctor, and one might waggishly even compare his journey to that of Noah Wyle's character in the first season of E.R. But of course Kurosawa's craft is of the very highest caliber, and so this never feels like soap opera. Yasumoto falls prey to the charms of a clinic patient known only as "the mantis" (Kyoko Kagawa), for she seduces men and then kills them; only a bit of dumb luck and the instincts of Red Beard keep Yasumoto from peril. The most touching sequence comes toward the end of the film, when the clinic doctors rescue Otoyo (Terumi Niki), a 12-year-old orphan girl, from the local cathouse, where the proprietor is attempting to turn the girl into a prostitute; Otoyo is in dire medical straits, and becomes Yasumoto's first patient. He nurses her back to health, and she in turn repays her doctor's kindness by keeping a watchful eye on little Chobo (Yoshitaka Zushi), an urchin so hungry that he steals rice gruel from the clinic to feed himself and his family.

Another subplot concerns the prospects of marriage for Yasumoto, but it's not nearly as involving as the mentor/protégé relationship he has with Red Beard; Mifune may not get the bulk of the screen time, but as with, say, Professor Kingsfield in The Paper Chase, it's the teacher/student interactions that make for the most compelling viewing. It's not a film loaded with story surprises or action sequences, making it an obvious change of pace from High and Low, Kurosawa's previous film. But the pleasure in seeing Yasumoto come under Red Beard's influence, and in seeing the young doctor commit himself to a lifetime of caring for others, is the stuff of heroism and nobility. It's one of Kurosawa's many great triumphs here that, even in our jaded and frequently cynical age, we can unabashedly endorse this young man's choosing the road less traveled, and dedicating himself, unironically, to a life of service.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio2.35:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The black & white cinematography looks magnificent to begin with, and it's been lovingly restored by the good people at Criterion. Some damage on the print is inevitable on a movie made so many years ago, but Kurosawa's carefully composed images and striking use of light are well reproduced here. It's an altogether first-rate transfer.

Image Transfer Grade: A


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: Kurosawa attended to what his audience heard as carefully as any filmmaker, except perhaps for Orson Welles, and those efforts are generously rewarded on the restored 4.0 track. The audio content has been so conscientiously chosen by the filmmaker that the frequent silences are even more loaded, and in this transfer those silences are mighty pure, free of hiss, buzz and crackle. It's a feast for the ears, even for those of us who do not speak Japanese.

Audio Transfer Grade: A


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 38 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Kurosawa scholar Stephen Prince
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL

Extra Extras:
  1. Insert booklet with an essay by Donald Richie
Extras Review: There's something decidedly elegiac in this film, and Stephen Prince's excellent commentary track makes it clear just why that is: this was Kurosawa's last film with Mifune, his last film shot in black & white, and the last of his movies to be shot in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio. It is in many ways the transitional picture in the director's career, from the early whirlwind successes of movies like Seven Samurai and Rashomon, to the later, almost brooding works, such as Ran, Dreams and Kagemusha. Prince is obviously extraordinarily knowledgeable, and has come armed to the teeth with information, about Kurosawa's technique, about the state of Japanese medical practices in the nineteenth century, and about the significances of Red Beard in Kurosawa's oeuvre. My only quibble would be that he seems occasionally ill at ease in front of the microphone, and in the instances when he parts from his prepared text and makes observations about what we're watching, it's galvanizing stuff. I understand wanting to be prepared, but every now and then it feels like Prince is overprepared, and his voluminous notes get in the way of his knowledge and enthusiasm. Still, it's three hours of fascinating film history, and well worth a listen.

The accompanying brief essay by Donald Richie is from his book The Films of Akira Kurosawa, and the original trailer is fascinating especially for its glimpses of Kurosawa-san on the set, working with his actors.

Extras Grade: B


Final Comments

Red Beard may not be as highly regarded in the Kurosawa canon as Rashomon or Seven Samurai, but this crucial transitional film looks and sounds magnificent, and more than a hint of melancholy can be sensed in this final Kurosawa/Mifune collaboration. A marvelous disc sure to be treasured by Kurosawa devotees.


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