RED BEARD (Akira Kurosawa, 1965)

I must see a film with my own eyes. When Donald Richie describes the look of Akira Kurosawa’s black-and-white Akahige as “actual,” as “a kind of meticulously detailed Tokugawa-period newsreel,” I don’t know what he is talking about. Kurosawa’s episodic melodrama about the weathered head of a charity clinic in the early 1800s, and the man’s influence on a rebellious young staff doctor, seems to me painfully affected, that is to say, poetical, in its visual form. Artsy-fartsy we once called movies like this, not newsreely.
     Nor can I quite believe it when Richie refutes criticism that Akahige is sentimental. How else does one describe the moment when Dr. Yasumoto finally relents and dons his clinic outfit, what with the build-up (including his being told by a dying patient he should wear it so that the poor know by sight that he will help them), the swelling music as he puts it on, and the commotion among nurses this causes? Richie raves about Akahige but disparages Kurosawa’s next film, a more imaginative and gripping study of impoverished lives, Dodesukaden (1970).*
     Akahige contains many good performances, the best of which is Toshiro Mifune’s as Dr. Kyojio Niidé, “Red Beard” (best actor, Venice, Japanese critics); however, it is Yasumoto, well played by Yuzo Kayama, who is the protagonist. It is he who is transformed by Niidé’s presence and ideas, in particular, that poverty causes illness and is therefore as much a medical as a political problem. Yasumoto had more or less been tricked into the clinic as his first medical post; at the end of the film, he decides to stay there.
     Kurosawa won Kinema Junpo Awards for best film and best direction, and other best film prizes from the Mainichi Film Concours and the Japanese critics.

* My choice of Akira Kurosawa’s ten best films, in order of preference:

Ikiru (1952)
Throne of Blood (1957)
Dreams (co-director, Ishirô Honda; 1990)
Seven Samurai (1954)
Dodesukaden (1970)
The Idiot (1951)
No Regrets for Our Youth (1946)
Stray Dog (1949)
Kagemusha (1980)
High and Low (1963)

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