Red Beard (1965)
A meditation on the power of human kindness dressed as a coming of age story, Red Beard glorifies those who would forgo glory in the thankless service of others.
The film centers around Yatsumoto, who begins an apprenticeship at a public clinic as an ambitious, young doctor. He unwillingly joins at the behest of his parents and the father of his former fiancé, who is also a prominent doctor. He opportunistically hopes that by doing their will now, he will be secured an important position. Meanwhile, the spoiled Yatsumoto is offended by everything from the clinic’s bland uniforms to the heavy-handed authority of its director.
Dr. Niide, the titular “Red Beard”, is brilliantly portrayed by Toshiro Mifune in his last role with Akira Kurosawa, ending a filmmaking partnership that had spanned 16 films in 17 years. Mifune plays Niide as a gruff, all-knowing eccentric, as schooled in human behavior as medicine. Yatsumoto takes tenuous first steps out of opportunism into Niide’s mindset of service, though by the film’s end he is ready to take up Red Beard’s mantle and submit his future to serve those who need him most.
Kurosawa’s film is most compelling in its thematic layering, its use of minor characters to portray good deeds to passing from person to person. One sequence displays this effect: Early on in Yatsumoto’s apprenticeship, he and Niide make a house call to a brothel. There, they meet Otoyo, a child the brothel owner intends to turn into a prostitute and whose troubles have resulted in a high fever and deep emotional distress caused by the death of her family. The doctors remove Otoyo to the clinic where Niide declares her to be Yatsumoto’s first patient, who tenderly nurses her back to health; however, her mental well-being is slower in coming.
Yatsumoto’s empathy over the obvious psychic trauma endured by the young girl moves him another step closer to the enlightenment of self-sacrifice as represented in Dr. Niide. It is Yatsumoto’s own fever, brought on through his selfless care of Otoyo, that finally brings the young girl out of her intricately constructed defenses. She becomes able to feel again, so much so that she adopts the neighborhood “sneak thief,” a young boy named Choji, who steals gruel from the clinic’s kitchen. The clinics’ kitchen staff initially chide Otoyo for patronizing Choji but are finally won over by her kindness, even to the point where they surreptitiously help her in her promise to bring him kitchen leftovers.
The ritual suicide by poisoning of Choji’s family, from which the boy himself only narrowly escapes, offers perhaps the film’s most essential scene. Choji lies on the brink of death, and, beside themselves with grief, Otoyo and the kitchen staff scream the boy’s name down a well. Local custom has it that the newly dead thusly can be “called back” to the land of the living. Kurosawa’s camera pans down the well to show the faces of the mourners reflected on the surface of the water. They “call” to themselves; their concern is just as much a catalyst to one another as a blessing to him.
The enduring message of Red Beard is that of the long reach of human kindness. Kurosawa diagrams the difficult kindnesses done to Yatsumoto, Otoyo, and Choji, which each, in turn, benefits others down the continuing chain of human experience. Yatsumoto’s transformation is told through imagery as stark and unflinching as its moral claims; both stay with the viewer, continuing the chain. — Nathan Pensky