The Ten Percent: Red Beard [Akahige] (1965)

Japanese Poster for Akahige (Red Beard).
Japanese Poster for Akahige (Red Beard).

“Ninety percent of everything is crud.” – Theodore Sturgeon

Hello, Readers All, and welcome to another edition of “The Ten Percent,” where K. Dale Koontz and I take turns talking about the corollary to Sturgeon’s Law, and all of the things that fall into the 10% that is anything but crud. This week I’m going to take a look at Red Beard [Akahige] (1965), one of the greatest of Kurosawa Akria’s films, which is really saying something, because over the course of a directorial career which spanned fifty-two years and thirty-three films, Kurosawa managed to flip Sturgeon’s Law on its head, and then some. There might be 5% of Kurosawa’s films that are arguably crud, but even in his earliest efforts, there is a gleam of genius.

Red Beard finds Kurosawa at the height of his humanist period, and the film marks a turning point in his career in several respects, not the least of which is that Red Beard is the final film that Kurosawa and the great actor Mifune Toshiro ever made together. Both would go on to continued success and increasing fame, but somehow neither was ever quite able to reach the pinnacles that they had scaled together again. Red Beard also marked the beginning of a strange period during which Japanese critics turned against his work as being “too Western” and accused him of abandoning his Japanese roots in favor of currying to an international audience where he was becoming increasingly popular. For the next two decades, Kurosawa would be something of an outcast from Japan’s film industry, and would face extreme difficulties in finding backing for his work. Despite this, he persevered, and at 75 years of age Kurosawa would astonish the world – and Japan – once again with 1985’s Ran.

Red Beard is ostensibly a bildungsroman about Dr. Yasumoto Noboru (Kayama Yuzo) a young, hot-shot doctor from a noble family in early 19th century Japan. He has just returned from studying Western medical techniques in Nagasaki, and expects his family connections to land him a place on the Shogun’s medical staff at court. Instead, he finds himself obliged to work for a time as an intern at a public clinic run by Dr. Niide Kyojo (Mifune), nicknamed Red Beard because of his full beard that he tugs on when agitated. The clinic caters to the city’s poorest denizens, people whom Yasumoto considers completely underserving of his attentions.  So far so good, but Yasumoto’s journey from youthful arrogance and contempt to useful humility and compassion is really only a sub-plot. Yasumoto is the audience’s viewpoint character – we see things through his eyes, and learn about Dr. Niide and the clinic as he does.

(Left to right) Sahachi (Yamazaki Tsutomo), Dr. Yasumoto (Kayama Yuzo), and Dr. Niide/Red Beard (Mifune Toshiro) in Kurosawa's Red Beard
(Left to right) Otoyo (Niki Terumi), Dr. Yasumoto (Kayama Yuzo), and Dr. Niide/Red Beard (Mifune Toshiro) in Kurosawa’s Red Beard

Kurosawa is actually doing something much, much bigger, however. Red Beard is several stories-within-the-story, a mise en abyme that, in the words of Kurosawa scholar Donald Richie:

All of us believe in a chain of evil and are firmly convinced that bad begets bad… In Red Beard, however, the director is offering the proposition (startling, even alarming) that good also begets good.

Why “startling, even alarming”? Because, for Kurosawa, and the characters in Red Beard the good that begets good is not the good of socio-cultural convention, or the passive good of living properly, or even the good of compassion. Rather, the good that matters, the good that propagates is an extraordinarily active good, requiring that one look with honesty upon the world, and see the pain, despair, the sheer hell of life, and then, having looked, go out into it and fight like hell to make it better – on the front lines, for even just one person, even if you have to do something you consider ignoble or bad to achieve the good. Red Beard goes through and beyond compassion and on to the terrifying injunction that each and every one of us is able to achieve this “chain of good,” we just have to go out and start forging the links.

Don’t misunderstand me; Red Beard is not preachy, or even moralistic in tone. Kurosawa is a master storyteller, and so instead of exhorting, he shows us. Yasumoto must first bear witness to the gasping, choking, death of one of the clinic’s patients, dying after a life spent searching for his long-lost daughter, taken from him by his unfaithful wife and her lover.  The scene is fraught, underscored by music that is both tragic and somehow fulfilling. Yasumoto is horrified. Niide refers to a person’s last moments of life as “solemn.” Later, the dead man’s daughter appears at the clinic looking for her father, and bringing with her two young children sired on her by her mother’s lover while her mother looked on. Niide helps her evade a murder charge (she finally killed her rapist) and finds her a new place to live, but has to blackmail the local magistrate in order to do so, for which he berates himself as a bad man.

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Doing bad to do good: Red Beard takes on the whorehouse thugs.

Niide also rescues a sick, pre-pubescent girl, Otoyo (Niki Terumi) from a whorehouse, taking down an even dozen of the place’s thuggish guards in one of the most accurate depictions of the realities of bully boys v. trained martial artist even filmed, up to and including several compound fractures. Again, Niide berates himself and immediately orders the men to be tended to. He rescues the girl, however, who, in being unwillingly treated by Yasumoto, rescues the young doctor just as he awakens the girl to the existence of goodness by his ministrations. She, in turn, will reach out to a starving little thief, and so on, and so on. A chosen family is formed at the clinic, and the links of the chain are forged onscreen one by one by one, a trail of humanity through a bitter and cruel world. It is a magnificent achievement, neither maudlin nor saccharine, merely one of the most moving, profoundly human films ever made.

One of the stories within the story: Otoyo (Niki Terumi) and Sahachi (Yamazaki Tsutomo) meet for the first time.
One of the stories within the story: Onaka (Kuwano Miyuki) and Sahachi (Yamazaki Tsutomo) meet for the first time.

You should watch it. Be warned, however: you might come away changed. And that, Readers All, is why Red Beard is part of The Ten Percent.

Ensley F. Guffey and K. Dale Koontz are co-authors of Wanna Cook? The Complete, Unofficial Companion to Breaking Bad, and of the forthcoming Dreams Given Form: The Unofficial Companion to the Babylon 5 Universe (fall 2016). You can find Dale online at her blog unfetteredbrilliance.blogspot.com and on Twitter as @KDaleKoontz. Ensley hangs out at solomonmaos.com and on Twitter as @EnsleyFGuffey.

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