Red Beard (1965)
2.35:1 (16x9 Enhanced)
Dolby Digital 2.0
Japanese with English subtitles
The Criterion Collection, $39.95

When Akira Kurosawa made Red Beard, he hardly could have known that the most prolific phase of his career was at an end. The legendary Japanese filmmaker had directed 23 features before he turned his attention to Red Beard, and in the years following its release in 1965, he would direct just seven more. But the intimate period drama was actually a professional watershed for Kurosawa in a number of ways, many of them aesthetic, and all of them are beautifully illustrated by this DVD from The Criterion Collection.

Kurosawa’s screenplay for Red Beard paired the novel Akahige by Shugoro Yamamoto with elements of Dostoevsky’s The Insulted and the Injured. The story begins with the arrival of Yasumoto (Yuzo Kayama), an ambitious medical student, at a rural health clinic whose waiting room overflows with the poor and elderly. "All of them would be better off dead," pronounces Yasumoto’s tour guide, an equally ambitious intern who can’t wait to pursue his career somewhere else. Yasumoto soon discovers that he is to be the clinic’s new intern, an assignment that pales in comparison to his dreams of serving the Shogunate. He complains loudly to anyone who will listen – and subsequently refuses to work – but clinic supervisor Dr. Niide (Toshiro Mifune), a.k.a. "Red Beard," simply bides his time. "Even bad food tastes good if you chew it well," the gruff Niide advises. "Same with our work here, if you try hard."

Yasumoto begins to come around after witnessing, for the first time, a few slow, painful, deaths; some patients die in silence, while others make heartbreaking confessions. At first, Yasumoto has trouble reconciling his training in Western medicine with Red Beard’s philosophy, which is that all illnesses have psychological underpinnings. But as Yasumoto becomes absorbed in the life of the clinic, listening and observing, he begins to see that the act of healing is far more complicated than he had imagined.

In creating supplements for this DVD, Criterion tapped two learned Kurosawa aficionados: Stephen Prince, who provides an informative audio commentary, and Japanese film scholar Donald Richie, whose notes on Red Beard from the book The Films of Akira Kurosawa comprise the disc’s liner notes. Despite a few scratches visible in a handful of scenes, this high-definition transfer (from a fine-grain master positive) is admirably sharp, and the new stereo sound mix (from the original four-track magnetic master) is excellent.

Prince points out that with Red Beard, "a lot of things in Kurosawa’s career come to an end." For one thing, the film was the director’s last collaboration with actor Mifune, whose popularity had contributed greatly to Kurosawa’s financial success; after Red Beard, and for the rest of his life, Kurosawa struggled to cobble together funding for his films.

Filmed in the 2.35:1 Toho Scope format, Red Beard was also the director’s final widescreen film, and shot after shot showcases his mastery of widescreen composition and framing. An example is Yasumoto’s first meal at the clinic, which features four men kneeling in a horizontal row, Yasumoto at one end and Red Beard at the other, with each man’s shadow neatly filling in the spaces between.

Red Beard was also Kurosawa’s last black-and-white film. Cinematographers Takao Saitô and Asakazu Nakai, who collaborated with the director throughout his career, gave Red Beard a look that Richie describes as "burnished," and there really is no better word for it. Action often unfolds in pools of light created by a single lantern or a few candles, and even the smallest such scenes are full of depth and texture. (The depiction of one patient’s deathbed confession, which is witnessed by layers of friends clustered around a single lantern next to his bed, evokes Rembrandt’s finest Biblical scenes.)

Prince observes that Red Beard showcases a cinematographic method that Kurosawa employed consistently in subsequent movies: filming with multiple cameras set at 90-degree angles to one another. (This approach was facilitated by his reliance on telephoto lenses, which narrowed the cameras’ fields of view.) Although this method occasionally disrupted visual continuity, Kurosawa embraced it for the freedom it allowed his actors, because he never had to interrupt their work to cut in for close-ups.

Richie notes that Kurosawa brought the same obsessive attention to detail to Red Beard that he brought to his more grandiose epics. The production built the entire village, complete with back alleys and side streets, using century-old or aged wood and tiling. (Much of the set never appears on film, but it became a major tourist attraction during the two-year shoot.) "I wanted to make something so magnificent that people would just have to see it, and to do this … we were willing to undergo any hardship," Kurosawa told Richie.

Red Beard’s emphasis on spiritual growth was a theme that Kurosawa would never really revisit. As Prince remarks, "The film is really the end of heroes in his work." Kurosawa’s determination to show us every step that leads to Yasumoto’s transformation is not only a vote of confidence in his audience – the film runs 185 minutes – but also an expression of hope. At one point, after Yasumoto has collapsed from emotional exhaustion, Red Beard muses that the young man simply "saw too much of the world at once." As Kurosawa shows us, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

 – Rachael Bosley

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© 2002 American Society of Cinematographers.