Akira Kurosawa’s Red Beard, a story of deep compassion and transformation, made in 1965, marks the end of the most active phase of his career. Kurosawa is at the height of his powers here, combining the two greatest strengths of his career: his exquisite use of the camera, and the powerful presence of his favored star, Toshiro Mifune in the title role. In what would be their final film together, Mifune dominates every moment he is on the screen, and many that he is not. These two elements serve to enhance its story of a young, educated doctor coming to work at a hospital, unwillingly at first, with an old and experienced veteran who is set in his ways
Kurosawa’s strengths are immediately evident in the film’s opening sequence, about eight minutes long, which depicts a tour through a hospital. Dr. Yasumoto has just arrived at the village hospital to pay a call on Dr. Niide (who we find out everyone calls Red Beard, for obvious reasons). The camera follows the young doctor into the hospital, and then through it, as he receives a tour from an outgoing and rather cynical young doctor, Tsugawa. More often than not in this sequence, Kurosawa holds the doctors in a two shot, giving us only a view of the immediate surroundings – enough to see sick patients and workers, but not much else. In this decision, Kurosawa creates a cramped and overcrowded feeling in the hospital. Since Tsugawa is handling the tour, Yasumoto’s picture of this place immediately becomes tainted. And Kurosawa communicates the transference of this attitude beautifully by the amount of time these two spend in the same shot together. It’s as if Tsugawa is passing on his legacy of cynicism and angst to Yasumoto in this rather brief opening sequence. The genius of Kurosawa is that we would probably know that even if we removed the dialogue. He is using his formal decisions to contribute to the narrative.
The most interesting shot during the tour comes after they have passed the poor patients, the pharmacy, and the clinic itself. Kurosawa places the camera at the far end of a darkened hallway leading to the men’s ward. Initially, the camera looks as if it’s at a low angle, so that if the doctors were to venture into the hallway, they would literally be descending into darkness. This of course fits beautifully with their current mindset as they hesitate and gaze down it. Yet when they finally step into the hallway, the camera now behind them, we see an area full of activity and light. It’s at this point the two doctors encounter a room of sick men, and we viewers get the first sense this place may not be as bad as it seems. The sick man Sahachi is devoted to Red Beard, realizing that while his rules may require some extra discomfort, they are always in the best interests of the patients. In an otherwise one-sided presentation of the hospital by Tsugawa, this moment stands out, signaling that all may not be as it seems.
Finally, they arrive. Kurosawa has Red Beard’s back to us as the young doctors enter his room. They kneel before him in a perfectly symmetrical shot, the parties in the room forming a triangle, an arrangement Kurosawa returns to time and again both in this film and in others. Here, with Red Beard at the center of the triangle, the attention is all on him. As he turns though, Kurosawa cuts to a close-up of Mifune, glaring powerfully at the new young doctor. He is in charge of his domain, and he is not to be trifled with. In the next cut, Kurosawa pulls wider and to the right. Dr. Yasumoto is now in the center of the shot, under the gaze and questioning of Red Beard, the pressure and focus is all on him. He eventually breaks away under Red Beard’s piercing gaze, which places him at a disadvantage in the relationship, even if he doesn’t recognize it yet. What’s so great about this whole sequence is the way Kurosawa uses the camera and the framing of the shots to communicate narrative details, significant moments, and the personalities of his characters. That he is able to communicate so much in just the images is one of the things that make his films such rich experiences. The dialogue is only one layer of meaning in the film. The framing is another; the editing another. And so on.
Which leads me the biggest reason why I appreciate this particular film of Kurosawa’s – the images themselves are the most beautifully framed he has ever put to film. I think of that introduction to Red Beard. Or during Yasumoto’s angry period, as he reclines in the garden, near the nurse, Osugi, and they are separated by a twisting tree branch cutting through the middle of the frame. So much is communicated there, in the contrast of her worry and his carefree spirit to her selflessness and his selfishness. They may be together, but they are further apart than one might think. I also think of what could be viewed as a throwaway moment, when Masae comes to visit him at the hospital, and he refuses to see her – she stands alone, outside the hospital, on a lonely stone path. She has made a sacrifice to come, made herself vulnerable to Yasumoto, and he refuses to even acknowledge her presence. Even in this brief moment, we are given a glimpse, sans dialogue, of the character of Masae.
The most striking images in the film as a whole occur when Yasumoto is confronted by an insane patient, called only The Mantis, for she likes to kill the men she’s involved with. We first see a lit candle just below his foot, as he reclines in his typical, lazy fashion. She enters his room meekly, immediately kneeling, hardly taking up any space. He, full of himself as usual, taken in by her humility, and thinking he’ll be able to cure her, seizes the opportunity and faces her, the single candle lit between them. The fire is there lighting the space, providing the opportunity for conversation, yet as he moves closer to her, and the candle, we sense the fire taking on a more dangerous, even menacing character. When he finds himself virtually on top of it, we know for sure he has entered into a terrible situation, merely waiting for what must surely be a tragic conclusion.
It is these kinds of images I love in Red Beard. Of course, the film itself isn’t half bad either. The clash of personalities between young and old, inexperienced and experienced, arrogant and compassionate, takes on a complexity not unlike Kurosawa’s previous film, High and Low. In Red Beard, you have two people who both have a kind of “highness” and “lowness” about them and it is for us to sort out just who is who and what is what. No doubt if we look closely, Kurosawa’s beautifully framed images will offer many riches to that end.