Thank god for Toshirô Mifune. Heretical as it may be, I can’t say I’m a big fan of this one. This loose and only fitfully engaging drama marks a frustrating end to one of the great director/star collaborations in the cinema, and appropriately Mifune is by far the best thing about it.
Mifune plays the title character, one of those doctor types you see quite a lot in fiction who is both grizzly and deeply humane, and is never less than hypnotic. Often less than hypnotic, though, is Yuzo Kayama as the superficial main character Yasumoto who has, of course, only become a doctor for the money and the chicks. To be fair on Kayama, his performance is inevitably buried under the predictability of his character arc. Do you think perhaps the wise old man’s patient instruction and influence will turn the young man into a better doctor, and a better person? That was a rhetorical question. Nevertheless, Kayama cannot be excused for the frequent shots of him staring dimly off into space like George W. Bush at a press conference. Or perhaps those are the director’s fault.
Maybe I’m just cynical. Maybe I’m also missing something. Many great movies have predictable stories, of course, and there is much that is interesting about Red Beard‘s structure, namely its willingess to abandon its main narrative arc for longish periods to fill in subplots which have more of a tonal, thematic relationship to the main story than a causal one. And absolutely any black and white Tohoscope widescreen film is worth seeing at least once, this one being shot almost entirely with long lenses and the kind of visual grace you’d expect from Kurosawa.
Also among the movie’s saving graces are some standout moments, including a startlingly graphic surgery scene (“Her intestines are falling out! Shove them back in!”) and a downright bloody scary camera flourish involving a well. And it’s all capped off with a glorious closing long take, a minor masterpiece of camera movement and staging as the two main characters reconcile their respective futures, and Yasumoto makes the expected career decision. If only it carried the kind of emotional weight that was presumably supposed to be there.
Red Beard is not a bad movie, just a disappointing one. A rental rather than a buy for all but the (many, I suspect) Kurosawa completists. One of the critical quotes on the DVD cover says “Many directors still have never created one film equal to Red Beard“. That is undoubtedly true. It’s still not all that good, though.