I profile Akira Kurosawa’s Red Beard for Turner Classic Movies.
The final collaboration between director Akira Kurosawa and Japanese icon Toshiro Mifune is one of Kurosawa’s most ambitious, personal, and heartfelt films. Set in 17th century Edo, Red Beard (1965) features Mifune as Dr. Kyojo Niide, known as Red Beard to the interns and nurses at the public clinic and hospital he runs in the slums of the city. The three hour film follows the education of the spoiled, insolent young doctor Yasumoto (Yuzo Kayama, Mifune’s co-star in 1962’s Sanjuro and Toho’s hottest young star at the time). He has been educated in the state-of-the-art Dutch medical schools in Nagasaki and has every expectation of an appointment to the court medical staff, thanks to his family’s position and connections to the court. Sent by his father to visit the clinic, he’s appalled at the primitive conditions and the pathetic state of the patients and dumbfounded when he’s assigned to intern under the charge of Niide. Gentle beneath his gruff exterior and bearded face, but fierce in the face of greed and selfishness and cruelty and, worst of all, indifference, Mifune’s Niide is the fighting angel of the slums who has dedicated his life to tending the poor; he fights not just disease and abuse, but poverty and ignorance. “He has the body of a man in his forties, but his wisdom is like that of someone in their sixties or seventies,” explained Mifune of the character. “Nobody really knows how old he is. He’s ageless.” But Niide is also a practical man well aware of the real world in which he lives and works. When beset by a dozen young thugs who arrive to retrieve a patient, Niide fights them off with a mixture of martial arts and medical insight, wrenching limbs and breaking bones until they all are left writhing in pain on the floor. Being a doctor, he’s careful not to cause any permanent damage.
Read the complete feature here. Plays on Turner Classic Movies on June 11. Also available on DVD from Criterion.