Let’s start this New Year off right.
- Reblogged from † Angelique est brune †
Let’s start this New Year off right.
Akira Kurosawa’s Red Beard is the sweet spot of my cinema viewing experience, for me, the best film I have ever had the privilege of seeing. It is hard for me to talk sensibly about the film without gushing; when something hits me this hard the rigor of description gives way to a want of confession. I was never much of a theist, and am for the most part disparaging towards the cult of humanity, but there are a scattered few master artisans which I feel holds more for me than any God could, and Kurosawa is among that legion. To me Kurosawa was Red Beard, and as much as the story is about so many other things, it speaks also to me of a depth of humanity and common decency that charts throughout his ubiquitous career, here culminating in one formidable persona, the titular head doctor around whom the world surely pivots.
The samurai swords are for the most part set aside in this epic drama about, on the surface at least, the moral duty of medical practitioners in a rural clinic during the end of Tokugawa period Japan. It tells the story of a young doctor, Noboru Yasumoto, who has been appointed to an unglamorous position remedying the poor at the behest of the principled but stubborn head doctor, Red Beard. It is a familiar coming of age story, teacher inspires pupil to a life of virtue, and on the surface it is very much an ordinary story. It is the details (and in the Criterion essay Donald Ritchie speaks of the ‘patina’ of the film, that of the look, but, I would argue also, the feel, a grit nestled in crevices) which makes this film extraordinary.
Kurosawa was a massive fan of Dostoevsky, and made a fairly mediocre film adaptation of his novel,The Idiot. It is Red Beard, however, that feels the most Dostoevskian of Kurosawa’s films. Here too, characters wantonly express their sorrows and speak of darker human actions than traditional cinema is accustomed to; here too, the naked expressions of emotion form beneath feverish brows while the harsh realities of life stand in absurd juxtaposition with civic orthodoxy. At it’s most tragic, Kurosawa interjects a dying man’s story midway through the film which takes on a stillborn life of it’s own within the dreary confines of the clinic, in a way that so reminds me of fragments of The Idiot that I am sure the spirit of Dostoevsky was foremost in Kurosawa’s mind upon writing and directing it.
Red Beard’s clinic is run like a monastery, the spiritual analogue is not far from the surface throughout, but for Yasumoto this is no easy ascension. There is grit and indulgence in the ways that emotions spill out of this story. To borrow from Whitman, Red Beard is the kind of film that contains multitudes, the feelings it evoke about how to live quiver from the stoic to the heartfelt, the gushing to the clinical, it unsettles by its emotional complexity. The conventional story beats are there, but it is how out of proportion its realism gets in tandem with these conventions that stir, at least for me, an awakening of spirit. It breaks the boundaries of a film while seeming not to, it feigns meek and understandable, and in the corners of its narrative beats an intractable heart.
Of course, the craftsmanship of Red Beard is also impeccable. Kurosawa’s mis-en-scene is a tableau upon which every necessary piece of information is supplied in order to enhance the dramatic impetus of the scene. Every detail is a cue for the viewer’s eye to discern the meaning of events in this world of pure cinema. In contradistinction to the pure cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, Kurosawa’s supplies the emotional underpinnings of the scenes going beyond the requirements of plot progression. There is a tenderness which I sometimes feel Western artists have greater difficulty depicting, a precarious balance between melodrama as decadence and melodrama as just a different lens to experience drama through. My ideal cinematic aesthetic leans towards realism, however, as the works of Kurosawa have showed me, the same depth of experience can be earned through an explicit artifice that is nonetheless so finely managed that it papers over the cracks left revealed by lesser films. The restraint from overt musical cues and teary-eyed close-ups are perhaps part of the distinction from Kurosawa’s kind of melodrama, there is little pandering to the audience, and yet when license is taken to emphasize a certain point explicitly, with the mode of acting, lighting, or camera angle, it is done not as a short cut to the desired response, but as a culmination of the response already earned.
And then there is Toshiro Mifune in the principal role as the wise old sensei, Red Beard. Mifune feels larger than life to me in a way that no other actor-celebrity seems. Some director’s commentaries I have listened to remark that Toshiro Mifune lacked a certain polish to his acting which in films outside Kurosawa became more noticeable; and I think Toshiro illustrates a point I have made previous: it is not always the acting that makes the part but the actor, the living being that that person is needs to be considered as part of the value of the performance. It is the aura of Toshiro Mifune more so than any skill of acting that makes him great.
Hyperbolic praise will never suffice for the genuine feeling I have for Kurosawa and Toshiro, and in particular, this film of theirs, the last black and white film they made together, the very pinnacle of their success.