9 February 2003 | jandesimpson
"Red Beard" is the noble conclusion to Kurosawa's monochrome period which undoubtedly contained his finest work. Although there were beautifully choreographed action scenes still to come in "Kagemusha" and "Ran", nothing was quite the same after this quiet meditation on the stirrings of humanity in a dark and otherwise uncaring world. The period is early 19th century, the place a hospital for the socially impoverished run by a doctor who manages to combine idealism and pragmatism, the two essential ingredients needed to facilitate the emergence of enlightenment. Although the great Toshiro Mifune dominates the film as the hospital head, it is the effect of his presence on the young doctor who pays him a visit that is the main theme of the narrative. Yasumoto, selfish and ambitious, has no intention to begin with of devoting his services to the hospital but one by one his defences collapse as he learns from the example of an idealist who has shed all vestiges of selfishness. There are constant reminders that medicine was at a rudimentary stage in its development and of the dedication needed by pioneers at a time when most answers still remained unknown and everything was largely a matter of easing rather than curing. I would not claim that "Red Beard" is among Kurosawa's half dozen greatest works. At just over three hours it sprawls in a discursive way. A lengthy flashback of a dying patient's reasons for seeking a form of absolution rather impedes the narrative flow in spite of some impressive visuals of snowscapes and an earthquake. But then the structure of the whole film rather has the episodic quality of a soap opera where momentum is maintained by proceeding from one crisis to another. Nevertheless it is full of wonderfully contrasted sequences from the knockabout humour of Mifune applying his medical skills to warding off a group of assailants by breaking their limbs like matchsticks to the tender scene of the young doctor being nursed back from sickness by the girl rescued from enslavement in a brothel. And then there is the rain. Where would a Kurosawa film be without those torrential downpours to remind us of the physical discomfiture that a journey towards enlightenment entails.