Indeed, if there ever was one movie I would recommend to an aspiring doctor, it would be that three-hour Japanese 19th century drama. The film teaches humility and empathy, in a discipline where any feeble soul would easily be lured into arrogance and confidence to belong to a privileged class and intellectual elite. It's the perfect antidote against a conception of medicine as an instrument of social ascension, betraying its very purpose, something deeply rooted in humanity's instinct for survival which, over history, didn't only mean curing the body, but the soul as well. Medicine doesn't always prevent death but if one could die in happiness, then somewhat the job was done.
So we're in 1965, in a two-decade career that counts at least five other masterpieces, Kurosawa, at his artistic peak, had reached the kind of peaceful maturity that invites the crucial question: "now, what?" And when an artist starts questioning his mortality, generally looks for the right canvas to draw the right existential questions and allow the viewers to see shades of truths not through preachy monologues but characters whose actions would speak statements about the value of life, and death for that matter. Indeed, behind every agonizing patient, there's a story. A final breath is only the 'last' link of a chain that crossed both muds and gardens. At 55, Kurosawa didn't know he had still three decades to live, and took the opportunity of "Red Beard" to question existence through the intertwining lives of people in a free public clinic for the poor, they're young, old, living and dying and all have epiphanies of some sorts.
The film probably features one of the richest galleries of characters ever, there's absolutely no small role. I found myself surprisingly absorbed by the story of an elderly painter, abandoned by his wife and children, and whose final breaths were so excruciating they deserve a few words. So many films never dare to show death at its most straightforward state, you always see it from the observer's eye, one head gesture can signify that the beloved one has moved on, or sometimes, the final breath looks like falling to sleep, peacefully. Kurosawa doesn't sugarcoat it, death is disturbing, made of ugly noises and gasps and gulps. But death is still seen from the eye of the living, as if it meant a deliverance to the death and a transfer of pain to the living, a torch-passing moment so to speak. Emotional pain can either be driven by grief for the mourners or self-disappointment for the gruff head of the clinic, 'Red Beard', who realizes the limitations of science, if not his competence, and if it's not for the misery or ignorance of his patients, some would survive.
"Red Beard" is nicknamed so because of his unpronounceable name and the reddish beard he harbors the beard enhances his credibility as an authority figure and I must say the way Toshiro Mifune kept rubbing it reminded me of Takashi Shimura caressing his bald head in "Seven Samurai" one decade earlier. The disciple, the impetuous seventh Samurai gained maturity and became the natural born leader who speaks a few words but each with the resonance of a chapter of wisdom, Kurosawa and Mifune couldn't find a better way to conclude their partnership. Mifune started in "Drunken Angel" as a cocky young criminal who challenged a doctor (Shimura), talk about coming full-circle. Red Beard is the voice of reason of the film, a 'Godfather' figure, a living paradox: humble and modest but powerful enough to summon an overweight lord or bribe a banker, noble enough to take an underage prostitute under his protection but practical enough to know you can't make an omelet without breaking a few eggs (or bones) when the brothel thugs confront him.
In a scene of startling (and amusing) brutality but beautifully choreographed, he takes each man one by one and break their bones. He didn't seek brutality; it was the only way to take the young Otoyo from the paws of her madam. When neutralized, he checked each wound and told his assistant Yasumoto (Yuso Kayama) to heal them, because a good doctor shouldn't have done what he did. And as we're drawn into his practical philosophy, we also follow with fascinated eyes the metamorphosis of Yasumoto, from an arrogant and embittered little snob who resented the stinking place and its Spartan regime and acted like an immature contrarian to a man who could touch the true essence of medicine. The apprenticeships took many steps such as falling in the seductive trap of a dangerous nymphomaniac, fainting during a gruesome operation, witnessing a man's death or hearing the story of one of the most revered patients of the block.
It's the young prostitute subplot that will affect Yasumoto more profoundly in a way I won't spoil because it involves an interesting role switching and introduces a young little thief who'll allow the previously shell-shocked Otoyo to bloom into a protective mother figure. And that's the key of Red Beard's conception of medicine, it's the very knowledge of these limitations that forces the doctor to know about his patients and to let them know each other, because in each story, we can find keys that open closed doors inside our own souls. The film might be three-hour long but it was the only sustainable length for such a film that give a substantial role to everyone: doctors, patients and even the kitchen staff.
"Red Beard" is an optimistic ode to life and humanity, sublimated by a beautiful black-and-life photography with the bold starkness of a Caravaggio painting or the contemplative melancholy of a Bergman movie and a lighting that makes eyes look so eerily alive, maybe because they saw too much of death. There's no white uniform in "Red Beard", no stethoscope, certainly no sexy nurse and nothing in the vicinity of the medical world as we perceive it but it's certainly the best film about medicine.