When the young, enterprising, selfish Naboru Yasumoto (Yuzo Kayama) pays a visit to the Koishikawa Public Clinic, he doesn't expect it to turn into a long term "assignment." Well, it does, and he's quite the prick about it. Running the clinic, and at first coming across as the most agitated man on the planet, is Kyojio Niide (Toshiro Mifune), nicknamed Red Beard because of some red in his beard, whose unconventional methods and stoic demeanor hide the heart of a true altruist. Will the arrogant Yasumoto eventually see the nobility and worthiness of Niide's ways? Of course he will. Will there be lots of subplots with characters becoming ennobled after grave suffering? Of course there will. Will you cry like a little girl while Kurosawa plays your emotions like a fiddle? Of course you will.
They say Kurosawa is one of the most "western" of the Japanese directors and it's not difficult to see why. Many of his films feel like Hollywood pics of the '40s and '50s. From the Frank Capra structure of "suffering for a happy ending" of SCANDAL and IKIRU to the John Ford type presentation of the mythologized historical hero(s) of YOJIMBO and THE SEVEN SAMURAI, there's something in almost all of Kurosawa's films to remind us of good old North American (not including Canada, Canada can go to hell) filmmaking.
I guess that's why when I was watching RED BEARD I kept saying out loud (I talk to myself, doctors refer to it as "being a total loser psycho"), "Let's see, Mifune's Niide is so the John Wayne part and the third doctor, Mori (Yoshio Tsuchiya), who's mostly kept to the sidelines, well that's the Ben Johnson roll. Yasumoto would be the Jeffrey Hunter character and the young girl would be Natalie Wood," etc.
We've all seen this same type of story before unless you're an infant and RED BEARD is the first narrative you've ever experienced where the cocky youth is humbled and then shaped into a better person by an elder mentor, and the film gratifies on that premise. Allowing a series of concocted miseries to be resolved in emotionally satisfying ways, the film provides a wonderfully cathartic three-hour cry session. As an added bonus for people like my Uncle Merle who looked at the box and said, "THREE F--KING HOURS, screw this" there's the obligatory Toshiro Mifune kick'n some serious ass moment. (And this is some truly serious ass kick'n. We're talking broken bones jutting out of ruptured flesh ass kick'n.)
Familiarity doesn't a bad film make, and RED BEARD is yet another triumph from Kurosawa. Best of all, you don't need to be a scholar of Japanese history to appreciate it on a basic level and if you suddenly wish to know all the references to Japanese history you can listen to the audio commentary by "Kurosawa film scholar Stephen Price." Not only will Price tell you about the Japanese history relevant to the story, he'll also tell you the history of the production, its place in Kurosawa's catalogue, why a certain camera setup is so impressive, when a visual continuity error appears, and a whole lot more. Though Price's commentary is fascinating to a degree, it feels like film school in the "droning professor" way. After an hour of it, my girlfriend, Amstel Light, claims she caught me banging my head against a table in a desperate attempt to stay awake.
Without the commentary the film moves so quickly you'd never notice it was over three hours long; with the commentary it feels as if time has stopped.
Since this is a Criterion release you shouldn't be surprised to know that the picture quality is fantastic and the sound is quite good. The disc also includes a Japanese theatrical trailer and liner notes by Donald Richie. (That's Donald Richie and not the late Michael Ritchie, director of FLETCH, whose films THE CANDIDATE and SMILE are in some serious need of a Criterion release.)