Friday, January 29, 2010

Kurosawa Centennial: Red Beard

Dr. Kyojō Niide is the House M.D. of Nineteenth Century Edo. Actually, Niide’s bedside manner is not that bad with his needy patients, but he terrifies his under-compensated subordinates at his free charity clinic. He offers a heck of an education though in Akira Kurosawa’s Red Beard (trailer here), one of the richly diverse films screening during Film Forum’s retrospective celebration of the Kurosawa centennial.

Red represents a significant turning point in Kurosawa’s career. Not only would it be his final black-and-white film, it would also be his last screen collaboration with actor Toshirō Mifune, with whom the director would have a falling out during the course of the Red’s prolonged shooting schedule. Not surprisingly, Mifune appears as the film’s burly, no-nonsense title character, Dr Niide, nicknamed “Red Beard” in honor of his distinctively hued facial hair.

In addition to medicine, Niide also knows most of the town’s scandals, which allows him to shake down wealthy patients to fund his charity clinic. He can also lay a beat-down on anyone foolish enough to hinder him on a mission of mercy, as a gang of pimps and lowlifes learn first-hand. However, it is not the sort of practice the arrogant young Dr. Noboru Yasumoto envisioned for himself. Unfortunately, he has been temporarily consigned to Niide’s service following the embarrassing termination of his engagement.

A contest of wills naturally ensues, as the petulant Yasumoto sulks and shirks, hoping Niide will eventually send him away in disgust. Yeah sure, get Toshirō Mifune to back down—good luck with that. Of course, as series of episodic crises unfold at the clinic, Yasumoto has a dramatic change of heart.

Thanks to several elaborately constructed sets, Niide’s clinic seems like a very real place with its own peculiar rhythms. Against this evocative backdrop, musician-turned actor Yūzō Kayama is reasonably convincing portraying Yasumoto’s evolution from snob to earnest do-gooder. Appropriately stern and blunt, Mifune is always great fun to watch in all his scenes. Yet, the rest of the ensemble performances are quite sensitive, even affecting, particularly Terumi Niki as Otoyo, a young girl Niide and Yasumoto rescue from a brothel. Indeed, her redemptive relationship with the younger doctor provides some of the film’s best moments.

While Red is quite episodic, the overarching story of Yasumoto’s humanist awakening is still rather rewarding. At over three hours in length, it also represents an even better value for your ticket buying dollar than Kurosawa’s The Idiot. It is a big, heart-on-its-sleeve melodrama, spiced with some pungent attitude and the occasional smack-down courtesy of Mifune. Well worth savoring even if it is not in the top tier of Kurosawa’s masterpieces, Red screens at Film Forum this coming Tuesday (2/2) as part of their continuing Kurosawa centennial retrospective.