I loved it. I'd recommend it to anyone, which isn't true of all Akira Kurosawa.
Of course, some people might be reluctant to watch a three-hour black-and-white film in a foreign language. Don't laugh. These freaks deserve our pity. The running time might sound intimidating, but compare it with how long it takes even to watch a short TV series. Of course a series is broken up into episodes, but similarly no one's forcing you to watch a film all at once. I didn't. I've watched Red Beard bit by bit over a few days and all of it was great.
More specifically, it's one of Kurosawa's most entertaining and accessible works. It doesn't feel slow, instead moving along quite briskly. The second half is funny. It'll make you happy, it has cool characters and none of them are samurai.
It's set in a poor Edo district in the 19th century and the main character, played by Yuzo Kayama, is a recent graduate of a Dutch medical school in Nagasaki. He's from a wealthy family and he's ambitious. He wants to be the shogun's personal physician and get rich treating cataracts. Imagine his horror on being sent to a clinic run by Red Beard (Toshiro Mifune), where all the patients are peasants and the doctors have no money or social status. This is funny. Kayama's a spoiled brat, but he hasn't realised this and he thinks he's in the right. He thinks he's a better doctor than the veteran Mifune, for a start, despite never even having performed an operation. (When first called in to help with one, he faints.) He also refuses to treat ordinary patients because he says their conditions aren't interesting enough, so anyone could heal them.
Kayama ends up going on bad behaviour strike, breaking all of Mifune's rules in the hope of getting thrown out. It's Mahoney's tactic in the first Police Academy film, essentially. However these protests are a waste of time, because Mifune's playing a bloody-minded old sawbones who bullies and browbeats everyone in sight and only cares about the good of his patients.
In time, Kayama learns better. He sees what real problems look like. He spends time with various patients, all memorable in their own ways. Some have mental issues, such as the beautiful woman locked up in the garden who's killed three men. Others are desperately poor, or have had calamities befall them. Sahachi (Tsutomu Yamazaki) has a terrible story to tell about himself and his wife, although to be honest to me she doesn't sound quite right in the head.
In other words, this isn't one three-hour epic. It's several overlapping shorter stories with some common cast (mostly the doctors) and all set in the same clinic. Kayama's what holds it all together. We're following his journey into becoming a proper doctor, who cares. Among others, we meet:
1. The Madwoman (Kyoko Kagawa). Yow. There's some outstanding acting in this film, with the most powerful scenes going to the patients. Kagawa is amazing.
2. The Brothel Girl (Terumi Niki), whom we first meet when she's being beaten for not "entertaining" the customers. She's twelve years old and she's also sick with a fever. Mifune and Kayama take her in and find that they've let themselves in for a handful, with Niki being like a wild animal, suspicious of being tamed. She's where the film really starts getting funny, believe it or not. Her relationship with Kayama is full of laughs, since she's got a long, long journey back to civilisation and she has no intention of making it easy for anyone else to help her down it.
Pretty much everything to do with Niki is gold. Her redemption is fully earned, because she's so obnoxious and makes herself so disliked by the old bats who do the dogsbodying at the clinic. I howled when those harridans ended up defending Niki and beating up the brothel madam with daikon. (Those are big white radishes.) Incidentally, even though this is an adaptation of a Shugoro Yamamoto novel of the same name, this character's from Dostoevsky's The Insulted and the Injured.
3. Rokusuke (who's dying) and his daughter (who has three children). The latter is another of those tour de force performances I was talking about, even if she's not in the film for that long.
4. The Rat. As with so many characters here (Kayama, Niki, etc.), at first we only see his bad side. His story provides an emotional climax near the finale. Would Kurosawa kill a child? Obviously, yes. The only question is whether he will here. I was also blown away by the women shouting into the well. "Wells lead to the depths of the earth."
The film's at once intimate and huge. It's intimate because it's set in this one poor area and because we get to know this little community so well, but it's also huge because Kurosawa spent two years on its production. To quote: "I had something special in mind when I made this film because I wanted to make something that my audience would want to see, something so magnificent that people would just have to see it. To do this we all worked harder than ever, tried to overlook no detail, were willing to undergo any hardship."
He thus spent a million yen building a town as his film set, with the hospital being based on original blueprints of a 1722 nursing home. Tourist bus companies ran tours of it during filming. Even the wood they used in its construction wasn't just correctly aged, but the kind of wood that would have been used in that region. Kurosawa also made Toshiro Mifune keep his beard throughout the two-year shoot, which stopped Mifune from being able to play other roles and so thereafter the two of them never collaborated again. It's been said that they were history's greatest actor-director partnership, working together for nearly twenty years.
If so, they bowed out on a high note. If nothing else, the film was a huge success and it fulfilled Kurosawa's hopes for it. To be honest, though, this wouldn't have been Mifune's most challenging role. Memorable, wonderful and all-important, yes, but Mifune's character is a gruff rock of absolute certainty who doesn't really change over the film's three hours. Yuzo Kayama's the one who's playing the real emotional journey. However that said, Mifune's character is still cool and gets one particularly entertaining bit where Kurosawa, in a nod to Mifune's reputation, gives this stiff-necked old doctor a badass fight scene. They're asking questions about Niki at the brothel and the madam whistles up a bunch of toughs to scare them off. Might be yakuza, might not be. Don't know. Anyway, Mifune takes the entire gang outside and singlehandedly pulverises them. I swear you see him breaking their bones. The hilarious bit, though, is where he turns into a doctor afterwards and starts tut-tutting about his own handiwork. "This is awful. Such violence is bad."
This is going to be an annoying observation, by the way, but I found the Japanese dialogue funnier than the English subtitles on the Criterion release. Sorry. It just is. The dialogue's naturalistic and often delivered quite fast, so is liable to contain more than can fit into a few words at the bottom of a screen.
I found this a lovely film, because it's also a harsh one. It finds happiness and optimism even in the most terrible of circumstances, which makes it all the stronger. It earns its sentiment. It's not long because it's slow or arty, but because it's full of cool stuff and memorable characters. I can't imagine anyone not enjoying it. Is it perfect? Not quite. Occasionally Kurosawa lets himself show off a little (e.g. the light shining on Niki's eyes) and I got the feeling that that obese lord was just a normal-sized actor in make-up and a fat suit. That's the nearest I have to a criticism, though. Kurosawa's social conscience is also coming through loud and clear, but this isn't as simple as just bashing the rich. I like the way that we don't quite realise until the wedding at the end just how much privilege Kagawa was born into, which is of course where he needs to choose how he'll use his life.
One of the greats. Not as stone-cold brilliant as Ikiru, but still heartily recommended.
"Helping people, eh?"