By Donald Richie
After finishing High and Low (1963), director Akira Kurosawa recalls, “I started looking around for something else to do and quite by accident picked up [the novel] Red Beard by Shugoro Yamamoto. At first I thought it would make a good script for [fellow director] Horikawa but as I wrote I grew so interested that I knew I would have to direct it myself.
“The script is quite different from the novel. One of the major characters, the young girl, is not even found in the book. While I was writing I kept remembering Dostoevsky and I tried to show the same thing that he showed in the character of Nelli in The Insulted and the Injured.
“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. It was really hard work [and the film took longer before the cameras than any other Japanese film including Seven Samurai—almost two years] and I got sick twice. Mifune and Kayama each got sick once . . .”
At the end of the Tokugawa period a young man, Noboru Yasumoto (Yuzo Kayama) returns to Edo after several years’ study at the Dutch medical schools in Nagasaki. Told to make a formal call at the Koishikawa Public Clinic and pay his respects to its head Kyojio Niide, commonly called Red Beard (Toshiro Mifune), he learns that he is to stay there and work as an intern. Since he had hoped to be attached to the court medical staff and had certainly never considered working in a public clinic, the news is a great shock. He refuses, purposely breaks the hospital rules, will not wear a uniform, and further trespasses by lounging around a forbidden area, the small pavilion where a beautiful but insane patient (Kyoko Kagawa) is kept.
Like the hero of Sashiro Sugata, like the detective in Stray Dog, and the shoe manufacturer in High and Low, the young doctor learns: Red Beard too is the story of an education. Kayama learns that medical theory (illusion) is different from a man dying (reality); that—as the film later reveals—what he had always thought about himself (upright, honest, hard-working) must now be reconciled with what he finds himself to also be (arrogant, selfish, insincere); and most importantly, that evil itself is the most humanly common thing in this world; that good is uncommon.
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