Saturday, December 31, 2016

Akira Kurosawa's 赤ひげ / 'Red Beard' (1966)

Akira Kurosawa's 赤ひげ / Red Beard (1966) is a meticulously crafted film, an example of cinema as a masterful art form in its own right that includes elements of fiction, poetry, visual art and architecture but is also distinctive. The aesthetics of black and white film (this was Kurosawa's last before shifting to color) allow one to focus on shadow and form as well as sound. Kurosawa is a master filmmaker and one need not understand Japanese to appreciate his works. Indeed, as in the most moving silent films, many of Kurosawa's shot compositions illuminate the power of facial expressions and, in particular, the look of a person's eyes. Kurosawa's work is very satisfying aesthetically and I'm learning a great deal about technique in reviewing his films.
I have never really understood modern medical doctors, their motivation or disposition, but Red Beard makes me wish we had in the everyday now many more such as these doctors from 200 years ago, working hard at a Japanese medical clinic. 

The title character, Dr. Kyojō Niide (played by the always memorable Toshiro Mifune), frequently strokes his beard which is, though we see him in black and white film only, red. One can readily compare his character with Atticus Finch, as played by Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbirdan American film made in the same decade as Red Beard, though the good doctor is a bit gruffer than the lawyer. Just as Atticus takes up a rifle to shoot a threatening rabid dog, Red Beard has a scene in which he opens up a can of whoop-ass on a threatening group of hooligans in a courtyard outside a brothel.

Red Beard approaches his patients, most of them poor, in a holistic manner, strengthening the body, mind and spirit of each when it's still possible to help. He works patiently and effectively with people afflicted by fevers, alcoholism, mental illness, "spiritual scalding," and physical wounds. His holistic approach could be put to good service in the 21st century.
Blanket airing on left is of the same pattern as the one in the top image
Red Beard is based on Shūgorō Yamamoto's The Tales of Dr. Redbeard (1958), plus an additional thread from Fyodor Dostoevsky's Humiliated and Insulted (1861).
Red Beard has heft as well as breadth. In flashback sequences (which sometimes remind me of surrealistic Luis Buñuel flashbacks), there is a landslide and the aftermath of an earthquake. In one sequence, we can see a character stumbling around in the foreground while at the top of the screen a line of people exit the "stage." Having experienced firsthand the nightmarish devastation of the Pacific War that ended with Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and having earlier lived through a massive earthquake, Kurosawa is deep diving through these scenes.
There's another sequence that begins with a strange chanting, a beckoning to the underworld to spare an imperiled young boy's life, that ends with a visual shot from the perspective of the bottom of a well, a water-reflection of the people shimmering above -- a mind-blowing achievement. 

Today's Rune: Harvest.


Charles Gramlich said...

I believe you and Lana are the two people who have taught me how to appreciate black and white.

the walking man said...

The perspective of a well...yeah man that sounds about right for the present. have a another good year Erik, reviewing some rather off the path books and movies.

Vesper said...

It's been a long time since I've watched some of Kurosawa's movies. Your beautiful article reminded me of the esthetic pleasure and the subtleties of good black and white films.
Have a happy and healthy New Year, Erik! I'm looking forward to reading more here and on your other blog.