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.
At the beginning his position is that of the hero of Kurosawa’s High and Low. He did nothing to merit exile in a public clinic, he has done nothing “wrong.” And yet here he finds himself unable to escape, unable to see in what way he merits this punishment. Put in a way that Kurosawa would not care for, one might say that he is, like all of us, born into an estate concerning which we were not consulted and for which we did not ask.
To describe the look of Red Beard one should speak of something burnished and glowing, like the body of a fine cello. If a single adjective were used I should think it would be: “mellow.”
This mellowness is contained within the look of the film itself. It has a patina, the way certain of Mizoguchi’s films have a patina. This is the result of strong concern for realistic detail. Kurosawa’s efforts to achieve this are already legend in Japan. The main set was really an entire town with back alleys and side streets (some of which were never filmed) which was so large that shots of just the roofs fill the whole wide screen during the credit titles.
All of the material used for the town was about as old as it is supposed to look. The tiled roofs were taken from buildings more than a century old; all of the lumber was from the oldest available farmhouses; costumes and props were all “aged” for months before their appearance; the bedding (made in Tokugawa-period patterns) was really slept in for up to half a year before shooting. Making the main gate, which so figures in the film, occupied almost everyone. The wood was more than a hundred years old and both staff and director kept adding touches to make it look still older. (After the film was shot, the gate was re-erected at the entrance of the theatre premiering the film and drew as great a crowd as the picture itself.)
Kurosawa used this magnificent set (so grand that tourist bus companies ran special tours during the two years of filming in order to show visitors its splendors) in a very telling way. The main street is seen for just one minute and its destruction was incorporated into the earthquake scenes; the scenes with the bridges are likewise short; so are those in the elaborately constructed paddy. The director, if one wants to look at it this way, completely wasted his million yen set.
After Red Beard had opened, while it was still playing to packed houses and was proving to be indeed just the kind of picture that people want to see, something “so magnificent that people would just have to see it,” I told Kurosawa that I sensed that he had come to some sort of conclusion, some sort of resting place. He had pushed his style to what appeared to be its ultimate. At the same time he continued and, it would seem, completed the theme which had been his throughout his entire career. It might even be called the summation of his work because in Red Beard he had vindicated his humanism and his compassion. He had shown that only after the negative (evil) has been fully experienced can the positive, the good, joy itself, be seen as the power it still remains; that this wisdom was offered in a film filled with true sentiment, with the fact that in all of our glory, in all of our foolishness, we are—after all—human; further, that evil itself is merely human, after all, and that the good then lies in our realizing this and acting upon it.