Movies , for me, are purely a means of entertainment . I usually stick to comedies and action-adventure flicks. Over the weekend, though, my son was on one of his infrequent visits home and we wound up watching Akira Kurosawa’s 1965 tour-de-force “Redbeard”. It was in black and white. We were watching it on a small screen TV. It had no well known actors except for Toshiro Mifune ; it was very ‘heavy’…. and yet it was wonderful.
The film is set in Edo ( modern day Tokyo) in the 19th century. Dr. Yasumoto, a newly minted young doctor very proud of his training at a Dutch medical school, is horrified to find himself apprenticed to work at a public health clinic. It is run by the eccentric Dr. Niide, or Redbeard as he is popularly known. Yasumoto, who dreams of being appointed personal physician to the Shogunate, tries his best to get dismissed -refusing to wear a uniform, smuggling in sake, not doing his work etc. but gradually he begins to change. The clinic is home to a host of intriguing characters and interacting with them stirs him to his depths. There is ” The Mantis”, a rich man’s daughter , who has already killed three men who violated her and who is confined to the clinic under close guard. Rokosuke, an old man on the verge of death whose tragic story comes to light later in the movie. The saintly Sahachi who works himself to death in order to help his destitute comrades. Otoyo, the tragic 12 year old girl whom Dr. Niide rescues from a brothel, and who Yasumoto nurses back to normalcy. Chobo, a 7 year old urchin of the streets who is constantly stealing food from the clinic’s kitchen. These and a host of other characters play upon Yasumoto’s heartstrings and ours. They are so sensitively portrayed that we see them as actual people, not as actors playing a role. Towering over them all is the figure of Dr. Niide , a man of compassion , whose commitment to his indigent patients knows no bounds. In order to help them and keep the clinic going, he even resorts to some mild extortion and does not hesitate to fight for them even at risk of his life.
The first 15 minutes of the movie, when Yasumoto arrives at the clinic , are rather slow but , after that we are drawn into the movie so completely that we do not mind it’s length ( 185 minutes). Kurosawa ‘s direction is deft and his little touches awaken our feelings powerfully. In one scene, the street urchin Chobo is telling a sympathetic Otoyo that he steals because he is hungry. He adds that his older brothers, who are all of 8 and 9 years old, are so hungry that they are constantly sucking their thumbs. Then he runs away as Otoyo tells him she will bring him food. Unbeknownst to them, Yasumoto and one of the female kitchen workers overhear the conversation. At the conclusion of the scene, she drops to the ground, curls up and bursts into sobs ; we moviewatchers, who in turn are eavesdropping on them, feel her pain and distress. “Redbeard” is full of sad incidents such as this but it is surprisingly upbeat at the end. Late in the movie Chigusa, who we were told had jilted Yasumoto, comes to the clinic. She had married another man and borne a child and Yasumoto had been adamant in saying that he could not forgive her. However, when he sees her at the clinic, Yasumoto says ” Chigusa! Is the baby unwell? ” He looks at her through the eyes of a doctor; he does not see her as the girl who jilted him. His transformation is complete.
Satyajit Ray, the noted Indian director, acknowledged Kurosawa as one of those who had influenced him. Viewing this movie, I was reminded of a scene in Ray’s “Apur Sansar” ( The World of Apu). Apu chivalrously marries a girl whose wedding is canceled at the last moment when it is discovered that the groom is insane. He brings her to the big city ( Calcutta) and they set up house in a mean little tenement. As the scene begins, Apu wakes up in a rumpled bed and observes his wife sweeping the floor . Dreamily watching her, he reaches beneath him and finds her hairpin. Still intently watching her, he fumbles open a pack of cigarettes only to find a note which says ” Remember! Only one after lunch!’ He looks up again and the two exchange a tender look… Without a word, without the two even touching each other Ray conveys their feelings for each other, sex and love , in a way that even the steamiest clinch can’t. Sheer poetry !
The critics count ” Redbeard” as one of Kurosawa’s best films and to me, it is a masterpiece. It describes a time and a culture that is foreign to me yet I have no difficulty empathising with it’s characters, sharing their pain, rejoicing at their little triumphs. It is a reminder of the Brotherhood of Man, that under the skin we are all the same.