A to Z Films Meme ®

Don­ald Richie’s ground-breaking study, The Films of Akira Kuro­sawa is a must-read for any­one inter­ested in Japan­ese cin­ema or the art of film-making in gen­eral. I couldn’t help the length of this long post, the sub­ject war­ranted it.


Red Beard

Kuro­sawa once accom­pa­nied his brother through the ruins of Tokyo after the great Kanto earth­quake of 1923. Amidst the scenes of the dead and dying vic­tims of the quake, his elder brother told Kuro­sawa, “If you shut your eyes to a fright­en­ing sight, you end up being fright­ened. If you look at every­thing straight on, there is noth­ing to be afraid of.” Red Beard is Kurosawa’s great­est state­ment in response to that chal­lenge. Red Beard is pow­er­ful, mov­ing, deep and pro­found. Kuro­sawa calls it a “mon­u­ment to the good­ness in man”. In my opin­ion, it is also the cul­mi­na­tion and cli­max of Kurosawa’s human­ist cin­ema, brought to life by the great Toshiro Mifune.Red Beard

In around 1825, a young doc­tor Kayama, trained in mod­ern med­i­cine, comes to work at a free pub­lic clinic against his will. His ambi­tion is to work as a per­sonal doc­tor for a rich fam­ily. He rebels and refuses to even wear the doctor’s uni­form. He works under the old doc­tor, Red Beard (Toshiro Mifune) who pretty much runs the show.

Through a series of episodic tales about the patients in the clinic – poor, suf­fer­ing, vic­tims of injus­tice – we and Kayama under­stand Red Beard bet­ter and bet­ter as each episode reveals yet another layer of this pro­found teacher. The young doc­tor learns that med­i­cine is not a fash­ion­able pro­fes­sion, and real­ity can be hard to face. But as a doc­tor, he has to face it if he is to do any­thing worthwhile.

After res­cu­ing a trau­ma­tized 12 year old girl from a brothel, Red Beard asks Kayama to take her as his first patient and help cure her. There is a deeply mov­ing scene as the girl refuses to take any med­i­cine that Kayama tries to feed her with a spoon. Red Beard lets her push the spoon repeat­edly, never giv­ing up, till she finally accedes. Kayama learns that patience is invin­ci­ble. (Rec­ol­lect Watanabe’s patience while deal­ing with indif­fer­ent bureau­crats in Ikiru).

The star­tling propo­si­tion Kuro­sawa offers in Red Beard is that evil may beget evil as is widely under­stood, but it is equally more impor­tant that good begets good. The young girl cares for Kayama when he falls ill, then cares for a young, poor, thiev­ing boy. Kuro­sawa shows human char­ac­ters, none of them com­pletely good or evil, and con­struct­ing a chain of good that has a pro­found impact on each. There is a dra­matic, poignant scene of the young boy’s death, when a group of women shout his name in osti­nato in a well. I have never been able to watch this scene with­out break­ing down.

Red Beard has some­times been crit­i­cized as a sen­ti­men­tal tear-jerker. Noth­ing could be fur­ther from the truth. As Richie explains, “to sim­ply feel for, sym­pa­thize with, weep over – this is sen­ti­men­tal. But to gird the loins and go out and do bat­tle, to hate so entirely, that good is the result: this is some­thing else.”

The beauty of Red Beard is the real­is­tic and com­plex char­ac­ter­i­za­tion that shows Red Beard mak­ing per­sonal and dif­fi­cult deci­sions regard­ing what he con­sid­ers to be ‘good’. He lies to a girl who has had a hard life that her father died a peace­ful death, ful­fill­ing her wish. (Kayama had fainted wit­ness­ing the painful death). He black­mails a mag­is­trate. He fights. This kind of good­ness has noth­ing weak nor even appeal­ing about it and is the oppo­site from the tra­di­tional ‘being good’ in terms of obeying.

At the end of the film, Kayama comes full cir­cle, and dis­obeys Red Beard by decid­ing to stay on at the clinic. Kuro­sawa shows that ideas of absolute evil and good are an illu­sion. We must decide what we think is good and act accord­ingly. Richie says: “We who live in hell are so con­di­tioned that we would much rather laugh than weep – for that seems the only alter­na­tive. If one prefers this, then the film may be called sen­ti­men­tal, but of course to do so is to miss its point – and through what Kuro­sawa con­sid­ers moral cow­ardice.”

redbeardKuro­sawa delib­er­ately shot Red Beard for two years to give the actors and sets the required ‘lived in’ effect. The set was an entire town metic­u­lously built using century-old tiled roofs and wood. Cos­tumes and props were ‘aged’ for months, bed­ding was actu­ally slept in for months before shoot­ing. Tourist buses ran through the set dur­ing the two years of film­ing. Red Beard cov­ers a span of six months in the film, dur­ing which the char­ac­ters undergo a pro­found spir­i­tual change. The actors had to por­tray this change over a span of two years but the shoot­ing was not chrono­log­i­cal at all – this was a great chal­lenge. Before shoot­ing began, Kuro­sawa played the last move­ment of Beethoven’s Ninth Sym­phony, and told the cast that this is how he wants the audi­ence to feel when they walk out of the the­atre. For two years from that day, the cast was devoted despite ill­nesses and many other difficulties.

Finally, about Toshiro Mifune. When I first watched Red Beard dur­ing my col­lege days in the late 80s, I saw it in a fes­ti­val a day after watch­ing Seven Samu­rai. At that time, I was will­ing to bet that the aus­tere Red Beard actor can never be the one that played the swash­buck­ling, ram­bunc­tious Samu­rai. On the big screen, Red Beard is intim­i­dat­ing, awe­some, and demands respect. Mifune is one of the great­est of all actors. Clint East­wood made an entire act­ing career out of him. But Mifune’s range was breath­tak­ing. Kuro­sawa said that Mifune took 3 feet of tape to give an impres­sion for which other actors will take 10 feet. I dis­agree emphat­i­cally. Kuro­sawa would have had to dump infi­nite feet of tape if he had tried Red Beard, Rashomon, Throne of Blood, or Seven Samu­rai – to name just a few – with any other actor. If you want reaf­fir­ma­tion of the good­ness of man, watch Red Beard.

Run­ner Up


Kurosawa’s Rashomon shook the cin­e­matic world like an earth­quake when it was released in 1950 and its tremors can still be felt today. The first flash­backs that do not agree with real­ity (The Usual Sus­pects?). The tale of four incon­sis­tent eye­wit­ness accounts (Courage Under Fire?) has lent the adjec­tive Rashomonesque to the lan­guage. From Robert Alt­man to Satya­jit Ray, many great direc­tors have acknowl­edged Rashomon’s influ­ence on their film-making (See Wikipedia for more infor­ma­tion). I need not write much about this well-known film in this already long post!

Rather, why do I rate Red Beard higher than Rashomon? The sim­ple answer is that I enjoy watch­ing Red Beard more than Rashomon. From the shot directly into the sun, which was a taboo at that time, to the unique plot tech
niques and story ideas, I would have liked Rashomon more if I was older and had seen it many decades ago. Today, for me, Rashomon is more a film to be admired than enjoyed. But that’s also the rea­son it is the runner-up win­ning over excel­lent, mag­nif­i­cent films like Scorsese’s Rag­ing Bull.

And thus, Akira Kuro­sawa rules ‘R’ for me.

Note­wor­thy Mentions

While Rain Man, Raiders of the Lost Ark are good films, I’d like to men­tion the fol­low­ing as noteworthy:

  • Scorsese’s Rag­ing Bull was voted in three polls as the great­est film of the decade. One of the most painful and heartrend­ing por­tray­als of jeal­ousy, it fea­tures one of Robert De Niro’s finest per­for­mances. Rates 10/10.
  • Rear Win­dow, one of Hitchcock’s best and a per­sonal favorite.
  • Roman Hol­i­day, sim­ple delight­ful roman­tic drama with Gre­gory Peck and the gor­geous Audrey Hep­burn. Watch Hepburn’s facial expres­sions and eyes closely as she moves her gaze across the crowd in the end.
  • The Right Stuff, the enter­tain­ing epic chron­i­cle of the first 7 Amer­i­can astro­nauts who went into space in Mer­cury 7.
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  • http://techntrek.wordpress.com/ Prax

    Kurowawa is an absolute per­fec­tion­ist
    Saw both rashomon and red beard … sadly missed some parts
    I agree with u red beard is more fun to watch just like shinchin …
    rashomon stunns you …

  • http://techntrek.wordpress.com/ Prax

    Roman hol­i­day was nice too.
    what about Rain­man, the toon film Rata­touille
    i want to see run lola run

  • http://techntrek.wordpress.com/ Prax

    what about Requiem for a Dream (2000) have u seen it ?

  • http://calamur.org/gargi harini cala­mur

    roman hol­i­day was such fun. rag­ing bull so intense. i loved Rebecca too, one of the most under­rated Hitch­cok films !!

    amongst the hindi films “raat aur din” is worth a look. Nar­gis as a woman who suf­fers from mul­ti­ple per­son­al­ity dis­or­der — bril­liant stuff and some great music !

  • http://lallopallo.wordpress.com Dev

    Again a great write up! Rashoman…great great film. I have read a lot on Rashoman and must I admit that dif­fer­ent inter­pre­ta­tions– in terms of telling a story though rather than wit­nesses account, as in Rashoman– for the same story or a sit­u­a­tion is one of the themes for my short film script Iam work­ing on cur­rently. But it’s funny that I watched Rashoman only last year, after Woody Allen’s Melinda and Melinda which had orig­i­nally inspired me for this dif­fer­ent inter­pre­ta­tion theme.

    I like Scors­ese a lot..I think he is a com­plete filmmaker..perhaps best tech­ni­cally in the cur­rent lot. Though in my list, Rag­ing Bull will come after Good­Fel­las and Taxi Driver

  • Anand

    No real com­ment on R. I def­i­nitely liked Rashomon and I was sure that you would list it.

    This is actu­ally to wish you luck. S is gonna be the toughest :)

  • http://nitawriter.wordpress.com/ Nita

    Except for Rear Win­dow and Roman Hol­i­day, the other movies were new to me. You are mak­ing such a com­pre­hen­sive list that one day if I ever want to get a CD of a movie (I pre­fer the cin­ema hall) I know where to come to check out the titles! :)

  • Pingback: A to Z Films Meme (S) Runner Up, Noteworthy Mentions « An Unquiet Mind()

  • http://ruhii.com Ruhi

    Mahen­dra, I haven’t seen Red Beard– thanks for the men­tion. I love KKK– Kies­lowski, Kuro­sawa and Kubrick 😉 Another movie that you might want to check out if you already haven’t– Raise the Red Lantern– Chi­nese movie about dif­fer­ent mis­tresses kept by an old king fol­low­ing an ancient tra­di­tion and the sig­nif­i­cance of the Red Lantern. The mis­tress who gets the Red Lantern sent to her is the cho­sen one for the night.

    Thanks for men­tion­ing Rashomon– one of my all time favorites. :)

  • http://skeptic.skepticgeek.com Mahen­dra

    I’ve men­tioned Rain­man, haven’t seen Ratatouille…yet. Run Lola Run is a very enjoy­able, inno­v­a­tive film that I think you will like very much, Prax.

  • http://skeptic.skepticgeek.com Mahen­dra

    Nope. I want to, but haven’t seen it yet. I watched his ear­lier ‘Pi’, but this is still on my list.

  • http://skeptic.skepticgeek.com Mahen­dra

    Again, haven’t watched Rebecca — the only Hitch­cock film to win Best Pic­ture Oscar at a time when Oscars really meant something!

    Raat aur din: always loved the music, never knew about the film. Thanks! Though fac­ing Pradeep Kumar is a tough ask, the plot/story/music looks very interesting!

  • http://litterateuse.wordpress.com g

    Yes, Rebecca deserves a men­tion for sure! One of the best Hitch­cokian films. And one of the very few films that do jus­tice to the book, if not more!

    Can you believe it, I got Roman Hol­i­day FOUR times (not jok­ing) to watch, and couldn’t see it even once!! For weird rea­sons, at that — DVD was bad, VCR didn’t work *just* then, or what­ever else. I’m con­vinced it’s jinxed 😉

    Run Lola was good too — btw, did I tell you, we were in Port­land a cou­ple weeks ago, and the hotel was play­ing Ground­hog Day?!!! For some rea­son when I saw it then, I was reminded of Run Lola Run. The dif­fer­ence is, I liked Lola Rennt 😛

  • http://skeptic.skepticgeek.com Mahen­dra

    Thank you, Dev! Wow, didn’t know that your script was work­ing on such a “dif­fer­ent inter­pre­ta­tions” theme! That’s very inter­est­ing, and funny that you were inspired by Allen and not Rashomon!

    I love Scors­ese and had a cathar­tic expe­ri­ence when he finally got the Oscar. Maybe my sen­si­bil­i­ties were also influ­enced by the fact that he cam­paigned for Ray and made him known in Hol­ly­wood, because of which Ray was felic­i­tated with the Life­time. Here, I wasn’t rat­ing Scors­ese films how­ever — Goodfellas/Taxi Dri­ver can­not be listed under R!

  • http://techntrek.wordpress.com Prax

    thank for a quick response

  • http://skeptic.skepticgeek.com Mahen­dra

    Can I be allowed to (S)kip S? :-) S is absolute nightmare!

  • http://techntrek.wordpress.com/ Prax

    Absolutely not 😉

    thats gonna be real interesting !

  • Anand

    Even if all of your read­ers allow you to, would you be able to allow yourself 😉

    BTW, ‘R’ rec­om­men­da­tion — ‘Reser­voir Dogs’.

  • http://skeptic.skepticgeek.com Mahen­dra

    :-) I’m grate­ful to read­ers like you who’re par­tic­i­pat­ing so enthu­si­as­ti­cally in this won­der­ful series!

  • http://skeptic.skepticgeek.com Mahen­dra

    Thank you, Nita, for your kind com­ments. I hope this list does help you select good films.

    Though I too pre­fer watch­ing films on the big screen, and have been lucky to watch many clas­sics on the big screen, I’m always caught between the dif­fi­cult dilemma of not see­ing a film at all or see­ing it on the small screen. Many a times in recent years, since I am no longer an active mem­ber of a film club, I have resorted to the lat­ter option, albeit with a tinge of regret.

  • http://skeptic.skepticgeek.com Mahen­dra

    Ah…that was a very, very good insight. :-) And to be hon­est, no, I can­not stop myself!

    Hmm…Tarantino’s debut. Haven’t seen it myself. Will add to list.

  • http://skeptic.skepticgeek.com Mahen­dra

    Hmm…already added Rebecca to the list.

    Roman Hol­i­day: Try, try, and try again! :-)

    Yes, you recounted the hotel inci­dent. Now remem­ber, this time, it wasn’t me who brought up Ground­hog Day! :-)

    And um…, did you see the win­ners above?

  • http://litterateuse.wordpress.com g

    Yes, I have Rashomon & Rear Win­dow here; quite the favorites! (Knew they’d make it here, btw) Red Beard, I had really wanted to see, but some­where I for­got about it. Hus­band is a Kuro­sawa fan, so I’m sure I’ll see it in this lifetime :)

    BTW, that index­ing post you did really helps, thanks!

  • http://skeptic.skepticgeek.com Mahen­dra

    Great — I’m happy. I really want you to see Red Beard, please don’t miss it. Get­ting Cri­te­rion DVDs should be easy in the US. I had to get my Kuro­sawas right from Japan!

    Re: index­ing post — thanks, you’re wel­come! Helps me too. :-)

  • Anand

    Sorry… another one:
    The Red Vio­lin (Le vio­lon rouge)

  • http://skeptic.skepticgeek.com Mahen­dra

    Wow. Thanks. I’m amazed and delighted at the flow of rec­om­men­da­tions com­ing in!

  • http://skeptic.skepticgeek.com Mahen­dra

    I’m not famil­iar with Kies­lowski, though I might have caught one of his films dur­ing my film club days a long time back.

    No, haven’t seen Raise the Red Lantern. Seems like a pow­er­ful one, haven’t seen many good Chi­nese films. Will add to list, thanks!