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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  • 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 …

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

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

  • 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 !

  • 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 🙂

  • 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! 🙂

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  • 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. 🙂