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Triumph of The Past

by Michael Lane

February 2004: Kurosawa's Red Beard

Red Beard (1965, 185 minutes) is the last of the films of Kurosawa's prolific period and an acknowledged masterpiece.

The Story

Koishikawa Public Clinic gate, Edo period. Wind. Yasumoto, a hotshot young doctor fresh out of university, arrives, having been asked by his well-connected father to call on Dr. Niide. A lackadaisical clinic doctor, Genzo, welcomes Yasumoto as his replacement and gives him a tour. It is very Spartan, the patients are poor people, and there are many irksome rules. Yasumoto meets Niide (Toshiro Mifune), a gruff, bearded man of imposing presence and few words. Niide informs Yasumoto that he will begin as an intern today, that his things have been sent for, and that he is to turn over to Niide all his notes from university.

Returning to his room and finding his things are already there, Yasumoto is furious. He expected a high placement because of his father's connections; but it turns out he has been appointed by the magistrate's office to this lowly clinic. He stomps out, going he-doesn't-know-where when his course is arrested by a beautiful woman writhing in the doorway of a house off by itself. This is the Mantis, a murderess, who is under the doctor's care. She is not a poor patient but a rich one, and her father has built this house for her.

Yasumoto vows he'll break every rule and get himself dismissed. He refuses to eat the plain fare, orders sake, refuses to wear his uniform, and lounges in the off-limits area outside the Mantis's house. He does grudgingly turn over his notes.

Yasumoto is lounging and drinking, and the other clinic doctor, Mori, is trying to reason with him when the Mantis's nurse, Osugi, rushes in: the Mantis has escaped. After Mori and Osugi rush off to look for her, the Mantis enters the room. Wind. In a marvelous sequence, speaking in a child's voice and cringing as if afraid, the Mantis lures Yasumoto closer and collapses in his arms. As he tries to comfort her, she slyly works her garment around his back to prevent escape and then pulls out a hairpin. Niide bursts in just in time.

Yasumoto was grazed in the neck and is treated by Niide. Underneath his rough exterior, Niide is really softhearted. About to wipe Yasumoto's mouth with a handkerchief, he feels shy and pretends to cough. Yasumoto is affected by Niide's kind treatment. He even takes out his uniform, but hastily puts it away when Mori comes in.

Yasumoto is requested to observe a man, Rokusuke, in his last moments. He was brought in from a cheap inn, has had no visitors, and has not spoken. Niide takes the opportunity to begin gently to teach Yasumoto his art: "We can only fight poverty and ignorance. . . . There is always some story of great misfortune behind illness. . . . His heart probably hurts him more." Niide is suddenly called away for emergency surgery and leaves Yasumoto with the dying man. It is horrible. Then he is called to the operating room, where he promptly faints. Rokusuke meanwhile dies.

Mori encourages Yasumoto and praises Niide: "The pain and loneliness of death frighten me. But Dr. Niide looks at it differently. He looks into their hearts as well as their bodies." Mori also tells Yasumoto that Sahachi (a TB patient) is near death. He has been giving his medicine and food to other patients and working against doctor's orders in order to buy them fish and eggs. Yasumoto says, "I'll go." Sahachi tells Yasumoto he should wear his uniform because it helps poor people in need identify a clinic doctor. He also has a last request—to die at his home in town.

Yasumoto comes to inform Niide and finds him with Rokusuke's daughter Okuni and listens to her story. Wind. Her mother had run off with another man and then forced her to marry that man. Her father, a virtual stranger, made kind overtures; but she refused them out of shame. Finally, after years of abuse, she has stabbed her husband, wounding him, and fled to her father at last, only to find him dead. Niide's lie that Rokusuke died in peace startles Yasumoto until he sees the relief it gives.

Niide has something on one of the magistrates and is going to use it to blackmail him not to charge Okuni for the stabbing. Meanwhile, Yasumoto is to take both Sahachi and Okuni's three children to a friend in town.

Fierce wind followed by a torrential downpour. Sahachi at home. Niide arrives with 10 ryo for Okuni's needs that he has forced the magistrate to give him. He says, "I'm abominable. . . . Yasumoto, from now on if I'm arrogant at any time, remind me of today."

After the rain, water is dripping everywhere. There is a tremor and a landslide, and a skeleton is revealed. Sahachi summons everyone to hear his story, which we see in a ten-minute vignette. As a young man, he meets a young woman and they fall in love. She finally consents to marry him but only if they elope. She will not let him meet her family, nor explain. Nevertheless, they are very happy together. Then an earthquake destroys their house, and she disappears. He assumes she is dead, and two years pass. Then at the market, where a fierce wind is sounding hundreds of wind-chimes, he meets her, with a baby on her back! They walk together. He has bought a wind-chime and its tinkling punctuates the scene. It is too painful for words, and they part with all unsaid; but next day she comes to him and reveals all.

When she decided to elope with Sahachi, she says, she was already betrothed to another. She felt tremendous guilt over their happiness, and when the earthquake destroyed their home, she took it for an omen. So she went and married the other man, letting Sahachi suppose she had died in the quake. In fact, she declares, she did die; and only seeing him again brought her back to life: "This is the real me. I have never stopped loving you!" Then picking up a knife, she stabs herself, crying "Please hold me, don't let me go." He buries her in the cliff side, and now on his deathbed she has come to him again. The sacrifices Sahachi made for others were in secret expiation for his wrong to her other husband and child. He dies. In the alley as he leaves, Yasumoto hears a wind chime. Theme.

Back at the clinic. Yasumoto has donned his uniform, and the four women who do cooking, cleaning, and housekeeping are all praises. In their jubilation, they also tease Osugi, who is in love with Mori.

Niide is in a bad mood because of a budget cut. He takes Yasumoto to town on house-calls. The first call is Lord Matsudaira, a veritable whale. Niide crosses out a few dishes from his weekly menu and charges 50 ryo.

Their next call is a brothel, where Niide's chief concern is syphilis. On the way, Yasumoto confides to Niide that his fiancée, Chigusa, broke off their engagement while he was at university and married another. The sister, Masae, has been trying to see him.

At the brothel, they discover Otoyo, a little girl of twelve, being beaten. She has just ripped up the kimono they gave her to wear to entertain men. She is feverish and scrubs the floor compulsively. Niide says he is taking her, and the madam calls her men. In a scene made to delight fans of Mifune's popular role as Yojimbo, Niide disables all his attackers in the yard with ease (then tends to them). They return to the clinic, Yasumoto carrying Otoyo on his back, and Niide assigns her to him as his first patient. Her body, Niide says, is sick, but her heart is sicker.

February. Wind. The progress of Otoyo's cure is accompanied by narration from Yasumoto's journal. After three days, the feverish girl still won't let Yasumoto examine her, won't take her medicine, still scrubs, and doesn't speak. Niide will try to get her to take her medicine. She bats the spoon away, looking for the reaction, but Niide does not react. He fills the spoon again. Once, twice, thrice, four times. She is weakening under Niide's patience, and the fifth time she gulps it.

That night she speaks her first words, "Why didn't he slap me?" Yasumoto says Niide wants to help her. "You, too?" she says. "Of course, me too!" "Even now?"—and she knocks a bowl out of his hands, breaking it. As he picks up the pieces, he begins to cry for her.

Next day she has disappeared. Town. Fierce wind blowing everything and everyone. Yasumoto spies her begging on a bridge. Then she goes to a shop. As she heads back toward the clinic, he speaks her name, and she drops her purchase, which breaks—it is a bowl. He tells her he never cared about the bowl, only about her. Her face melts and she falls into his arms, sobbing and sobbing.

Yasumoto, who looks a wreck after Otoyo's cure, learns that his being sent to Niide was not arranged by his fiancée's father to hush up the broken betrothal (as he had supposed) but by his own father, out of concern for his well-being. At this, Yasumoto's own heart breaks: "I'm no good at all. I'm selfish and self-satisfied. How am I unfortunate? Rokusuke and Sahachi were, but they died without complaint. Look at Otoyo. . . . I was proud, vain of being a doctor just back from Nagasaki. I was too good for this clinic. I even held you in contempt, despised you. I'm a despicable man. I'm conceited, insincere . . ." He trails off. He is feverish.

Yasumoto wakes, and it is Otoyo who is nursing him. It is a sort of cat-and-mouse game where she is shy of his gaze, so he pretends to sleep and peeks at her in secret. In one scene she opens the window and takes snow from the ledge to cool his wet compress, and they share a happy smile. In another, she tries to fight sleep as she looks at a medical book but finally succumbs. This scene, with its Haydn score, is perhaps the most charming in a beautiful film.

Yasumoto's fever breaks, and he is better.

O: [Niide] said nursing you was the best thing for me, too. That's why. Y: Did it make you well? O: I don't know. But it felt nice nursing you. Y: Then I've gotten well too soon. O: That's not so. You're getting well is much nicer.

She is happy, like a little girl, full of energy.

Yasumoto at his mother's house. Bird's chirping. His mother says: "You look different, like a man who's just had a bath. Father's away. I wish he could see you now. He entrusted you to Dr. Niide, but really he was very worried." Yasumoto learns that his ex-fiancée has had a baby but that her father will not see her while Yasumoto is unreconciled. It is hoped that Yasumoto will accept Masae.

The women are complaining that Otoyo has become hard to get along with, and she even trampled in the mud a bright kimono that Masae had sent her. Osugi identifies the trouble: Otoyo is jealous. Then Otoyo lets a little food-thief get away, and the women are really mad. But when Yasumoto and one of the women overhear Otoyo tell little thief, Chobo not to steal but to come every night for rice, her kindness moves the woman to tears.

Next day. Birds chirping. The Mantis has tried to hang herself. The Mantis's father blames Osugi, who was off with Mori at the time; but Niide blames the father himself for shutting a healthy young girl up with a madwoman.

The madam shows up demanding Otoyo back now that she is cured, but Otoyo refuses. When the madam notices she still lacks a decent kimono, Otoyo runs and brings the one she had spurned. The women—possessive now of Otoyo—drive off the intruder with radishes. That evening, Otoyo, wearing her new kimono, brings Chobo rice. He tells a mysterious story about how his family are going away to a wonderful place. She is suspicious, but he runs off.

Niide informs Yasumoto that he has got his appointment to the Shogun's medical staff and, if he'll accept it, the hand of Masae. Later, Yasumoto is telling Mori he won't go, when Chobo's family is brought in: they have taken poison.

Night. Otoyo arrives. Two bodies are carried out, Chobo's brothers. Chobo begins to pant as the crisis comes. Suddenly, "Cho-o-obo, Cho-o-obo!" echoes eerily from somewhere. The women are trying to call his spirit back from death by crying his name down a well. Otoyo charges out and shrieks his name down in gut-wrenching cry. Chobo passes the crisis.

Dripping thaw. At the betrothal ceremony between himself and Masae, Yasumoto informs her of his determination to refuse the high appointment and stay at the clinic. He is reconciled to Chigusa.

On the way back, Niide and Yasumoto have this conversation:

N: Do you want me to shout at you? Y: Please do. I'll stay no matter what. N: Who says so? Y: You did. You taught me the road to take. So I will take it. N: You overestimate me. Something's the matter with you. Have you forgotten about the magistrate, Matsudaira, and Izumia [the location of the brothel?]? I do things like that. Y: I like you for that. N: You're a fool! Y: I owe it to you. N: You're young, so you talk like that. You'll regret it. Y: You give me your permission. N: I repeat you'll regret it. Y: I'll have to find out for myself. Thank you. N: Humph!

The gate. Theme.

Interpretation

Wind is invisible. We know it only from the sound it makes and its affect on things. The same can be said of the soul. Wind and storm in the film reflect disturbance in the hero's soul. Yasumoto's arrival is accompanied by wind, as are key scenes with four individuals: the Mantis, Okuni, Sahachi, and Otoyo.

These scenes and the wind accompanying them increase in intensity. Sahachi's arrival home is accompanied by a fierce wind and a torrential downpour; and in his story, when he meets his wife again, the wind furiously sweeps hundreds of wind-chimes. In town where Otoyo goes to beg is again violent wind, blowing everything and everybody.

This latter scene closes with Otoyo breaking down like the little girl she is. Yasumoto's own crisis follows immediately. Tears are the soul's cleansing shower-burst. Yasumoto's mother says, "You look like a man who's just had a bath." From that point on, the weather smiles: gentle snowfall, chirping birds, dripping thaw.

Sahachi's story of betrothal broken for true love affects Yasumoto deeply because it is just the other side of his own story. Chigusa, like Sahachi's wife, broke her betrothal and eloped. She and Yasumoto were certainly not in love, and perhaps she broke the betrothal for love. Yasumoto the egotist had only thought of himself as the injured party; but now he realizes that Chigusa and her family are suffering, too, for his sake. It is humbling. The budding feelings between his new friend, Mori, and Osugi will also reinforce his discovery that affection is food for the soul, far more needful than money and social position.

When Yasumoto comes out of Sahachi's house, he notices a wind-chime in the alley, connecting it with a wind-chime he seemed to see in the story. I think we are to infer that he unconsciously puts it in the story, as one who was dreaming might do. This suggests how absorbed he is and also raises a question: The wind-swept chimes in the recognition scene—has Yasumoto put them there, too, in his agitation?

After Sahachi's story, a humbled and happy Yasumoto dons his uniform: it is a relief not to have to keep up the act. But his cure is not complete until he gives as he has been given to. Niide assigns him Otoyo as his first patient to complete his cure—quite a contrast to the first patient he attempted to treat on his own, the Mantis. While the Mantis is a full-grown woman who puts on the act of a frightened little girl, Otoyo is a little girl who acts like a hardened woman.

In fact, Yasumoto and Otoyo are alike. His attitude was a front just like hers, a wall against being vulnerable and human. He comes to the clinic as a doctor but is in need of healing; she comes as a patient but stays to work. His decision to stay is marked by his donning his formerly scorned uniform, hers by her donning the formerly scorned kimono Masae sent her.

Niide is Kurosawa's version of a saint. A Kurosawan saint is a knight in dented armor, one who knows he is tarnished, who gets down in the mud and slugs it out with poverty and ignorance. In the case of Okuni, for example, Niide tells a fib about her father's last hours, blackmails the magistrate to keep her out of jail, and makes arrangements for her housing and her and her children's needs. This is what Niide means by fighting poverty and ignorance and healing people's hearts. He is not a stickler for niceties: he does what needs to be done.

He also knows when not to do. He says a couple of times that doctors don't really do anything: at best, they just help nature along. Niide just puts Yasumoto and Otoyo together, and they heal each other. And just as Yasumoto's cure is not complete until he gives to another, neither is Otoyo's. When Yasumoto has his crisis and collapses after nursing her, it is her joy to nurse him to health. She takes pleasure in giving him little attentions—brushing his hair from his face, tucking his hands under the cover, applying a cold compress to his forehead (attentions that would not be the same coming from Niide, as we saw earlier). Then her heart naturally goes out to Chobo and begins to work in him. All Niide has to do is not interfere. Only when Chobo is poisoned does the physician step in.

Niide also makes no distinction between "patients" and "nonpatients." Yasumoto comes as a doctor, Okuni comes looking for her father, and Chobo comes as a thief. But all need the balm of mercy; and Yasumoto, who thinks he doesn't need it, needs it most. Medicine, says Niide, is largely a fraud, the aura of the doctor a pretense—a pretense that we see Yasumoto cultivating in the beginning, when he is so possessive of his notes and even stoops to observe that a doctor can get rich just treating cataracts.

Red Beard is the crowning point of Kurosawa's artistic career. It took two years to film. He lavished attention on an authentic (and authentically worn) set and then brilliantly refrained from filming it: it achieved its purpose by bringing out marvelous performances from the actors. Every performance is perfect, the timing is perfect (though I admit I have been known to fast-forward through Sahachi's story), and the musical score is perfect. All this labor has born fruit in scenes that speak for themselves—with a grace and simplicity that testify, as nothing else could, to the might of the invisible soul. They are some of the most deeply moving moments ever captured on film.

© Published by the Australian League of Rights, P.O. Box 27 Happy Valley, SA 5159