The Courage of Compassion – Akira Kurosawa’s Red Beard
Two giants of Japanese cinema have made a global cultural impact. One is Godzilla. The other, Toshiro Mifune. It is not uncommon for critics to compare Mifune’s screen presence to that of a glorious feral beast (Fujii). It is impossible to be immune to his raw energy, which seems to flow in untrammeled torrents. He has been called the archetypal ronin, the samurai without a master. Films like Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954) and Kihachi Okamoto’s Samurai Assassin (1965) capture Mifune’s ronin persona, a rebel against authority, a leonine warrior tearing away at the constraints that hold him, with sometimes comic, sometimes tragic results. Mifune was also absolutely dashing as the highly disciplined swordsman Miyamoto Musashi in Hiroshi Inagaki’s fabulous historical Samurai Trilogy (1954-56). Whether rebellious ronin or reserved samurai, Mifune lives the role with verve. But the proof of Mifune’s versatility is that for an actor who is often invested with the aura of a demigod on screen, he can play the most human and humane role with equal elan. On his centennial, I would like to look at Mifune’s most powerful performance in and as Akira Kurosawa’s Red Beard (1965).
Red Beard is as much the story of its titular character as it is of an institution, a public clinic in 19th Century Edo, Japan, and Kurosawa spared no effort to create a setting as authentic as possible. Yasumoto (Yuzo Kayama), a young doctor, aspires to be the physician of the Shogun, which would be financially rewarding as well as guaranteeing social status. By circumstances beyond his will, he becomes an intern at a rural clinic in Koshikawa. The head doctor is Kyojo Niide (Mifune), referred to by his nickname Akahige (“Red Beard”). Red Beard is from a samurai background, but seems to have no regrets at all over his personal loss of status. His weapon is not a sword but a medicine spoon, and his courage is expressed not in combat (though he does trash a dozen baddies to save a girl), but in compassion. However, his compassion is not mellow; it is gruff and sturdy. An intern who is graduating tells Yasumoto that Red Beard is “stubborn, inconsiderate, radical, and proud.”
Indeed, at first encounter, Yasumoto is put-off by Red Beard’s demeanor and vows to rebel against his authority and leave the clinic as soon as possible. He flouts and disobeys Red Beard’s commands. He then has a close brush with death owing to an encounter with a suicidal femme fatale, but Red Beard saves him in time. As he recuperates, Yasumoto recognizes the strength of Red Beard’s character and voluntarily converts to his weltanschauung (world view). Red Beard believes that “medical knowledge belongs to everyone”. He identifies poverty as the real disease, but he does not view it as a political problem. To him, poverty is an ethical problem to be faced by both the conscientious individual and society.
Encountering several destitute patients, to whom Red Beard provides succor and sanctuary as a benevolent patriarch, Yasumoto discards his initial ambition for a prestigious job and chooses to remain and work at Red Beard’s clinic. The film follows Yasumoto’s emotional growth and transformation; this is caused chiefly by Red Beard’s example, but other characters also play an important role. Crucial among them is Otoyo, a 12-year-old child who has been rescued from a cruel brothel by Red Beard. She falls ill and Yasumoto tries to treat her. Abused from a young age, the child refuses to trust him and will not take the medicine he tries to give her. Yasumoto gives up in exasperation. In arguably the most emotional scene of the film, Red Beard patiently tries to cajole Otoyo into taking her medicine. At first, she rudely refuses as she did with Yasumoto, but his warmth and persistence overpower her and she takes the medicine.
Watching this scene, I was reminded of an African folk tale that I read in my childhood of a woman trying to win the affections of her recalcitrant stepson. She consults a wise man in the village and he tells her that he can solve this problem only if she can bring him three strands of hair from the mane of a particularly ferocious lion. With great patience, she befriends the lion and wins his trust so much that when she plucks the hair from his mane, he does not so much as growl at her. The wise man tells her that this patience will also eventually win over her stepson. Red Beard teaches a similar lesson of compassionate patience to Yasumoto. For Yasumoto, this is a moment not merely of bodhi, the Buddhist concept of awakening, but more so of illumination in the Augustinian sense: The Light enters him from an external source. Kurosawa creates this “miracle” where two totally different individuals, a damaged underprivileged child and a privileged but sensitive man, are converted by the power of compassion. Red Beard is clearly Kurosawa’s most explicitly humanist film, inspired by Dostoevsky’s Christian existentialism.
Though Mifune is the titular character of the 185-minute film, he appears in less than one-third of the running time. Yet, his screen presence is such that you feel the force of his character even when he is not on the screen. Red Beard’s spirit is in every frame. When he is not there, you anticipate his arrival and when he has exited, the gentle taste of his firm kindness lingers. When he treats his patients, his warmth is expressed in every gesture of his body and oozes out of the screen. Mifune’s most powerful role was also his most composed and profound one. Was this the man who, as the ronin, the mercenary, the warrior, single-handedly laid waste to dozens of opponents in so many of his other films? If Mifune the star was spellbinding as a killer in samurai films, Mifune the actor was overpowering as a healer in Red Beard.
Red Beard is also famous for being the final collaboration between Kurosawa and Mifune. After working together in 16 memorable films, this actor-director duo split following their greatest. Separations needn’t be painful; they can be poignant too. There are several theories on why this happened. Stuart Galbraith argues in The Emperor and the Wolf: The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune, that business concerns for Mifune and Kurosawa’s revulsion at the appearance of his favorite artist in other “inferior films” (and, in particular, a television commercial made during the filming of Red Beard in which Mifune appeared with his bleached beard) brought about the split (384). Donald Richie, the prominent historian of Japanese cinema, adds in his review of Galbraith’s book that “Kurosawa was famous for monopolizing those he needed and dropping those he did not.” These observations are in all probability factual. But I think the Truth lies in the art itself.
In the documentary Mifune: The Last Samurai (Steven Okazaki, 2015), Martin Scorsese suggests that in such collaborations, there is a point where the artists use each other up, and then they part ways with love and respect. That there was such a sentiment between the two even after the split is evident from several of Mifune’s statements on Kurosawa and from Kurosawa’s portrait of Mifune in his autobiography. But there is something more important at work here in Kurosawa’s mind. Kurosawa says that in his films he likes to work with “unformed characters” as he finds their journey to perfection to be most interesting from an artistic point of view (129-130). In every filmic collaboration with Mifune, from Drunken Angel (1948) to High and Low (1963), there has always been a change or growth in Mifune’s character. In Red Beard, however, Mifune’s character is already fully formed to perfection. The other characters around him grow and change, because of him. Red Beard is in no journey; he is the destination. Between Kurosawa and Mifune, Red Beard was an appropriate culmination of a sublime artistic relationship. Neither man could give the other anything further. They had already arrived at their supreme destination in Red Beard.
Fujii, Moeko. “Who Is That Man? Mifune at 100.” The Criterion Collection. (April 3, 2020): https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/6879-who-s-that-man-mifune-at-100
Galbraith, Stuart. The Emperor and the Wolf: The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. London: Faber & Faber, 2003.
Kurosawa, Akira. Something Like an Autobiography. Vintage: New York, 1983.
Richie, Donald. “Irreconciliable Differences/ A fascinating Account of Mifune and Kurosawa’s Artistic Partnership and Split.” SFGATE (March 10, 2002): https://www.sfgate.com/books/article/Irreconcilable-differences-A-fascinating-2865620.php