Dir: Akira Kurosawa
So rare a movie is this. I have seen my fair share of them in my time. I have seen them explore every possible emotion, conflict, relationship, event or meaning. And certainly movies have been made that have trod the same ground as Red Beard. But few. And even fewer this well.
Kurosawa's final film with Toshiro Mifune is about kindness and compassion in a bleak world. And where most movies might have focused on the crushing weight of poverty and abuse, Kurosawa chooses to focus on how we treat each other as we die, letting acts of charity and selflessness stand as testament to the goodness of some people when goodness is needed most. Yuzo Kayama plays a young doctor assigned against his will to a remote and poverty stricken health clinic run by the venerable Red Beard. The transition of Kayama's character from ambitious theorist to compasisonate caregiver is told through a series of encounters with patients. Each has their own story of woe and each has their own way of facing death. Lacking a grand plot, a cynic might view the movie as a "true meaning of Christmas" bit of triteness. But that person would have no heart. In fact, this is my favorite kind of movie; show me stories and people from whom I learn and understand myself better. Simple, clean and pure, those are the qualities that are the hardest to pull off in a film, and the most satisfying when done well.
The episodic nature of the story makes the movie feel like a novel or, even better, a collection of short stories where we learn about the cross section of humanity through representative anecdotes. As a result, the film's three hours are never heavy or slow; none of the episodes misses that mark and each is sufficiently distinct. As always, Criterion has done a perfect job of transfering the film and editing the sound. Kurosawa uses shadow and make-up to render the death scenes both incredibly creepy and oddly beautiful; one easily sees here the Japanese ghost aesthetic that would dominate their horror genre fifty years later.
For Red Beard, curing the disease is the least significant part of health care. It is the soul, worn down by the world, that is both the cause of illness and the key to care. Kurosawa approaches a Freudian explanation for mental causes, and pulls no punches in his Dickensian tales of neglect, poverty and familial destruction. But the preaching and politics is always done in the interests of character development. Transformation comes in doing whatever one can in making this particular person's life worth living, if only in the final moments.
No samurais. No Western motifs. Just a compelling story that finds beauty in even the darkest moments. An inspiration of a film.