Red beard is the sixteenth one in a string successful, internationally recognized movie collaborations of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and also their last one together - neither managed to achieve the same level of success after parting ways.
Kurosawa's movies after Red Beard, never again had a powerful hero, the type typified on screen by Mifune. He turned towards darker themes – even his lavishly mounted Kagemusha and Ran were epical tragedies. Mifune on his part didn’t get any more career defining roles.
Red Beard is special for other reasons also. The sets and the setting are said to be recreated to an almost perfect detail by Kurosawa. Mifune once remarked that Kurosawa would re-shoot an entire sequence if he found a chopstick out of place. Known for being a stickler for perfect props, Kurosawa excels himself in this movie. No wonder, Red Beard sits atop his oeuvre.
Toshiro Mifune plays a compassionate and strong-willed doctor Dr.Niide who runs a state-funded clinic for poor. The resources are always scares so he has to come up with inventive ways of finding funds. He doesn’t baulk from milking rich people and blackmailing them if needed.
Yuzo Kayama plays Yamamoto, his unwilling apprentice (He is the one who played lead Samurai in Sanjuro). After studying in Dutch hospitals in Nagasaki he dreams of becoming a doctor in Shogunate; a run down clinic is nowhere on the agenda. But circumstances force him into the clinic run by Mifune. He sulks initially in hopes of getting thrown out. But a series of events make him take a re-look at his aspirations in life.
Mifune and Kayama’s relationship reminded me of his and Takashi Shimura in Stray Dog. In both movies, the novice has to deal with internal strife that leads to an eventual self-realization. There are differences in how they approach the masters, but the essence struck me as the same.
Not just for props, Kurosawa apparently spent months in finalizing the shade of Mifune's beard. The result of such attention Kurosawa paid to minute details is that you do not feel you're watching a black and white movie.
There are many interesting sub-plots that take the movie forward. Mifune gets a chance to showcase his physical prowess too when he roughs up a bunch of thugs. All the bone-breaking at a break neck speed, one could almost see him sporting a Samurai sword.
The great earthquake scenes look very authentic; apparently the sets made for Yojimbo were brought down for those scenes. There’s a scene with a lady looking at the unimaginable devastation, black smokes bellowing behind her – glimpses of Sun behind the smoke; it’s a painting in motion.
Sato's music also deserves a special mention. The trailer available in the DVD shows us a glimpse of music recording. It is very impressive. We also get to see Kurosawa in action on the sets.
Time spent watching this movie is a well spent 3 hours.