Marking the conclusion of one of the greatest director-actor collaborations in cinema history, Red Beard (Akahige) is as beautiful, heartfelt & life-affirming as it is tragic, upsetting & heartbreaking. Crafted with genuine care, told with everlasting compassion, and led by compelling performances, the film presents a master filmmaker & his long-term protégé at the top of their game and is one of their most memorable works together.
Set in 19th century Tokyo, the story follows a young, arrogant & self-centered intern who aspires to be a personal physician for a wealthy family but unexpectedly finds himself assigned to a rural clinic. Livid & unwilling at first, he slowly begins to learn that there is more to being a doctor than just wealth & status, and under the tutelage of his superior – a proud, experienced, hard-bitten but considerate director – he becomes a caring & selfless man.
Directed by Akira Kurosawa (Ikiru & Seven Samurai), Red Beard is driven by the teacher-disciple relationship that is allowed to simmer & develop at an undisturbed pace. Kurosawa lets each n every sequence play out in its entirety, and offers ample space for all characters to breathe & evolve. His understanding of the human condition is second to none and it helps him immensely in sketching complex characters that the audience can relate to, invest in, and empathize with.
Also, Related to Red Beard – Throne of Blood  Review – Akira Kurosawa’s misfire
For the period setting, Kurosawa leaves no stone unturned to make sure all the set pieces are accurate & meticulously detailed, which in turn gives the medical clinic an authentic look n feel. Red Beard also happens to be the last Akira Kurosawa film to be shot in black-n-white, and the greyscale photography is sharp, crisp & refined. The widescreen format provides a vast canvas for this 185 minutes story to be told. And it effectively utilizes all the director’s trademarks, including the weather playing a pivotal role.
Yūzō Kayama plays the film’s protagonist and it is through his eyes that we witness all the events that unfold. A splendid performance from the then-novice actor, he is in as the young intern who is rebellious at first but ultimately learns the value of human life under the guidance of the wise & patient senior doctor nicknamed Red Beard — Toshiro Mifune in one of his most subtle & measured acts. Also worthy of mention is Terumi Niki who chips in with an innocent & multilayered rendition of a little girl rescued from a local brothel.
As mentioned before, the doctor-intern relationship is the film’s driving force but that is not all there is to this story. While their bond does provide a sturdy backbone to the narrative, it is through their cases that Kurosawa explores themes of social injustice, poverty, abuse, trauma, death, existentialism & humanism. The patients we witness are shaped by either poverty or abuse. And through one little girl’s traumatic case, the director argues that sanity can be restored even in the most shattered people if one cares diligently, treats people kindly, and nurtures them properly.
Also, Read – The Tale of Zatoichi  Review – The Magnificent First Chapter Featuring the Illustrious Fictional Swordsman
On an overall scale, Red Beard is one of the most human films out there that not only has its big heart placed at the right spot but also has a strong grasp of its character’s motivations, understanding & underlying humanity. Toshiro Mifune is remarkably restrained for the most part but there is one scene where he loses his cool and goes full yakuza on a few people and it is glorious to watch. Finding light in the darkest of corners, striking a deep chord that resonates with our hearts, and timeless for its universal themes that are still relevant today, Red Beard is a fitting finale for Kurosawa-Mifune alliance, for it signifies the rewarding journey of an auteur who took a young talent full of vigor & vitality under his wing and made a full-fledged star out of him. Very highly recommended.