An idle and socially ambitious intern learns the meaning of responsibility under the guidance of an authoritarian but humane doctor in Kurosawa's meticulously crafted tale
Red Beard (Akahige), the last and most ambitious of Akira Kurosawa's collaborations with Toshiro Mifune, marks the end of one of the most remarkable actor-director relationships in the history of cinema. Between 1948 and 1965, Kurosawa directed 17 films, 16 of which starred Mifune. This intimate and engrossing epic, with Mifune in the role of a doctor for the second time under Kurosawa's direction, is a fitting culmination of their long partnership.
Red Beard took two years to shoot – longer even than the epic Seven Samurai. The action is set at the very end of the Tokugawa period in the 1860s, a time of crucial transition, when the Shogunate that had ruled Japan for nearly three centuries was about to be overthrown and the country, forcibly opened up to Western influences, was undergoing far-reaching changes.
In a rural clinic, the authoritarian but humane Dr Niide (Toshiro Mifune) teaches the idle and socially ambitious new intern Yasumoto (Yuzo Kayama) the meaning of responsibility, first to oneself and then to others. The film unfolds in a series of vignettes which transform the arrogant student into a caring doctor. This theme of the learning process within a master-pupil relationship is one that constantly recurred in Kurosawa's work.
The meticulous Kurosawa insisted on constructing virtually an entire small town for shooting, complete with back alleys and side streets, some of which were never even filmed, and on using nothing but authentic materials of the period. The set was so elaborate that it attracted the interest of tourist companies, who ran special bus tours for visitors.