Akahige (1965)

Or, in English, Red Beard.

Today is the birth centenary of one of my favourite actors, the Japanese star Toshiro Mifune. Born in Tsingtao (China) to Japanese parents on April 1, 1920, Mifune  first appeared in Japanese cinema in 1947. A year later, having met director Akira Kurosawa, Mifune was cast in his first Kurosawa film, Drunken Angel. Over the next eighteen years, Kurosawa and Mifune worked together on sixteen films, including several classics like The Seven Samurai, Rashomon, High and Low, and The Hidden Fortress. Alongside, Mifune continued to work with other directors, both Japanese and foreign (one of the more unusual Mifune films I’ve reviewed is Animas Trujano, a Mexican film). Mifune also starred in several Hollywood productions, and set up his own film production company in Japan.

Trying to decide on a Mifune film to review by way of celebration of his hundredth birthday was a tough task: should I go with an early one, like Drunken Angel or Stray Dog? Or one of the many samurai-period films that became almost synonymous with the Kurosawa-Mifune collaboration? Eventually, I settled on this one. Akahige or Red Beard, the last film this great actor and this equally great director made together. Kurosawa and Mifune fell apart during the making of Akahige, and parted ways—but the film itself displays none of that. On the contrary, it’s a well-made, very memorable film about humanity and humaneness.

Akahige begins with the arrival, at a Public Clinic, of the smart and obviously well-off Dr Noboru Yasumoto (Yuzo Kayama). To a doctor named Tsugawa (Tatsuyoshi Ehara), who shows Yasumoto around the clinic, Yasumoto makes it quite clear: he was sent here to call on them. Tsugawa insists that that’s not the case; they’ve been expecting him these past couple of weeks.

That can’t be, says Yasumoto. He has studied Dutch medicine at Nagasaki, and thanks to his father’s friend, an eminent doctor himself, Yasumoto has been promised a position as doctor to the shogun. The implication is obvious: why would someone so fine, so very well-qualified, work in a dump like the Public Clinic?

—And it does seem a dump. Tsugawa, who’s happy to be leaving this clinic, takes Yasumoto around and shows him the men’s ward (inhabited by a very frail lot of mostly old men), the women’s ward (where most of the women, again all old, are asleep), and the doctors’ quarters—they are damp and face away from the sunshine. The sun-facing rooms are all for the patients, thanks to Dr Niide, who heads the clinic.

Dr Niide, because of a pronounced reddish tinge to his beard, is called by all—doctors, patients, other staff—Akahige (literally, aka = red, hige = beard).  By the time Yasumoto meets the gruff and somewhat brusque Akahige (Toshiro Mifune), Yasumoto has managed to work himself up into a frenzy of indignation and arrogance. He is going back, he announces. He isn’t going to stay on here.

Akahige is unfazed. He tells Yasumoto that Yasumoto’s belongings, along with his medical notes from Nagasaki, should be arriving soon. Yasumoto should bring the notes to him, Akahige, when they arrive: he’d like to look through them. Yasumoto is shocked at Akahige’s cheek. Why should he peek at Yasumoto’s notes?

In short, Yasumoto refuses to conform. He refuses to wear the regulation uniform worn by Akahige, Tsugawa and the other doctor, Dr Mori (Yoshiyo Tsuchiya). He lies about, looking sullen. And when Tsugawa tries to egg him on to get up and stop sulking, Yasumoto actually runs off—coming up short at a small hut which sits at the far end of the clinic’s yard.

This is where Yasumoto glimpses, very briefly, one of the clinic’s most frustrating patients. This is a young and wealthy woman, daughter of a merchant. She’s described as something of a nymphomaniac: a very beautiful woman who seduces men and then murders them. She’s already killed three of her father’s clerks in this manner: by stabbing them with a hairpin. A distressed maid, Osugi (Reiko Dan), arrives just in time, back from some errand, and Yasumoto is left wondering about the patient.

This woman, though, becomes the means for Yasumoto’s first step into the work of the clinic. He is intrigued by the woman’s case—and, thanks to arrogance, claims that he might be able to cure her.

Yasumoto doesn’t realize it, but his wish is about to be granted: that evening, as the doctors are sitting together (Yasumoto being huffy and stuck-up as always), Osugi comes running, panicking because her mistress has escaped. The other doctors rush off in pursuit, leaving Yasumoto all by himself.

Shortly after, the door slides open and a beautiful woman enters. Yasumoto guesses who she is, of course, and with some prodding from him, she begins to tell him her story. It’s a sad tale of child abuse, of several instances of rape at the hands of various men. That was what made her this way; she’s not mad, she insists. Not mad at all.

She clings to him, crying, and Yasumoto is both flattered (after all, he’s managed to break down the defences of a difficult patient and has had her confiding in him) and confused (what is he to do now? It’s obvious that Yasumoto, while he may have been good at theory, has little practical knowledge of medicine). While he’s still trying to figure out what to do, the woman pulls her hair pin out and tries to stab him in the neck with it.

Fortunately for Yasumoto, Akahige comes running and manages to save him. When Yasumoto comes to, it’s to find Akahige looking after him. It’s a humbling—and awkward—experience for the haughty young intern, to find that the very man he’s been treating with contempt and vowing to run away from, has rescued him.

As the days go by, Yasumoto will meet many others. Some will be patients, like the long-time patient at the clinic, Sahachi (Tsutomu Yamazaki). Sahachi, who though he is in terrible pain and very weak, still insists on working in order to be able to earn money for those even weaker and poorer than him. Sahachi, who hides a sad and bitter secret.

Another man, once a skilled gold lacquer craftsman but now dying of liver cancer, will be the patient whom Akahige assigns to Yasumoto to watch dying: ‘because it’s a solemn occasion’—but which will drive Yasumoto berserk. That death will bring in its wake the dead man’s daughter, along with her three children. The daughter weeping and narrating a tale of abuse, while her children, given a dish of rice balls by the clinic’s cooks, eat it only when they’re certain nobody’s looking.

And there will be Otoyo (Terumi Niki), a young girl whom Akahige rescues from a nearby brothel. Otoyo has been ill-treated so much that her mind has gone all to bits along with her body.

From all of these people, and from their interactions with Akahige, the onlooker Yasumoto gets to see what sort of man Akahige is. A gruff, blunt man, but one who can be infinitely patient, deeply compassionate. A man for whom humanity is not about saying big words or claiming great things for science (in one memorable dialogue, Akahige in fact says that they, doctors, blunder along trying as best as they can to lessen suffering: there is never any certainty in what they do). A man who, self-admittedly, has no qualms about shamelessly overcharging his wealthy patients just so that he can have more to spend on those who cannot afford any medical help.

It will be a long internship, and a hard one. But it will contain valuable lessons in life for Yasumoto.

What I liked about this film:

Everything. The story is excellent, and the way it builds up—one vignette after another, one insight into Akahige and his philosophy after another—is superb. It’s believable, it does a fine job of showing rather than telling, and it’s never overdone.

Plus, there’s Kurosawa’s direction. I love the way he shows the story, the way he lets silences and expressions speak volumes. The way a grieving daughter, on being informed that her father died peacefully and in no pain, briefly forgets her own suffering and looks up with a gaze of profound relief and gratitude. Or how a woman, eavesdropping on a conversation between a girl and a little boy, crumples up and starts sobbing.

There is the sheer beauty of the frames, the light and the angles.

And there is Toshiro Mifune as Akahige. Blunt, brusque, deep-voiced, even his (trademark?) physical self, beating up a gang of goons all by himself (and then commanding Yasumoto to bind them up). Not a man who looks like the good doctor, but who is actually not just a very good doctor, but also a ‘great man’, as someone describes him near the end of the film. Mifune plays him so well, that even though Akahige doesn’t dominate the film when it comes to screen time, he is undoubtedly the central character here.

Akahige is a wonderful film. It’s tragic in places, but along with the heartbreak, there’s also warmth and love, the affirmation of goodness and kindness. This was a film that left me with a lump in my throat and a smile on my lips. Highly, highly recommended.

Thank you, Mifune-san. Thank you for the films.

11 thoughts on “Akahige (1965)

    • No problem, Anu.

      I guess this isn’t the sort of film that might appeal to a teenager, because it’s a bit subtle. I think if I’d watched it 30 years ago, I’d have been left with an impression of deep depression, not of the warmth which was now my reaction.

  1. Thanks for this review, Madhu. I share the love for Mifune in general and for “Red Beard” in particular. According to a joint biography on Mifune and Kurosawa, Mifune hadn’t planned for “Red Beard” to be his last collaboration with his friend and mentor , intending to only “take a break” from Kurosawa. While creatively satisfying, working on a Kurosawa project was an intense, exhausting, time-consuming affair and Mifune wanted to focus on more commercial fare that were both less taxing and more financially lucrative.

    • I’m so glad you enjoyed this review, Shalini. I had Akahige on my list for a long time, but only got around to seeing it now – and was wanting to bash myself for not having watched it earlier. Such a lovely movie.

      Thanks for that insight into what had happened. A pity they parted ways; I’d have loved to see more work from Kurosawa and Mifune as a team. They were so good together.

  2. Madhu,
    This is a wonderful review, and I can guess without your saying it that it must be a wonderful movie. I don’t know when or how I would be able to watch it. But I have added it to my list of must-watch. Thanks.
    AK

    • Yes, surprisingly timely. I had begun watching this film simply because I wanted to review it to commemorate Mifune’s birth centenary. That it turned out to be so timely was a coincidence. I echo your hope that we will come through this a better species: kinder, more accommodating, and with more respect for our planet and the other species that share it with us.

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