June 26, 2010

Red Beard

Some films go straight to the point: others meander through their storylines showing you interesting side avenues and directing you to inspect a feature or a moment with more clarity. Red Beard, Kurosawa's last black and white feature and the last of his to star Toshiro Mifune is definitely amongst the latter. That choice is crucial to the point that the film wants to make though and therefore is justified. The film is about Dr Yasumoto who comes from Nagasaki where he has spent years training with the Dutch in Western medicine to the clinic of Red Beard which is funded by the government to treat poor patients. Yasumoto has come to this clinic because his fiance has broken with him and his family believe that a stint in the slums will cure him of his arrogant posture of unrelenting anger. Thus he comes to the clinic with an attitude, and the film is about the process in which he is slowly disarmed, slowly taken down and comes to realise the importance of a doctor's role as being to treat the poor and hungry, not the rich and fat. Yasumoto has to abandon in this process his conceit of himself as an educated scientist who knows the answers, has to abandon his conceit that he is above those he treats and finally has to abandon his own personal amour propre. Presiding over this process is the ubiquitous Red Beard.

We see this process through a number of cases that Yasumoto is involved in. All of them serve didactically to teach him and us lessons about the poor. We start with the mantis- a woman who has attacked and killed any man who has come close to her, a consequence of child abuse in her early life (though Red Beard unkindly argues, an echo of the 1960s perhaps, that many girls have been abused and few end up as murderers). Yasumoto believes he can cure her and once when she escapes, he tries to talk to her about her problems. She talks to him in an incredible scene, at once terrified of the doctor, at once seducing him. And then falls into his arms and tries to kiss and then to stab him through the neck. Yasumoto only just survives- thanks to the arrival of Red Beard who disarms the mantis and saves him. The lesson is clear that Yasumoto's medicine is not sufficient: it cannot cure all ills. This is the lesson of a second episode where Yasumoto is instructed by Red Beard to watch the last moments of Rokusuke, formerly a prosperous man, destroyed by circumstances. The clicking last breaths of the dying man are terrifying both to the viewer and to Yasumoto- as he dies in his own private hell, we see that the doctor can do nothing in those circumstances, nothing to help the patient, nothing to ease the pain or cure the disease. As Red Beard says to Yasumoto in the end all diseases are incurable- all doctors do is provide rational explanations and hope to ease the pain of death.

The next patient we encounter is Sahachi who has literally worked himself to death, worked whilst well and ill and done the tasks that others are asked to do. Sahachi is popular and loved amongst the rest of the inmates of the clinic. He dies and confesses though about his own life- which involved a tragically doomed marriage. Sahachi has attempted since that marriage ended to atone for the past by working his own way to death: death for him is a consumation, rather than something to be avoided. It is a dismissal to rest. What we encounter through Sahachi and also through another patient- a 12 year old girl Otoyo- is the nobility of the poorest people. Otoyo is rescued by Red Beard from a brothel- Red BEard in a wonderfully comical sequence fights off the brothel's band of toughs, breaking jaws, legs and arms in the process- and Yasumoto is asigned to cure her. Eventually he falls ill but Otoyo is cured by curing him- her problems are not merely phsyical, the effects of abuse in the brothel including probably child prostitution, but also mental. Her scars are partly releived by finding people who can love her and treat her well- Yasumoto, Red Beard, a small thief called Yobo and eventually the rest of the clinic staff. Her increasing nobility refines Yasumoto's character as well- giving him the compassion required for a doctor and an ordinary man.

I have sketched out so far the plot. It is a manifesto in a sense for medical science- which recognises both the ignorance of the doctor and the importance of the doctor. It does not dismiss medical science: Red Beard uses Yasumoto's notes but it sees it as instrumental to the end- the patient's well being. In a similar sense its underlying message is that maturity comes in seeing oneself as instrumental to the happiness of others: in forgiving ill treatment but operating with realism in a world filled with scoundrels. The power of the film lies partly in its didactic nature- but that is also its weakness. Some of the argument is delivered with sentimentality, some is delivered in longeurs that could be sped up. The second part of thsi argument is against inequality: this is a film that argues the poor have as much right to live as the rich. That living with poverty contaminates morality and eventually the body as well. That the poor's lives are as noble and profound as the lives of the wealthy. It does not prescribe how to acheive poverty but Kurosawa tells the audience that poverty is an evil and that to cure the rich may be easy, but to cure the poor is moral.