Retro: our movie & TV vault... a fresh look
at neglected classics and cult favourites
In 19th century Japan, a young ambitious doctor, Yasumoto (Yuzo Kayama), is taken on
as assistant to older Dr Niide (Toshiro Mifune), who is nicknamed 'Red Beard' because
of the colour of his hair. At first Yasumoto resents being stuck in a small charity
clinic in a poor region of Japan, but under Niide's guidance he learns the value of his
Red Beard (aka: Akahige) was at the time the most expensive film, and one of the longest, to be made in Japan, and it took three years to make. The result is an engrossing, though certainly overlong, film that is surprising in quite a few ways. It's also graced by a dynamic performance from Mifune, in his last film for the director. Filmed in black and white Scope (despite the title!), Red Beard does give a strong picture of its place and time. For 1965, its content is unusually tough: some medical procedures are graphically portrayed and this is one of the earliest films (along with Sam Fuller's The Naked Kiss) to deal with the subject of child sexual abuse. And, although we're a long way away from the samurai films which Kurosawa is best known for, there's a very violent fight scene complete with bone-crunching sound effects, where Red Beard sees off some bandits. No doubt the subtitles and the film's artistic credentials helped the film pass through the BBFC intact with an X certificate (The Naked Kiss was banned outright at the time), and it's still strong enough to earn a 15 certificate nowadays.
Red Beard has an expansive, epic feel to it, despite the smaller-scale subject matter, and it holds the interest well despite the three-hour length.
The BFI's DVD has an anamorphic transfer in the correct ratio of 2.35:1. A surprise comes with the soundtrack, which is in Dolby digital 5.0. No, the BFI aren't taking a leaf out of Anchor Bay's book and remixing mono soundtracks unnecessarily. It seems that Red Beard was made and shown with a magnetic stereo soundtrack. In practice, much of the film is monophonic with some separation in Masaru Sato's score and some directional effects especially in an earthquake scene. You have the option of playing the film with its built-in intermission or without it, giving the running times of 177:28 and 172:57 minutes respectively.
The extras include a 14-minute introduction by Alex Cox, some sections of which also appear in the introductions to the BFI's other Kurosawa DVDs. Other extras are biographies of Kurosawa and Mifune, a stills gallery and the original poster.