Akahige, Kurosawa’s only bildungsroman after Sugata and No Regrets for Our Youth, appropriately involves the aging Toshiro Mifune (who would never again work with Kurosawa) passing on the torch to a younger protege. This film also marks the end of a very long, productive phase for Kurosawa—infancy as a film artist through middle-age—and the beginning of the old man, whose grammar would regress to childhood with 1970’s Dodes’kaden before a failed suicide attempt would spur him towards one of his greatest critical achievements, a masterpiece of colossal bitterness, Ran. Of course, Mifune’s lips are really the master’s, and even by 1965 he hadn’t decided whether humanity was worth salvation or not. Here, the answer is yes. By the time of Ran, affirmatively no.
Akahige is also a watershed film in at least one other respect, that being in its use of stereo sound. Kurosawa’s approach with 4-track stereo is similar to his earlier approach, except for those trademark moments that require punctuation. His combination of orchestral crescendos with ambient sounds and voice-over is startling, particularly when the wind begins to howl or chimes peal out.
Dr. Kyojô Niide (Mifune) is called ‘Red Beard’ by his supplicants and his disciples, including our young protagonist Dr. Noboru Yasumoto (Yûzô Kayama), the newest addition to the staff of the Koshikawa Clinic. Yasumoto is given the standard tour by a disgruntled protege who leads Yasumoto to believe that Red Beard is a physician-tyrant, maniacally dedicated to his craft and cleaved to his own wanton regulations. Yasumoto was not expecting to work under Red Beard, thinking his visit would be a mere inspection to further his education; then he discovers that his father-in-law has plotted against him as he is to remain under Red Beard’s jurisdiction at Koshikawa indefinitely. Yasumoto is a trained physician, fresh out of a prestigious university in Nagasaki, and he’s already assembled vast documents of clinical study. Working as a resident doctor is a sleight to his self-respect as he thought himself on the fast-track to becoming the Shogun’s personal physician.
Akahige is a long film divided in two parts and separated by an intermission. The first part traces Yasumoto’s bevelled path to illumination. Yasumoto is intelligent, stubborn, prideful, soft, inexperienced and blinded by sacrosanctity; it takes a number of frightful pangs for him to come around to understanding the Hippocratic oath. Red Beard charges him with observing a man’s last moments on Earth, so that he might understand the solemnity of death and discover his true calling. Then he has Yasumoto pin a woman’s legs as she undergoes surgery unassisted by sedatives. These and other brushes with mortality will make fissures in his prideful lineaments, and by intermission we have a dedicated disciple.
Kurosawa gets away from the principal narrative (enough to make this reviewer weary) to focus on side-stories that assist in illuminating his humanist philosophy. One of these is a series of flashbacks drawn from the lips of a man resigned to death, beautifully rendered by image and sound, almost heartbreaking, but nevertheless too broad in scope. An interesting biographical aside for Kurosawa is included here when the dying Sahachi relives the painful memory of an earthquake that felled his entire neighborhood and led him to believe his beloved had perished. Kurosawa has remarked on the childhood experience of an earthquake many times, one that reverberates through his films and connects him closely to the memory of his older brother.1
The film’s second half is less sprawling, but too sentimental. In one of the more embarrassing scene ideas Kurosawa ever scripted, Red Beard surgically impairs with karate chops about a dozen thugs all by himself. This is a professed humanist and a doctor who takes his oath seriously—he went to the brothel in the first place to check up on a sickly girl—so to have him injure a dozen brothel heavies is totally out of character and strains credibility. It’s filmed in the manner of your average chambara sword-fight, so there’s a little bit of reminiscing about the good ole days going on. That sickly girl, Otoyo (Terumi Niki), turns into Yasumoto’s first patient. He nurses her in spite of her stubborn defiance till he falls ill of exertion. Then she nurses him out of affection and in the process heals herself. It sounds maudlin, and it is. Yasumoto’s positive influence on the girl is swung toward a little thief who steals rice for his family. Her influence on the boy rescues him from his parents’ attempt to poison their whole family out of the desperation of poverty.
And poverty is an ever-present curse, waxed upon philosophically by Red Beard and his tenants in the first half, then demonstrated through the travails of the thief and his family in the second. It doesn’t escape Red Beard’s notice that poverty is at the root of most illnesses and his helplessness at only being able to treat its effects haunts his professional path. He’s in the mire with peasants and outcasts and people forgotten by their relatives, so he comes to realize the best he can do is accord them their dignity. It is this lesson he tries to impress upon Yasumoto.
Unfortunately for viewers everywhere, Akahige dwells in the averageness of parabolic storytelling, where the images are in service to the parable. Kurosawa in his greatest films, with a method he largely invented, produces narrative out of strong visual notions; he is at his best when narrative proceeds from his visual imagination. With this film it simply didn’t happen. It is literary cinema aimed at the lowest-common-denominator. And boring. That doesn’t mean the film can’t be affecting for some. No Kurosawa film is without its strengths and this one has some, but it’s affecting at best, not dream-inspiring or life-altering.
1 A good point of reference: Kurosawa’s “Something Like an Autobiography”.