Between 1948 and 1965 Toshirô Mifune made 16 films with Akira Kurosawa. They were the Japanese equivalent of John Wayne and John Ford, though the Japanese pair had more range than the two Johns. (This is not a put-down, but a simple observation; I love the Wayne/Ford movies.) Red Beard was their last collaboration. The split seems to have come about because Kurosawa, a perfectionist to rival Kubrick, insisted Mifune have a real beard for the two years it took to shoot this movie, and that meant Mifune couldn’t take another part in all that time. It almost ruined him financially, and though Red Beard was a great success, it marked the beginning of a long and terrible career decline for both men. Kurosawa might never have made another movie—he made an unsuccessful suicide attempt—if not for foreign admirers and investors like George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola. What an idea, to think the world might have missed Kagemusha and Ran. Thank you, George and Francis.
You learn so many interesting facts researching these movies at the IMDb and elsewhere online! I didn’t know Mifune was born and raised in China. He was a fluent speaker of Mandarin, and although he was pure Japanese, he never set foot in Japan until he was 21. And this quote:
Of Akira Kurosawa: “I am proud of nothing I have done other than with him.”
In my personal ranking, I’d put Red Beard somewhere in the upper middle of Kurosawa films. I think it’s a bit long for its subject matter, which is of a young, cocky doctor forced to work in a charity hospital run by a cranky older and wiser man, near the end of the Tokugawa shogunate, early 1800s. Bit of a cliché story, actually, but as always there is much more to a Kurosawa film, including the delights of his long-lens photography and superb lighting, great performances by Mifune and Yuzo Kayama and Terumi Niki, and his willingness to let a scene play much longer than is usually possible in Hollywood, to get at the real emotion. (Okay, I take back that crack about it being too long.) This is a very bleak-looking film, I can hardly recall seeing a growing thing in it and most of the people in it are dying. But the message is of service to a greater good, and of hope.