The Compassionate Kurosawa (Red Beard)

by Ezekiel Fry

The plot of Red Beard is lightly informed by a specific character from Dostoevsky’s little known novel The Insulted and Injured, but the narrative—the body of the film—owes more to Shuguro Yamamoto’s work. Kurosawa stated, Richie writes, “The script is quite different from the novel [Tales of Dr. Red Beard]. One of the major characters, a young girl, is not even found in the book. While I was writing I kept remembering Dostoevsky and I tried to show the same thing that he showed in the character of Nelli in The Insulted and Injured” (171). This statement is in direct opposition to Kurosawa’s initial handling of his favorite author’s work in The Idiot. Kurosawa takes a piece, a beautiful idea, from Dostoevsky and handles it in his own artistic manner. It is in the same manner that he handles the difficulty of adapting Shakespearian drama without the use of poetic language. Kurosawa’s genius lies not in retelling, but in taking that which excites his mind and using it as a springboard to create in his own fashion. The slavish dedication to the script found in The Idiot, although respectful to Dostoevsky, severely hamstrings Kurosawa’s own artistic voice and vision. With Red Beard this difficulty has been removed. The result is a film that embodies both Dostoevsky’s philosophy and Kurosawa’s. There is a magical sense of harmony in the composition of the film.
The initial resistance of Yasumoto is perhaps the only true road-bump in the course of the film. The fight at the brothel, Choji’s struggle for life towards the end of the film, and Otoyo’s initial illness and shyness, all seem a matter of course. Once Red Beard has planted the seed of brotherly love within Yasumoto’s heart (which truly happens from the moment his name is uttered in Yasumoto’s presence, but more on that later) everything proceeds exactly as it must. The influence of Red Beard is electric. In their initial meeting, Mori tells Yasumoto that he aspires to be like Red Beard one day. This sentiment carries through the film as Yasumoto begins to adopt the same feelings concerning his tutor. Red Beard himself has that powerful personality that demands to be seen and heard. He, in a much less tragic sense, resembles Melville’s Ahab in this regard. Moby-Dick’s monomaniacal captain holds sway over those around him, capturing their spirits and hearts in the wake of his giant persona. Red Beard does the very same thing. Both men are obsessed, monomaniacal, and exacting in achieving their ultimate goals. The difference between the two arises in what that ultimate goal might be. Ahab sees the nature of man’s existence and denies it. He lashes out at the mortality of man; he cannot abide the system under which he lives. In much the same way that Ivan, in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, denies God’s world, Ahab denies the system of things—the fact that we must die and never know ultimate truth. Red Beard instead accepts the system of things to the utmost. He understands that all things must die, all things must suffer. It is what we do to combat this inevitable suffering that makes the difference. His ultimate goal is to truly heal, to ease the unstoppable force that is pain. This is a goal that can never be completed. That does not change the necessity of working towards this end however, and Red Beard is equally purposeful in his quest. Red Beard functions much in the same way that Camus’ Dr. Rieux does in The Plague. He takes compassionate action—the humanist thing—not out of duty to a religion, or a belief that humanity can be cured, but simply because it is the right thing to do—the only thing to do. Red Beard does not believe that his actions will change the way of the world, as he states that poverty is not a political problem, and that illness is a spiritual as well as physical condition, but instead hopes to do his part to fight back the overwhelming tide that will never cease so long as human beings walk the planet. Viewed from a caustic perspective Red Beard’s quest is as insane and misguided as that of Ahab, but if we remove ourselves from the pessimistic stance of eternal suffering we can see that Red Beard does not hope to attack the problem head on. Not exactly. He takes each case as it comes, working on each little piece, each sliver of the great suffering mass as it comes into his sphere. He ventures out to work with the outpatients to be sure, but it is within the confines of his peaceful, harmonious clinic that his work truly progresses. He does not attack the entire world. He does not even attack the entire city. He is happy to have carved a small piece of land out to shelter humanity from the pestilential winds of the world. He does what is within him to do, nothing more. This is perhaps the great truth that Red Beard hands to his younger disciples and they in turn hand to those who they come into contact with. Humanity has an immense capacity for good, there lies an untapped reservoir within each of us that can change lives, but it must be directed and maintained, harnessed and controlled. To overstep one’s own capacities is to cause serious damage even though intentions are aligned with the good.
Yasumoto oversteps his capacities in his initial dealing with “The Mantis”. He intensely desires to save her, but his abilities are not up to the task of tackling such a serious case and he is very nearly destroyed. Red Beard admonishes him but understands that his intentions were indeed aligned with the good. Red Beard carefully directs Yasumoto to bite off less, but still demands the utmost—everything that Yasumoto can offer—and at first this is too much to ask, but our capacity to look at suffering and act in a noble manner grows as we become accustomed to it. As Kurosawa stated about Dostoevsky, Donald Richie writes, “He has this power of compassion. And then he refuses to turn his eyes away; he, too, looks; he, too, suffers” (81). This is the same way that Red Beard treats Yasumoto, and the very same way that Kurosawa treats us as viewers of Red Beard. It is no coincidence that this is the only of Kurosawa’s films to feature nudity. He, like Dostoevsky before him, cannot look away. He is filled with compassion and hope. With what some might term blind, or ignorant, optimism, faith in the human spirit that seems rigidly unshakable, he looks into the face of death, sickness, injustice, and does not avert his eyes. In the hands of someone less optimistic this would result in terror and grief, but Kurosawa, again like Dostoevsky, lifts up the collective corpse of mankind and reinvigorates it with youthful hope.