Red Beard

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Red Beard
Theatrical release poster
Directed byAkira Kurosawa
Screenplay by
Based onAkahige Shinryōtan [ja]
by Shūgorō Yamamoto
Produced by
Music byMasaru Sato
Distributed byToho
Release date
  • April 3, 1965 (1965-04-03)
Running time
185 minutes

Red Beard (Japanese: 赤ひげ, Hepburn: Akahige) is a 1965 Japanese film directed by Akira Kurosawa about the relationship between a town doctor and his new trainee. It takes place in Koishikawa, a district of Edo, towards the end of the Tokugawa period. The film was based on Shūgorō Yamamoto's 1959 short story collection, Akahige Shinryōtan (赤ひげ診療譚). Fyodor Dostoevsky's novel Humiliated and Insulted provided the source for a subplot about a young girl, Otoyo (Terumi Niki), who is rescued from a brothel.[1]

The film looks at the problem of social injustice and explores two of Kurosawa's favorite topics: humanism and existentialism. A few critics have noted the film to be reminiscent in some ways of Ikiru. Red Beard is the last black and white film of Kurosawa. The film was a major box office success in Japan but is known for having caused a rift between Mifune and Kurosawa, with this being the final collaboration between them after working on 16 films together. The film was screened in competition at the 26th Venice International Film Festival. Toshiro Mifune won a Volpi Cup for Best Actor for his performance in the film. It was also nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film.


Trained in a Dutch medical school in Nagasaki, the young and arrogant doctor Noboru Yasumoto aspires to the status of personal physician of the Shogunate, a position currently held by a close relative, and expects to progress through the privileged and insulated army structure of medical education. However, for Yasumoto's post-graduate medical training, he is assigned to a rural clinic under the guidance of Akahige ("Red Beard"), Dr Kyojō Niide. Under a gruff exterior, Dr Niide is a compassionate clinic director.

Yasumoto is initially livid at his posting, believing that he has little to gain from working under Red Beard. He assumes that Red Beard is only interested in seeing Yasumoto's medical notes from Nagasaki, and he rebels against the clinic director. He refuses to see patients or to wear his uniform, disdains the food and spartan environment, and enters a forbidden garden where he meets "The Mantis", a mysterious patient that only Dr. Niide can treat.

Yasumoto's former fiancée, Chigusa, had been unfaithful to him, ending their engagement, generating a disdain in him against relationships. As Yasumoto struggles to come to terms with his situation, the film tells the story of a few of the clinic's patients. One of them is Rokusuke, a dying man whom Dr. Niide discerns is troubled by a secret misery that is only revealed when his desperately unhappy daughter shows up. Another is Sahachi, a well-loved man of the town known for his generosity to his neighbours, who has a tragic connection to a woman whose corpse is discovered after a landslide. Dr Niide brings Yasumoto along to rescue a sick twelve-year-old girl, Otoyo, from a brothel (fighting off a local gang of thugs to do so) and then assigns the girl to Yasumoto as his first patient. Through his efforts to heal the traumatized girl, Yasumoto begins to understand the magnitude of cruelty and suffering around him, as well as his power to ease that suffering, and learns to regret his vanity and selfishness.

When Yasumoto himself falls ill, Dr Niide asks Otoyo to nurse him back to health, knowing that caring for Yasumoto will also be part of her own continued healing. Chigusa's younger sister, Masae, visits the clinic to check in on Yasumoto, telling him that his mother wants him to visit. Through his mother, Yasumoto learns that Chigusa now has a child with her new lover. Masae later makes a kimono for Otoyo, showing compassion that suggests she might be a good match for Yasumoto. Yasumoto's mother likes Masae and suggests marriage. Later, when a local boy, Chôji, is caught stealing food from the clinic, Otoyo shows him compassion and befriends him, passing on the compassion she received from Niide and Yasumoto. When the brothel's madam comes to the clinic to claim Otoyo and take her back to the brothel, the doctors and clinic staff refuse to let Otoyo go and chase the madam away. When Chôji and his destitute family try to escape their misery by taking poison together, the clinic doctors work to save them.

Yasumoto is offered the position of personal physician to the Shogunate he had so coveted. He agrees to marry Masae, but at the wedding announces that he will not accept the new position, but will stay at the clinic, turning down a comfortable and prestigious place in society to continue serving the poor alongside Dr. Niide.



The Criterion Collection DVD liner notes include an excerpt on Red Beard from Donald Richie's 1999 book The Films of Akira Kurosawa. It quotes Kurosawa as saying, while looking for something to do after finishing High and Low, he accidentally picked up Shūgorō Yamamoto's Red Beard. Although initially thinking it would make a good script for fellow director Horikawa, Kurosawa became so interested in it as he wrote, that he knew he would have to direct it himself. The director called the script quite different from the novel, specifically mentioning how the young girl main character is not even in the book. With this character, Kurosawa tried to show what Fyodor Dostoevsky showed using the character Nellie in Humiliated and Insulted.[2]

Filming took two years, longer than any other Japanese film. Kurosawa got sick twice during filming, while Mifune and Kayama fell ill once each. The set was intended to be as realistic and historically accurate as possible. Richie wrote that the main set was an entire town with back alleys and side streets, some of which were never even filmed. The materials used were actually about as old as they were supposed to be, with the tiled roofs taken from buildings more than a century old and all of the lumber taken from the oldest available farmhouses. Costumes and props were "aged" for months before being used; the bedding (made in Tokugawa-period patterns) was actually slept in for up to half a year before shooting. The wood used for the main gate was over a hundred years old, and after filming, it was re-erected at the entrance to the theater that hosted Red Beard's premiere.[2]

Richie wrote that one could argue that Kurosawa "completely wasted his million yen set," as the main street is seen for only one minute (although its destruction was incorporated into the earthquake scene). Likewise, the scenes with the bridges and those in the elaborately constructed paddy are also rather brief. However, tourist bus companies did run tours through the set during the two years it took to make Red Beard.[2]

According to Stephen Prince's audio commentary on the Criterion Collection DVD, Red Beard was shot at an aspect ratio of 2.35:1. It was Kurosawa's first film to make use of a magnetic 4-track stereo soundtrack and principal photography took two years.[1]


The film opened to highly positive reviews in Japan with many happening to refer to it as Kurosawa's magnum opus. However, the film garnered mixed response from the Western audience and failed commercially.[3] The film won the Best Film award by the Japanese film magazine kinema Junpo.

The film has an aggregate of 73% on rotten tomatoes based on 15 critic reviews.[4]

Roger Ebert gave the film four stars on a review made on 26 December 1969 and mentioned, "Akira Kurosawa's Red Beard is assembled with the complexity and depth of a good 19th–century novel, and it's a pleasure, in a time of stylishly fragmented films, to watch a director taking the time to fully develop his characters."[5] Michael Sragow of The New Yorker wrote, "This 1965 film, the last of Akira Kurosawa's collaboration with Toshiro Mifune, is often derided as a soap opera. But the story of a grizzled nineteenth-century doctor nicknamed Red Beard (Mifune) and his green physician (Yuzo Kayama) who learns human medical values from him — is actually a masterpiece."[6]


  1. ^ a b Stephen Prince audio commentary to Criterion Collection DVD release
  2. ^ a b c "Red Beard". The Criterion Collection. November 19, 1989. Retrieved 2020-11-28.
  3. ^ "50 years ago today: Akira Kurosawa's Red Beard released". 3 April 2015. Retrieved 8 January 2020.
  4. ^ Rotten Tomatoes. "Red Beard 1965". Retrieved 8 January 2020.
  5. ^ Roger Ebert (26 December 1969). "Red Beard movie review & film summary 1969(Roger Ebert)". Retrieved 8 January 2020.
  6. ^ The New Yorker. "Red Beard :The New Yorker". Retrieved 8 January 2020.

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