Toshiro Mifune ended his working relationship with Akira Kurosawa – one of the most productive star-director teamings of all time – with Red Beard (1965). The film took two years to shoot and Kurosawa insisted the actor grow and keep a real beard – in a black and white movie, the colour has to be taken on trust – throughout production, which meant Mifune lost a lot of other work opportunities. It must have rankled that sympathetic scheduling could have grouped all his scenes together since the Red Beard character isn’t even the lead, and is absent from whole stretches of the movie.
Based on a short story collection by Shugoro Yamamoto, it’s a Japanese take on the medical soap format familiar to British and American audiences through TV shows like Dr Finlay’s Casebook and Dr Kildare. A brash younger doctor is apprenticed to a crusty older physician and learns humanity to go with his skills, being groomed to take over the practice. In mid-19th century, ambitious Dr Yasumoto (Yuzo Kayama) plans to become the shogun’s personal physician, but must first serve time at a free clinic run by Dr Niide (Mifune), aka Redbeard, whose seeming eccentricities are rooted in advanced medical thinking. Patients complain about the lack of tatami mats and being forced to wear white clothes – both sanitary measures – and Yasumoto is appalled to find out what poor sick people smell like.
A series of cases teach Yasumoto lessons and are pegs for other stories, which add up to a picture of a small town (a huge set was built) and its intrigues. A house behind the clinic is a confine for a woman known as the Mantis (Kyoko Kagawa), an abuse victim who has become basically a serial killer – she ties men up with her obi while embracing them, then stabs with a sharpened hairpin. A dying man, loved by his neighbours, is found to have the skeleton of his wife in his garden and explains their strange story – revealing that all his good works are expiation for his wife’s death. A battered girl is rescued from a brothel, which spurs an amazing set-piece fight scene – Kurosawa, a masterful action director, stages one of the first great instances of a lone superskilled good guy beating up a horde of thugs – as Mifune uses his doctor fu to break the arms and legs of a bunch of layabout pimps, then regrets the misuse of his knowledge.
The stories entwine soap-style, as the mood changes from medical drama to tragedy to comedy to horror to melodrama to social critique, with a box set’s worth of character arcs. It’s even got an earthquake.
I featured the character of the Mantis in my novel Anno Dracula One Thousand Monsters.
NB: a format change means that a couple of pieces which would have featured in my Empire column are now going to be web exclusives. This is one of them.