“Akahige” (Red Beard) was Kurosawa’s last black-and-white film, and his last widescreen (2.35:1 aspect ratio) one. Kurosawa enjoyed using both ends of the screen so that it is absolutely essential to see it in letterbox format that Criterion used in an impeccable transfer (they also did a great job of immaculate sound transfer).
The full-length (184 minute) commentary track by Stephen Prince explains the technical aspects of Kurosawa’s tracking, panning, and flattening perspective using telephoto lenses and cameras set at 90-degree angles to each other (Prince also goes into considerable detail about the diffusion of western medical ideas and practices into Japan and the medical ideas and practices of feudal Japan. Although delivered in something of a monotone, there is so much information presented so clearly that the commentary track would probably be of interest even to someone who does not like the movie but is interested in technical aspects of film-making.
I think that some shots are held a bit too long and that the exposition of the stories of the patients is a bit too detailed, but the performances are superb. The most crucial one is that delivered by Kayama Yuzo, who was a major Japanese heart-throb during the early-1960s. Mifune Toshirô ‘s mixture of the usual Mifune fierceness and Shimura-like compassionateness is impressive (if adumbrated in both “Sanjuro” [also based on a novel by Yamamoto Shøugorô] and, earlier, in “The Quiet Duel.” The supporting roles are also superbly portrayed (Shimura Takashi —who appeared in even more Kurosawa movies than Mifune: 21—has a cameo, Yoshio Tsuchiya Yoshio is affecting as the kind-hearted less-brilliant Dr. Mori, Araki Michikô is an especially vicious villain as the brothel-keeper who would not be out of place in a Mizoguchi film, and Ryû Chishû was plucked from the world of Ozu to play yet another father). And there is a major sympathetic female part, Terumi Niki as Otoyo, who grows from a terrified victim into a wise and compassionate woman protecting a young thief, Chobo (Yoshitka Zushi) and presiding over his growth the way Dr. Yasumoto has hers.
I’ll grant that “Akahige” is long (184 minutes including an intermission) and need not have been quite so long, but having just watched Tsai Ming-Liang’s “What Time Is It There?”, even the overly protracted scenes in “Akahige” seem to speed by. My appreciation of Kurosawa’s genius was enhanced by watching “Akahige” again with Stephen Prince’s commentary that interested me in scenes that had not interested me very much on first viewing. It seemed worth 6+ hours to me, and my attention span is regrettably short (considerably shorter than it used to be).
Kurosawa’s technical mastery is very interesting, but the storylines are touching without being sentimental (well, maybe a little in the case of Chobo, but Kurosawa cuts incipient sentimentality there with absurdist humor as the kitchen staff contributes its own folk remedy).
Although “Akahige” was Kurosawa’s biggest box-office success in Japan, post-Mifune (and post-Kayama?), Kurosawa had difficulty getting backing for his movies (George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola underwrote his great 1980 anti-epics “Kagemusha”, the Soviet government financed”Dersu Uzala”; the international success of those two large-budget movies made filming “Ran” possible). Mifune made some great films without Kurosawa (especially “Chushingura” and the samurai trilogy directed by Inagaki and “Samurai Rebellion” directed by Kobayashi Masaki) and Kurosawa eventually made his last masterpieces without Mifune, but it is difficult not to regret the end of their collaboration (which was 99+% Kurosawa’s fault after taking nearly two years to shoot “Akahiga”). However, their legacy is huge and Criterion is to be applauded for delivering the transitional masterpiece “Akahige” to DVD so superlatively well.
©2016, Stephen O. Murray