Red Beard (赤ひげ, Akira Kurosawa, 1965)

Red Beard posterAkira Kurosawa may be the most familiar golden age director of Japanese cinema to international audiences, but he was in many senses somewhat atypical. Where many of his contemporaries were eager to tell the stories of women, Kurosawa’s films are resolutely male and where many were keen to find the good among the bad, Kurosawa was often keen on the reverse. Nevertheless, that does not mean that he did not see goodness, merely that it was something which needed to be rooted out and fought for rather than simply permitted to exist. His final collaboration with Toshiro Mifune, Red Beard (赤ひげ, Akahige) finds the director at his most optimistic, fully embracing his natural tendency towards humanism even while making plain that goodness can often be hard to find, especially within yourself, and there may be no real cure for injustice but you have to treat the symptoms anyway.

The tale begins at the close of the Tokugawa era as a young doctor, Yasumoto (Yuzo Kayama), pays a courtesy call to the Koishikawa public clinic presided over by an old friend of his father’s, Doctor Niide (Toshiro Mifune) – otherwise known as “Red Beard”. Yasumoto, having just graduated from studying under the Dutch in Nagasaki, had only intended to make a brief visit on his way home and is therefore shocked to realise that he has been tricked into accepting a position at a hospital for the poor.

Our introduction to the Koishikawa clinic is through the eyes of Yasumoto as he receives a tour from another doctor who loudly remarks that he is glad that Yasumoto has now arrived because that means he can finally be free of this wretched place. Yasumoto’s nose wrinkles on smelling the “rotting fruit” of the poor waiting for afternoon appointments, while one of the patients complains about the “sterility” of the environment and his plain hospital clothes before a genial inpatient, Sahachi (Tsutomu Yamazaki), explains the reasoning behind such austerity and praises the attention to detail of head doctor Red Beard who has thought carefully about the best way to ensure his patients experience the best of care.

Yasumoto is extremely displeased by his predicament. He had believed himself on track to become a royal doctor working for the Emperor and being sent to poor clinic seems like a poor joke. He is indeed extremely full of himself, refusing to surrender his medical notes from Nagasaki as if he had made some great discovery and hoped to profit from it. Hoping Red Beard will fire him, Yasumoto behaves like a petulant child – refusing to wear his uniform, deliberately stepping into areas he knows are out of bounds, refusing to see patients, and just generally being unpleasant to have around. Red Beard is stoic and patient, though it gradually becomes apparent that perhaps Yasumoto has been sent here deliberately for a humbling everyone believes he had coming to him. Asked to perform the most routine of tasks, Yasumoto is forced to realise that the medical knowledge of which he was so proud is mostly book learning. He doesn’t know how to diagnose a living patient, has never been present at an operation, and has never sat with someone while they died knowing there was nothing more he could do for them. Reluctantly, he has to accept that the advice he received from the other doctors on his first day, that there was much to be learned here for those who wanted to learn it, was as true as it could be.

The first half of the film is indeed Yasumoto’s humbling as he begins to come around to the mysterious workings of Red Beard who gradually leads him to understand his first duty as a doctor is help those in need. Then again, Red Beard is an unwilling mentor. He is fully aware of the corruptions of the world in which he lives but has made a decision with which he remains conflicted to bend them to his advantage. Enraged to discover his government funding is being cut, Red Beard deliberately over charges the local lord whom he, amusingly enough, puts on a diet as he snorts like a piggy short of breath thanks to his unhealthy life of luxury. He also blackmails another local lord to save a young mother who turned a knife on an abusive husband, and later uses his medical knowledge to unfair advantage to take out a whole gang of yakuza. Red Beard isn’t sure he’s in a position to become anyone’s role model, but that only seems to make Yasumoto respect him more.

Nevertheless, there is darkness too in Red Beard’s philosophy. The real enemy here and perhaps everywhere is poverty and the selfishness which enables it. Most of the diseases Red Beard treats in his clinic are a direct result of impoverished living, mostly those of malnutrition and overwork as well as the necessity of living in cramped, unsanitary conditions. Yasumoto, a young man of means, has a puffed up sense of self and a natural ambition that tells him he is destined for the court and so he looks down on these unfortunate people as something other, something that does not concern him and is not worthy of his attention. He won’t put on his uniform out of spite, but eventually relents when Sahachi explains to him that the uniform marks him out as member of the clinic meaning that ordinary people who cannot afford to pay a doctor know that he is someone they can ask for help when no one else will help them.

As Red Beard says, there may be no real cures for disease. All they can do is fight poverty and mask their ignorance. Yasumoto learns by experience. He discovers the rampant injustice of his society in the sad stories that he hears. A “mad” woman who became a serial killer after years of childhood abuse, a woman who rejected a good father out of fear and allowed a bad mother to marry her to a bad man who was also her mother’s lover, a little girl adopted by a cruel madam who turned in on herself when she tried to press her into sex work at only 12 years old, a sex worker suffering with syphilis but too valuable to be released and sent home. This world is built is built on female suffering which is not, perhaps, something which Red Beard is in much of a position to treat.

The mad woman tries to hang herself and Red Beard wonders if it would have been kinder let her die, while the mother of a family who decided on group suicide asks him what the point was in saving her. The world is not an easy place to live in, but Red Beard’s prescription is refreshingly simple. One heals oneself by helping others, as he proves to Yasumoto through making him both doctor and patient to a wounded little girl who then passes her new found humanity on to another needy soul eventually reformed by kindness alone. Day by day, Red Beard goes to war against selfishness and indifference, treating the symptoms in order to undermine the disease which has infected his society in the hope that it might eventually decide to cure itself.


Original trailer (No subtitles)

Akitsu Springs (秋津温泉, Kiju Yoshida, 1962)

akitsu springsKiju (Yoshishige) Yoshida is best remembered for his extraordinary run of avant-garde masterpieces in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but even he had to cut his teeth on Shochiku’s speciality genre – the romantic melodrama. Adapted from a best selling novel, Akitsu Springs (秋津温泉, Akitsu Onsen) is hardly an original tale in its doom laden reflection of the hopelessness and inertia of the post-war world as depicted in the frustrated love story of a self sacrificing woman and self destructive man, but Yoshida elevates the material through his characteristically beautiful compositions and full use of the particularly lush colour palate.

At the very end of the war, consumptive student Shusaku (Hiroyuki Nagato) finds his aunt’s house destroyed by aerial bombing. Attempting to find her but proving too ill to go on, Shusaku is taken to a nearby inn by a good samaritan where he first encounters the innkeeper’s daughter, Shinko (Mariko Okada). Despite her mother’s protestations, Shinko takes a shine to Shusaku and is determined to nurse him back to health. Shusaku, however, is a gloomy sort of boy and, ironically, longs only for death. Though the pair fall in love their youthful romance is forever tinged with darkness as Shusaku declares his love not with a ring but with a rope – he asks Shinko for that most classically theatrical of unions in proposing a double suicide.

Shinko agrees, but is not quite ready to die. In another dose of irony, Shinko’s tears of fear and despair on hearing the Emperor’s final wartime broadcast confirming his surrender inspire Shusaku to want to live but the pair are eventually separated. Reuniting and parting over and over again, their complicated love story repeats itself over a period of seventeen years but the painful spectre of the past refuses to allow either of them the freedom to move beyond Akitsu Springs.

Mariko Okada was only 29 in 1962, but she’d already worked with some of the best directors of the age including Ozu whose An Autumn Afternoon was released the same year, and Naruse in Floating Clouds which has something of a narrative similarity to Akitsu Springs. This prestige picture was her 100th screen appearance for which she also took a producer credit. Despite the obvious importance attached to both of these elements, the studio took a chance on a rookie director with only three films under his belt. Two years later Okada would become Yoshida’s wife and go on to star in some of his most important pictures including Eros + Massacre and Heroic Purgatory. At first glance her role here is a conventional one – a love lorn, melancholy woman unable to let the ghost of a failed romance die, but Okada’s work is extraordinary as Shinko travels from flighty teen to rueful middle aged woman, hollowed out and robbed of any sense of hope.

At Akitsu Springs time passes and it doesn’t all at once. Yoshida refuses to give us concrete demarcations, preferring to simply show a child being born and growing older or someone remarking on having been away. The inn becomes a kind of bubble with Shinko trapped inside, but Shusaku comes to regard the place as a temporary haven rather than a permanent home or place to make a life. For her everything real is at the spring, but for him everything at the spring is unreal – an unattainable paradise. She cannot leave, he cannot stay. Only for short periods are they able to indulge their romance, but the time always comes at which they must part again often swearing it will be for the last time, never knowing if it will.

Yoshida neatly bookends the relationship with announcements over loudspeakers as Shinko originally fails to understand the Emperor’s speech in which he remarks on enduring the unendurable, only to be prompted into later action by the banal drone of a train station tannoy. It’s almost as if their lives are being entirely dictated by outside forces, powerless drifters in the post-war world, condemned to a perpetual waiting sustained only by hopelessness.

Shinko may have convinced Shusaku to live but his growing successes only seem to deplete her. Wasting away at an inn she always claimed to hate, Shinko grows old while Shusaku grows bitter yet successful in the city. They move past and through each other, unable to connect or disconnect, yearning for the completion of something which consistently eludes them. Yoshida films the standard melodrama with appropriate theatricality but also with his beautifully composed framing as the lovers are divided by screen doors or captured in mirrors. Okada glows in the light of falling cherry blossoms, acknowledging the tragic and transitory character of love, but her final action is one which echoes the beginning of her suffering and finally declares an ending to an unendurable romance.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

My Second Brother (にあんちゃん, Shohei Imamura, 1959)

vlcsnap-2017-01-07-22h53m01s073Like most directors of his era, Shohei Imamura began his career in the studio system as a trainee with Shochiku where he also worked as an AD to Yasujiro Ozu on some of his most well known pictures. Ozu’s approach, however, could not be further from Imamura’s in its insistence on order and precision. Finding much more in common with another Shochiku director, Yuzo Kawashima, well known for working class satires, Imamura jumped ship to the newly reformed Nikkatsu where he continued his training until helming his first three pictures in 1958 (Stolen Desire, Nishiginza Station, and Endless Desire). My Second Brother (にあんちゃん, Nianchan), which he directed in 1959, was, like the previous three films, a studio assignment rather than a personal project but is nevertheless an interesting one as it united many of Imamura’s subsequent ongoing concerns.

Set in the early 1950s, the film focuses on four children who find themselves adrift when their father dies leaving them with no means of support. The father had worked at the local mine but the mining industry is itself in crisis. Many of the local mines have already closed, and even this one finds itself in financial straits. Despite the foreman’s promise that he will find a job for the oldest son, Kiichi (Hiroyuki Nagato), there is no work to be had as workers are being paid in food vouchers rather than money and strike action frustrates what little production there is. After receiving the unwelcome suggestion of work in a “restaurant” in another town, Yoshiko (Kayo Matsuo) manages to find a less degrading job caring for another family’s children (though she receives only room and board, no pay for doing so). With younger brother Koichi (Takeshi Okimura) and little sister Sueko (Akiko Maeda) still in school, it seems as if the four siblings’ days of being able to live together as a family may be over for good.

Based on a bestselling autobiographical novel by a ten year old girl, My Second Brother is one of the first films to broach the Zainichi (ethnic Koreans living in Japan) issue, even if it does so in a fairly subtle way. The four children have been raised in Japan, speak only Japanese and do not seem particularly engaged with their Korean culture but we are constantly reminded of their non-native status by the comments of other locals, mostly older women and housewives, who are apt to exclaim things along the lines of “Koreans are so shiftless” or other derogatory aphorisms. Though there are other Koreans in the area, including one friend who reassures Kiichi that “We’re Korean – lose one job, we find another”, the biggest effect of the children’s ethnicity is in their status as second generation migrants which leaves them without the traditional safety net of the extended family. Though they do have contact with an uncle, the children are unable to bond with him – his Japanese is bad, and the children are unused to spicy Korean food. They have to rely first on each other and then on the kindness of strangers, of which there is some, but precious little in these admittedly difficult times.

In this, which is Imamura’s primary concern, the children’s poverty is no different from that of the general population during this second depression at the beginning of the post-war period. The film does not seek to engage with the reasons why the Zainichi population may find itself disproportionately affected by the downturn but prefers to focus on the generalised economic desperation and the resilience of working people. The environment is, indeed, dire with the ancient problem of a single water source being used by everyone for everything at the same time with all the resultant health risks that poses. A young middle class woman is trying to get something done in terms of sanitation, but her presence is not altogether welcome in the town as the residents have become weary of city based do-gooders who rarely stay long enough to carry through their promises. The more pressing problem is the lack of real wages as salaries are increasingly substituted for vouchers. The labour movement is ever present in the background with the Red Flag drifting from the mass protests in which the workers voice their dissatisfaction with the company though the spectre of mine closure and large scale layoffs has others running scared.

One of the most moving sequences occurs as Koichi and another young boy ride a mine cart up the mountain and talk about their hopes for the future. They both want to get out of this one horse town – Koichi as a doctor and his friend as an engineer, but their hopes seem so far off and untouchable that it’s almost heartbreaking. Sueko skipped school for four days claiming she had a headache because her brother didn’t have the money for her school books – how could a boy like Koichi, no matter how bright he is, possibly come from here and get to medical school? Nevertheless, he is determined. His father couldn’t save the family from poverty, and neither could his brother but Koichi vows he will and as he leads his sister by the hand climbing the high mountain together, it almost seems like he might.