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)

Espy (エスパイ, Jun Fukuda, 1974)

espy posterBy 1974 the Toho SFX movie was perhaps long past its heyday though Jun Fukuda’s Espy (エスパイ) was far from the last. Clearly influenced by popular spy franchises such as James Bond as well as more serious cold war spy dramas, Espy is a jet setting tale of superpowered assassins, international conspiracy, and love as an unexpected source of salvation, but as much as it embraces its hippyish message of total communication it also moves further into the realms of exploitation, skewing closer to Nikkatsu’s ’70s output than the more child friendly supernatural adventures of ages past.

The world is at breaking point. A small conflict in a tiny East European nation known as Baltonia threatens to spark a third world war. A UN delegation is currently en route to a conference in which they hope to settle the conflict in a peaceful way but all hope is lost when a sniper equipped with X-ray vision takes them all out with maximum precision.

Meanwhile, back in Japan, test driver Miki (Masao Kusakari) gets into trouble on the course when he swerves to avoid some pigeons. The car spins out of control but just at the last minute, Miki turns it around through his dormant psychic powers which brings him to the attention of the IPPG – the International Psychic Power Group. Following the assassination of the UN delegation, all eyes are on Japan where the prime minister of Baltonia is due to meet the US president in what is hoped will be a bold new development in international relations but the IPPG have reason to believe an attempt will be made on the prime minister’s life and only their ESP equipped team can stop it.

Espy takes the essential components of both the spy thriller in its international conspiracy set up, and the B-movie science fiction adventure in its presentation of the good and evil possibilities of advanced technologies or in this case innate superpowers. The Espy team are pitted against the Anti-Espy who have similar powers but are committed to using them to harm mankind. The leader of the Anti-Espy, Ulrov (Tomisaburo Wakayama), sees himself as a superior being to regular Earthlings and, believing that humans have overpopulated the planet which they continue to damage, is convinced the best solution is a mass cull. He plans to do this by helping the “lesser” humans destroy themselves by provoking a third world war or a hundred mini conflicts in which thousands will die.

Ulrov’s arguments tie in nicely with Toho’s trademark environmentalism and ambivalent attitude towards scientific development, but they go against the prevailing sense of humanism which is to be found in the studio’s genre output. In Ulrov’s fascistic view of the world, he and the other ESPers are a superior race whose existence is threatened by weaker humans and their reckless disregard for the planet as a whole. Due to a traumatic childhood incident, he believes that humans are cruel beasts who lust for blood and talk of peace with hearts filled with hate. He may have a point, but his message conflicts with the positive movement for peace which is advanced by the Baltonian PM who doesn’t want a world in which peace is brokered and balanced but one of true unity.

Espy is, however, of its time and fails to fully live out its peace and love ideals. Team member Maria (Kaoru Yumi) is kidnapped by Anti-Espy and taken to Ulrov’s lair where she is forced to dance lasciviously in front of fellow team member Tamura (Hiroshi Fujioka) with whom she shares an especially strong connection. Tamura’s arms and legs are cuffed as he communicates telepathically with Ulrov, semi-hypnotised by Maria’s strange dance. Maria is then approached by a large dark-skinned man wearing only a loincloth who proceeds to tear open her shirt at which point she snaps out of her trance, frees Tamura, and rips out the attacker’s tongue.

Meanwhile, new recruit Miki has failed in his mission and killed a man for the first time sending him into a kind of depression. Though Miki was introduced as the protagonist, he is in fact absent for most of the film though his journey is among the strangest as he reminisces about a foreign girl he was friends with as a child and enjoys an unusually strong bond with his intrepid dog, Caesar, who teaches the gang a few lessons about unconditional love. Maria is severely traumatised by her attack while Tamura reconsiders his sense of self worth having temporarily lost his powers, but eventually the team realise that their psychic abilities are nothing more than a manifestation of a great love. Ulrov later has the same epiphany but the team’s decision to consider him possessed by something “inhuman” is a worrying one. They don’t want to accept that it was humans who made him that way because it would be too sad, but not to do so is a failure to recognise humanity’s darkness as well as its light.

Espy bites off a little more than it can chew in failing to deal with some of the more interesting ideas it raises though it makes the most of its meagre budget to present an exciting spy thriller voyaging from Japan to Turkey and Switzerland. Skewing more towards Nikkatsu’s brand of exploitation action, Espy is definitely among the more adult orientated of Toho’s SFX adventures but its messages are broadly the same in its insistence on human interconnectedness as the ultimate superpower.