Monday, August 18, 2014

Love Among the Ruins: On Andrzej Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds


I have spoken in the past of J. M. Coetzee’s
The Life and Times of Michael K (1983), a singularly unpleasant novel which has nonetheless had a considerable impact on my moral thinking, as it suggests—to me, anyway—that a person has every right to “resign” from history.  Historical forces are cruel and impersonal and if a person wants to escape from them, one can hardly blame him or her.  In the novel, the titular Michael K is a borderline mentally impaired, mixed-race man trying to escape from a civil war that has broken out in his native South Africa and Coetzee charts all the horrors and indignities to which Michael K is subjected as he tries to evade forces that he can neither understand nor control.
I had Michael K in mind as I watched Polish director Andrzej Wadja’s Ashes and Diamonds (1958).  Widely considered one of the greatest works of Polish cinema, the film follows a young anti-communist partisan named Maciek (Zbigniew Cybulski) as he attempts to assassinate a communist official in the immediate aftermath of WWII (its action takes place mostly on May 8, 1945, the day of the German surrender).  Now, Maciek and Michael K are not perfect analogues.  Maciek is not mentally impaired and he signed up voluntarily for what he’s doing, but as the film progresses, he begins to have significant doubts about his mission.  Following the opening sequence, in which he and his superior, Andrzej, murder two factory workers whom they mistake for the communist official and his assistant, Maciek and Andrzej set up shop at a hotel where Szczuka, the communist, will be attending a banquet.  Now, although Maciek has been tempered in the forge of war—and the war was bloodier in few places than it was in Poland—he is still a young man, prey to the enthusiasms and exuberance of youth, and so he quite naturally falls in love at first sight with the pretty bartender, Krystyna.  And he certainly can’t pursue a long-term romance with Krystyna if he kills Szczuka, and anyway, why kill Szczuka? Haven’t they killed enough people already, including innocent people?  Even if he signed up for this, is Maciek still obligated or duty-bound to his partisan group?  If a person’s conscience changes, can their loyalties change accordingly?

One of the things that distinguishes Ashes and Diamonds from its predecessors is a much lighter tone.  Which isn’t to say that it’s not a serious movie—Maciek’s moral and personal stakes couldn’t be higher—but Wajda and co-writer Jerzy Andrzejewski sprinkle the movie with humor and romance, which don’t detract from the grim matters at hand, but rather place them in the context of a much wider world.  The banquet that occasions Szczuka’s presence plays out with the absurdity of Miloš Forman’s Fireman’s Ball (1967) and Maciek shares the stage with several background players pursuing their own interests while largely oblivious to the assassination in the offing.

Ashes and Diamonds
is the most morally ambiguous entry in an informal “war trilogy” that Wajda directed in the mid-fifties, starting with A Generation (1954) and continuing with Kanal (1956).  A Generation follows a group of naïve young people (including a not-yet-famous Roman Polanski) as they join the Polish resistance and become exposed to the grim realities and moral exigencies of war.  It depicts the sacrifices made by the Polish people with great sadness and pathos, but it never doubts that these sacrifices were fundamentally noble and justified.  The mood has changed when we get to Kanal, which has to be one of the bleakest films ever made.  Set during the general uprising in 1944, the film follows a group of doomed Polish partisans as they attempt to escape the Nazis by fleeing through the sewers of Warsaw.  The movie opens with a famous voice-over which intones: “Watch them closely, for these are the last hours of their lives.” There is no room for heroism in Kanal, just the desperate, thwarted will to survive, as the partisans are picked off by the Nazis, incapacitated by the sickening miasma of raw sewage, and overpowered by despair.


I would like to note that I have no idea how a movie like this—with its willingness to treat anti-communist militants as complex, sympathetic human beings—could have been made in communist Poland.  Perhaps we can attribute it to the Khrushchev thaw and de-Stalinization.  Whatever the circumstances of its production,
Ashes and Diamonds presents us with the same grand question raised by The Life and Times of Michael K: are we not within our rights to resign from the inhuman and destructive processes of history?  Can Maciek fall in love and go back to the normal life of a young man, or is he morally obligated to kill Szczuka, in accordance with his commitments to his partisan group?  Are our consciences free to change, or must we be forever bound by our decisions once we’ve made them?  I know how I’d answer these questions. 

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

A Calm Surface and a Raging Current: On Mikio Naruse’s Scattered Clouds

If you ask someone to name the three greatest filmmakers of Japanese Golden Age cinema, they will almost certainly say: Akira Kurosawa, Kenji Mizoguchi, and Yasujiro Ozu, maybe not in that order, but those are the names that almost all of them will mention.  But a few lone rebels, drunk on the audacity of their own iconoclasm, will include Mikio Naruse.  And you will be hard-pressed to argue the point either way, because if you’re an American, chances are you have had very few opportunities to see Naruse’s films.  On Region 1 DVD, the fine people at the Criterion Collection have released When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960) and an Eclipse Collection of several of Naruse’s extant silent films, but that’s it as far as DVD’s are concerned.  And just in the past few years, if you have Hulu Plus, you can access a more generous helping of Naruse films to which Criterion evidently has the rights but which they have not (yet) released on DVD.
Kurosawa—whose position in the Holy Trinity of Japanese cinema some would like to see Naruse usurp—famously said of his rival’s films that they were “like a great river with a clam surface and a raging current in its depths.” The surface of these films is the domestic melodrama; in this respect, they are like more eventful variations on Ozu’s cinema.  In their focus on the plight of women in Japanese society, they recall Mizoguchi (they are both some of the greatest feminists in Japanese cinema; if the greatest feminists in Japanese cinema are men, this is a sad reflection on the egregious sexism in cinema in general and Japanese cinema in particular).  Naruse’s films focus on women, often of the working class, trying to elevate their positions in society or just trying to get by.  Or, if he’s in a more Ozuesque mood, he depicts middle-class women in unsatisfying marriages.  This is the case in Repast, starring Setsuko Hara, and The Sound of the Mountain, adapted from the novel of the same name by Yasunari Kawabata.  And speaking of adaptations, he frequently drew from the work of Fumiko Hayashi, whose writing often shares Naruse’s concern with working-class women.

Naruse on the set.
Naruse’s career spanned the silent era to the late 1960’s, and although many of his silent films are lost, his oeuvre is still vast, and the patchiness of its availability in the US has made my exposure to it both limited and rather scattershot.  So I’ve seen all his feature-length silent films—No Blood Relation, Apart From You, Every-Night Dreams, and Street Without End—and then I’ve seen about five or sex of the dozens of sound films he made.  And one does not need to see too many Naruse films before one picks up on one of his favorite melodramatic plot devices: the car accident.  Naruse’s women, or their children, or their husbands, are constantly getting hit by cars (woe to the heedless pedestrian in a Naruse movie!)  There are enough car accidents on display here that J. G. Ballard himself would say, “Whoa, dude, ease up on the car accidents.” But the car crashes are not gratuitous—or not just gratuitous; nobody can deny that a good car crash is a great way to shake up a story—but, like the car that strikes Anton Chigurh in No Country For Old Men, they are messengers of the universe, demonstrating to us the reign of random chance and its utter indifference to us.

This was amply on display in
Scattered Clouds (1967), Naruse’s final film and the only color film of his that I’ve seen.  Something of an old-fashioned throwback upon its release—bearing in mind that Naruse was now a contemporary of Nagisa Oshima and Yoshishige Yoshida—Scattered Clouds follows the tribulations of a woman, Yumiko, whose civil servant husband is struck and killed by a car shortly before he was to begin an assignment at the Japanese embassy in Washington.  So there’s chance for you.  But it strikes again when Yumiko begins to have a series of random encounters with the driver who killed her husband and, wouldn’t you know it, they begin to fall in love.  Now, this may sound like a melodramatic and one could even say exploitative story, but not the way Naruse tells it.  Remember, this is a “great river with a calm surface.” Everything is calm and understated, like in a Kawabata novel, the pacing of the movie leisurely and the colors a subdued mix of pastels and earth tones  The second great theme, along with the role of chance, is the capacity for forgiveness.  I recall that Evelyn Waugh said of Brideshead Revisited that he wanted to depict “the operation of grace” and I think a similar operation is on display in Scattered Clouds, where two decent people whose lives have been upended find the capacity for love and compassion in the most unlikely of circumstances.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Gertrud and her Men: On Carl Th. Dreyer’s Final Film

The cinema of Carl Th. Dreyer is—at first glance, anyway—distinctly uncinematic.  Dreyer worked primarily with adaptations of stage plays and the theatricality of his cinema is strongly on display in his last film, 1964’s Gertrud.  This was Dreyer’s third sound film—he made a grand total of three of them over a twenty-one year period—and it marks a departure from many of the more overtly religious themes that marked some of his best cinema (The Passion of Joan of Arc, Day of Wrath, Ordet).  In telling the restrained story of an upper-class woman and her unraveling marriage, Dreyer has in many ways returned to cinema degree zero in a way that, incongruously enough, anticipates Godard’s Le Gai Savoir (1968).  This Godard film consists largely of Jean-Pierre Léaud and Juliet Berto talking.  It’s two actors and a camera and that’s it.  Now, Gertrud isn’t nearly as Spartan, but the basic principle—that of reducing cinema to its simplest gestures, so that it resembles a stage play, with all the limitations of setting that that implies—is the same.

 Leaud and Berto in Godard's Le Gai Savoir.
Gertrud is about the title character’s relationships with several men (it abysmally fails the Bechdel test; aside from a brief appearance by Gertrud’s mother-in-law, there are no other women with speaking roles in the film).  They are: her husband, Kanning, a lawyer about to become a cabinet minister; Erland Jansson, a self-destructive composer; Gabriel Lidman, a melancholic poet; and Dr. Axel Nygren, friend and confidante.  Her interactions with these men will provide a Strindbergian panorama of the various ways in which people can hurt each other.  I found myself thinking of a preachy George Harrison song: “Isn’t it a Pity?” It goes: “Isn’t it a pity? / Now isn’t it a shame / How we break each other’s hearts / And cause each other pain?” Which, ok George, step off the pedestal, but! Point well taken.  It’s already hard enough just being alive.  We have to contend with pain, illness, and death.  Must we torment each other on top of it?
Gertrud has fallen out of love with her husband, who is consumed by his work and neglects her.  She has transferred her affections to a younger man, the composer Jansson, but he’s just playing with her; he doesn’t take the liaison seriously.  And all the while she lives in regret over her failed relationship with the poet Lidman, who still loves her and has never recovered from her rejection of him.  There’s a scene where he and Gertrud reunite for the first time in several years and he reflects on the dubious situation she finds herself in with Jansson, and to see her like that, she whom he has elevated to such heights in his imagination, breaks his heart.  And to see him desperately trying to restrain himself and avoid weeping in her presence is deeply moving.  Based on Lidman—played by Ebbe Rode—and Max von Sydow, I have concluded that Scandinavian men excel at manly tears.  When they cry, there is always great dignity in it.
Really, the only man with whom Gertrud has a healthy relationship is Dr. Nygren, and this is because Nygren is the only man who has never asked for anything romantic/sexual from her.  He doesn’t make emotional demands on her, he’s not expecting her to fulfill some dramatic role in his life.  He just enjoys her company and respects her personality.  Which isn’t to denigrate romance or sexuality, mind you, but it’s important that we take care to carve out relationships that tone down the intensity and that are predicated on companionship and tranquil affection.

To return to the theatricality of the film: upon its release, it was something of a catastrophe.  Dwight MacDonald, the American contrarian who made a career of hating things decades before Slate, said of it that “Gertrud is a further reach, beyond mannerism into cinematic poverty and straightforward tedium. [Dreyer] just sets up his camera and photographs people talking to each other.” What I suspect MacDonald missed and Dreyer understood is the elegance that can come through achieving dramatic ends with the least possible fuss.  I’m not saying all filmmakers should do this—we’d all get sick of it pretty quickly—but there is something to be said for telling a dramatic story without superfluous camera-movements and musical cues.  Gertrud is that rare thing: a quiet movie.  And it’s not like we have too many of those.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

A Slapstick of Cruelty and Despair: On Jacques Tati’s Mon Oncle


Several decades after the advent of the talking picture, France produced two of the last great silent film stars: Jacques Tati and Pierre Etaix.  Now, there’ s a good chance you’ve never heard of Etaix, as his films were unavailable for many years due to legal bullshit, and were only just released in the United States last years by the Criterion Collection.  But Tati is well-known and universally beloved for his most famous character, Monsieur Hulot.  Like Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp before him, Hulot finds himself adrift in a world of cruel people and equally cruel objects that conspire against him (as the protagonist of Yuri Olesha’s Envy succinctly puts it: “Things don’t like me.”)
But the Little Tramp had a certain clumsy elegance to him, whereas M. Hulot is anything but little.  He is big and gawky and always in the way.  He doesn’t fit, both in literal physical terms and in terms of society.  Tati made four films starring M. Hulot—M. Hulot’s Holiday, Mon Oncle, Playtime, and Traffic—and from Mon Oncle onward they set themselves the task of exploring the theme expounded in Chaplin’s Modern Times: man’s battle with technology.  M. Hulot is a Luddite, perhaps even a Poujadist (Poujadism was a brand of reactionary conservatism popular in France in the ‘50’s).  He is also what the Russians would call a “superfluous man.” There is neither room nor need for him in French society.
Now, I have just seen Tati’s Mon Oncle (1958)—on which, fun fact, Pierre Etaix served as assistant director; this was before he made his own feature films— and while it was pleasant enough, I did not enjoy it as much as I’d thought I would.  Part of the problem is that Tati takes his animus against technology too far.  Now, don’t get me wrong, nobody hates technology when it doesn’t work more than I do.  But on the whole I love technology.  I love air conditioning and central heating.  I love my laptop and my internet.  I love my dishwasher and my refrigerator and my washer/dryer.  All of these things make a positive contribution to my quality of life.  I suspect Tati would despise them all.  In Mon Oncle, M. Hulot’s main adversary is the high-tech, futuristic house of his wife and brother-in-law.  The house, which is beautiful and which I would love to live in, is fall of gadgets and has a button for everything.  Hulot can’t handle it (and to a certain extent, neither can his relatives, even though they’re quite proud of it).  But if one got a handle on it, I think it could be convenient and pleasant.

The house.

The second problem with
Mon Oncle is that, while it is ostensibly a comedy, it isn’t particularly funny.  I think this can be attributed in large part to how bleak M. Hulot’s situation is.  He has no place in the world, everyone treats him like shit, he’s gawky and socially inept, his brother-in-law tries to get him jobs and he routinely, immediately fucks them up.  How badly does it hurt him? It’s not clear.  I may be mistaken, but I believe he speaks, at most, a single line in the entire movie.  This is a slapstick film in the great silent tradition of Chaplin and Keaton, and although there is sound—and it is used with great precision—the dialogue isn’t terribly important.  It’s just background noise.  But the brother-in-law and sister, for all their inane blather, are still at least speaking, from which we can gain a certain insight into their character.  But Hulot is opaque; like Buster Keaton, he is stonefaced.

There is, however, one scene of such sublime beauty that it could justify the entire movie.
  It comes early on: Hulot is in his apartment and he sees a caged bird in a window across the street.  He finds that by carefully positioning his opened window, he can reflect light onto the bird, causing it to sing.  We watch him experiment with positions for the window and the realization that he, like Hideyoshi Toyotomi, can make the bird sing, is downright enchanting.  If only the rest of the film offered comparable pleasures.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Bong Joon-ho vs. Harvey Weinstein, Arch-Philistine: On the American Distribution of Snowpiercer

Go Ah-sung and Song Kang-ho, two of the foreigners who appear in Snowpiercer, a foreign movie that
Harvey Weinstein thinks you wouldn't be able to understand.
For years now, Harvey Weinstein has been a major distributor of Asian films in the U.S., which is weird, because he doesn’t seem to particularly like them.  He procured the distribution rights to: Chen Kaige’s Farewell, My Concubine (1993), Wisit Sasanatieng’s Tears of the Black Tiger (2000), Peter Chan Ho-Sun’s Dragon (2011), and Wong Kar-Wai’s The Grandmaster (2013), and he had them all abridged, because he thought Americans were either too stupid or too impatient to see them at their full length.  The result was that they often became choppy and less coherent, which paradoxically made them less entertaining and therefore more likely to feel overly long.
Imagine then the horror experienced by myself and my fellow cinephiles when we heard that Weinstein had acquired the American distribution rights for Bong Joon-ho’s English-language debut, Snowpiercer.  The film is 127 minutes long and, sure enough, Weinstein wanted to (a) abridge it by about twenty minutes and (b) add a prologue and epilogue so that it would make more sense for idiotic American audiences.  Now, as it’s been pointed out elsewhere (I don’t recall by whom, forgive me), Snowpiercer is about the most linear narrative ever filmed.  It is about a post-apocalyptic world where all of humanity lives on board a high-tech train, the poor people in the back and the rich people up front.  It depicts a revolt of the plebs as they attempt to fight their way to the front of the train.  It does not get much more linear than that. 
But somewhere along the way, Weinstein must have thought the average American would get bored or confused (it didn’t help that a good twenty percent of the dialogue is in Korean, which would mean—quel horreur!—that Americans would have to read subtitles).  And so Weinstein decided to butcher the film.  Bong Joon-ho—director of such modern masterpieces as The Host and Mother—was understandably enraged.  When Snowpiercer was shown to international audiences at the Pusan International Film Festival, Bong said of Americans (and Britons and Australians, who would also be forced to watch the Weinsteinized version upon its eventual release) that this was their last chance to see the movie as he had intended it to be shown.  Something of a feud developed between Bong and Weinstein, and although I don’t pretend to understand the legal questions at issue here, Bong refused to edit his film in line with Weinstein’s wishes, which significantly delayed its release in the U.S. When it finally came out here (just last month), it initially had a significantly limited theatrical release. 
Now, I can’t pretend to know what’s going on in Weinstein’s head, but it certainly looks like he set out to deliberately sabotage the movie; it would seem that he was hoping for it to fail at the box office, and then he would be able to justify his demands for Bong to abridge it.  Luckily, fans and critics (those who got to see it, anyway) quite liked Bong’s original version of the film and Weinstein, likely understanding that there was money to be made, relented and allowed the movie a wider release. (It also appeared “on-demand” on Amazon, which is where I watched it).  So Bong won out in the end, although I suspect the movie could have been much more successful at the box office if it had received the wide release and enthusiastic promotional campaign that an American movie with a similar premise (and budget) would have gotten.  It’s worth noting that Snowpiercer has been wildly successful in Korea, where it has become one of the most financially successful Korean movies ever made (and this despite its being made mostly in a foreign language; the Koreans evidently don’t have a problem with subtitles). 

So, are there lessons to be learned from this whole episode? Well, first, and this one is pretty basic:
don’t sell your fucking movie to Harvey Weinstein.  He’s a philistine and he doesn’t respect Asian cinema.  He has a consistent track record of butchering it left and right.  And second, and more generally: don’t assume that your audience is stupid.  Foreign films don’t make a lot of money in the U.S. because they don’t get promoted or widely released.  And then the distributors can say, “See, it didn’t make money, we were right not to promote it.” It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.  If you were to take wildly entertaining Korean movies, like The Host or Oldboy or The Good, the Bad, the Weird, and promote them like you did their American counterparts, I think you could make plenty of money and the American movie landscape would be richer for it.  It’s been done before.  Chinese-language movies like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and Hero (2004) were number one at the box office.  There’s no reason why other foreign-language movies can’t be comparably successful.  We just need people other than Harvey Weinstein calling the shots.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Montessori Schools of Zeta Reticuli: On Konstantin Lopushansky’s The Ugly Swans


*Contains one potential spoiler about the end of Tarkovsky's Stalker*

Here at Say a Prayer for the Octopus, I generally like to focus the discussion on films that I liked, because I find that I have more to say about them.  But today I think it would be edifying to discuss a movie that deeply disappointed me, namely Konstantin Lopushansky’s The Ugly Swans (2006).  Everything I read about this film before I watched it made it sound incredibly promising.  It is an adaptation of a story by the Strugatsky brothers, whose novel Roadside Picnic served as the basis for Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979), one of the greatest films ever made and one of my personal favorites.  Lopushansky knew Tarkovsky and was actually an assistant director on Stalker.  Finally, the premise of the film—which we will discuss presently—is strongly reminiscent of the Tarkovsky movie.  So basically, I came into this expecting Stalker II: The Stalkening.  Alas, it plays out more as bad Tarkovsky pastiche.
The premise—never fully elaborated—is something like this.  A writer in the near future is hired by a UN commission to visit the Russian town of Tashlinsk, where strange phenomena have been taking place.  Tashlinsk has been taken over by shadowy figure known as Aquatters, who may be humans disfigured and transformed by an as-of-yet unknown disease, or maybe just aliens.  The Aquatters have set up a school for genius human children, whom they instruct in eschatology and levitation (so it’s part apocalyptic Hogwarts, part Transcendental Meditation center).  The writer is tasked with finding out what the Aquatters’ intentions are vis-à-vis the rest of humanity while he simultaneously ties to rescue his daughter from the school.  How she ended up there is not clear, there’s some vague and unsatisfactory business with his ex-wife.
Also, ever since the arrival of the Aquatters, Tashlinsk is plagued by relentless rain.  And in this respect, along with a persistent sepia color scheme, The Ugly Swans bears a much stronger resemblance to Lars von Trier’s first film, The Element of Crime (1984), than it does to Stalker.  But that’s a stylistic consideration.  In terms of content, doesn’t this sound like Stalker? A mysterious “zone,” a potentially extraterrestrial presence, and, on top of everything else, there are miracles allegedly taking place in Tashlinsk.  Now, the only miracle in Stalker comes at the end, when Stalker’s daughter is seen to telekinetically movie a glass across a table.  It’s very subtle and it’s more effective for it.  By contrast, in The Ugly Swans, we see cross-legged children shooting off the ground and hovering in mid-air.  This is emblematic of the principle flaw in Lopushansky’s movie: whereas Tarkovsky—and all of the best artists who deal with the mysterious and the weird—works by implication (show, don’t tell), Lopushansky shows everything.  Everything—from the “miracles” to the aliens themselves—looks surprisingly mundane and cheap.  In places, the film even looks like one of those shitty movies that the SciFi channel (sorry, “Syfy”) churns out on a weekly basis.

Some orange rain.
There are moments in the film that elevate the proceedings above the mundane and disappointing.  It’s very hard to go wrong with rain and sepia.  And the mysteries at the heart of the film, even though they’re dealt with clumsily, are still intriguing.  As regards the central question of what the Aquatters are doing with the children, there is a haunting episode where a doctor says of a child whom they’re trying to reintegrate into normal human society: “Our world is endless suffering to them.” The Aquatters have hypersensitized them just as they’ve refined them, such that the traumas of everyday life are unendurable to them.  There is something of all of us in them.  Stripped of our defenses, would we not find ourselves in a similar predicament?

God, this movie could have been great, in the hands of a Tarkovsky or even a von Trier.  As it is, we are left to grasp at the fleeting moments where we find traces of the profound and haunting movie that this could have been.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Dr. Mifune Will See You Now: Akira Kurosawa’s Red Beard

Polish poster for Red Beard by Stanislaw Zamecznik.
Akira Kurosawa made several movies about heroic, self-sacrificing doctors.  There was Drunken Angel (1948), in which Takashi Shimura plays an alcoholic slum doctor who attempts to treat a tubercular street punk played by Toshiro Mifune; this was Mifune’s first film for Kurosawa.  Then there was The Quiet Duel (1949), about a saintly doctor (this time played by Mifune) who accidentally contracts syphilis as a military doctor in WWII; in a time before penicillin, this destroys his life.  Or so I’ve heard.  The Quiet Duel is, as far as I can tell, the only Kurosawa film not currently available on Region 1 DVD.  The Criterion people should get on that.
And then there’s Red Beard, Kurosawa’s magisterial 1966 epic about the education of a young doctor in late Tokugawa Japan.  Our hero is Noboru Yasumoto (Yuzo Kayama), a privileged student of Dutch medicine (Dutch culture being the only European culture with which the Japanese had any direct contact for most of the Tokugawa period).  Yasumoto was expecting to be appointed doctor to the shogun, but circumstances beyond his control send him to a clinic that caters to the urban poor under the direction of the dedicated Dr. Kyojo Niide, also known as Red Beard (for his reddish beard, although the film is in black-and-white, so the redness is left to the imagination).  Niide is played by a regal Toshiro Mifune in one of his greatest performances (more on this momentarily).  When Yasumoto becomes acquainted with the Spartan conditions at Niide’s clinic, his initial reaction is revulsion.  The film will trace his evolution, under the guidance of Dr. Niide, from pride and indifference to deep human compassion and engagement.  Red Beard is one of the greatest, most pleasurable cinematic experiences that I’ve had in quite some time.

Kurosawa was always devoted to humanism, or perhaps it would be better to say humaneness, and never is this quality on greater display than in
Red Beard.  Kurosawa weaves a tapestry of humanity, from aristocrats and samurai to prostitutes and street people, and shows us that all human lives, no matter how marginal, have value.  And he does it without the cloying sentimentality that would have marred an American movie with a similar theme.  Red Beard is deeply moving, but it’s never saccharine.  Its action is firmly entrenched in the grimy realities of poverty and the human suffering that one is likely to encounter in the medical field.  Kurosawa and other Japanese directors of his generation would face a great deal of criticism over their “bourgeois humanism” from New Wave filmmakers like Nagisa Oshima in the 1960’s, but I think they overlook the subtlety of Kurosawa’s approach.  In their depiction of marginalized people, Kurosawa and Oshima have far more in common—realism, earthiness, clarity—than I think Oshima ever realized.
And God, the black-and-white looked good.
Now, I’ve spoken about this elsewhere (specifically, in my post on Kurosawa’s Dodes’ka-den (1970)), but a few details about the filming of Red Beard bear repeating.  This film was Kurosawa’s sixteenth and final collaboration with Toshiro Mifune.  The grueling production took two years, largely because of Kurosawa’s perfectionism.  The set on which the movie was filmed was a virtual facsimile of an Edo-era village, built from the ground up (and open to tourists during filming).  Such was Kurosawa’s attention to detail that even buildings that only appeared on screen for a few seconds had to be constructed with period-specific realism.  Now, during the production, Mifune had to maintain a thick beard (Red Beard has to have a beard, after all), which significantly limited the number of other film roles he could take during the production.  Mifune was used to making multiple movies a year and he needed to do so in order to fund his lavish lifestyle. The making of Red Beard seriously messed up his finances, which left him feeling embittered towards Kurosawa.  On top of this, Kurosawa, for the first time in their relationship, came away from the film disappointed with Mifune’s performance (an opinion I don’t share; I thought Mifune was excellent).  The result of all of this was that, after two years of hard work, Mifune and Kurosawa both came out of the experience angry at each other, and in their pride, neither was willing to seek out a reconciliation. 
And so that was the end of their working relationship (and their friendship, for that matter).  And it was the end of a Golden Age in both their careers.  Mifune had a few more great films in him (especially Masaki Kobayashi’s Samurai Rebellion (1967)), but his films were increasingly samurai b-movies and franchise projects (Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo and an appearance in one of the Tora-san movies).  As for Kurosawa, his career entered a rough patch with the commercial and critical failure of Dodes’ka-den and his firing from the production of Tora! Tora! Tora! While he eventually recovered from this slump to produce more masterpieces (Kagemusha (1980), Ran (1986)) his level of productivity would never return to pre-Red Beard levels.  But by then he could be forgiven for resting on his laurels.  He had made more unambiguously great films—Rashomon and Seven Samurai alone would be plenty of justification for a life’s work—than almost any other filmmaker and his position in world cinema was secure.  And if Red Beard constitutes the end of an era—both in Kurosawa’s career and in postwar Japanese cinema—it’s certainly a glorious note to go out on.  I would strongly encourage my readers to seek it out.