Watched Red Beard the other day for the thousandth time. For those of you unfamiliar, that would be a classic Kurosawa, 1965. It’s the first one I ever saw, and I saw it for no apparent reason. Matt Allison, at the time the movie guy for the college newspaper, began to grab my interest with his reviews. Knowing that he had superior taste in more than just movies, I began to frequent his dvd collection to borrow anything that looked good. It was either the first or second visit to said collection when I noticed one called Red Beard. It was Japanese, black and white, and I hadn’t heard of the supposedly-famous Akira Kurosawa or the supposedly-amazing (actor) Toshiro Mifune. Here’s the ridiculous reason why I picked it up: it was a Criterion Collection dvd, and I had always enjoyed their dvds before. Just to be clear, at that point I had seen a total of two Criterion Collection dvds at that point: Rushmore and Tenenbaums. So, this should give a sense of my thought process at the time.
I don’t remember if I noticed initially that the film was a hair over three hours long. I don’t think it would have mattered. Apparently, I was determined to watch this unheard of (by me) movie. In retrospect, it makes little sense why I would have wanted to. I took it to my apartment and watched it in the afternoon. These were the days of morning classes and no midterms or finals. Still, while my dork roommates were in the library, I watched a movie. With no background on it to speak of, no context, not even the beginning of an education about what was before me, I loved this movie. Quite literally, once the end came, I started it over. I watched half of it again that day, then the other half the next day. I had seen a number of good movies before that; even some that were really good. But Red Beard sort of changed everything for me.
My initial reaction to it hasn’t fundamentally changed. That reaction being, cinema is capable of doing something truly wonderful: making you want to be better, and to be better by hurting when those around you are hurting, while working for their relief. It’s become cliche to define “compassion” according its etymology: “suffering-with.” But insofar as that’s true, this movie shows what it looks like.
Since learning more about film technique, I’ve learned some interesting stuff about Red Beard, such as the fact that, technically speaking, it’s nearly flawless, bordering on perfection. But that’s, in the end, less interesting than its rhetoric. It does things I would not have though art was capable of doing, least of all movies. You can read something, and it can have a series of internal effects. You can watch it on stage, see an exhibit, hear it performed. But I think that, despite the unique power of the written word, there is something sublime in the art of music and cinema. Perhaps this is a truism; sublimity occurs when the ineffable reaches the heart. The sounds that can come from music and the images, coupled with sound, that can come through cinema – these incite feelings and thoughts that are about as close to what C.S. Lewis calls “Joy” as the thing itself.
In Red Beard, to describe some of the scenes of which I am writing would border on a moral wrong, at least an injustice. Incidentally, one of the more expert scholars on Kurosawa devoted perhaps his longest section and certainly his highest praise to Red Beard. But perhaps more striking, the expert of all Kurosawa experts wrote less about this film than any other of the master’s. Even the literati know when their words fall short. So, it suffices to say that this anti-review would be better written not by discussing the film itself as much as the effect it has had on me. I have, since that first Kurosawa experience, seen nearly all 30 of his films. Many are masterpieces, truly. Most are at least wonderful. None is quite like Red Beard. And if one of these made me drop everything and want to study cinema professionally, it was this one. It’s good.