The Threepenny Review

A Spark of Humanity

RED BEARD, Akira Kurosawa’s twenty-fourth film, was the only one he ever made that could be described unequivocally as a coming-of-age story. Set in early nineteenth-century Japan, it focuses on Noboru Yasumoto (Yûzô Kayama), a callow, proud, willful young man who has graduated from a fine medical program in Nagasaki. He returns to Edo in the hope of securing a fancy position, perhaps as a member of the Shogun’s medical staff, with the help of his onetime prospective father-in-law, a distinguished physician, though the engagement to Dr. Amano’s daughter was called off when she married another man. “Red Beard” is the nickname of Dr. Hiide (wonderfully played by Toshiro Mifune), the irascible, unconventional, and sometimes unpredictable head of a clinic in a tawdry Edo neighborhood that serves the poor, through government subsidies that are continually being cut. Dr. Amano arranges for Yasumoto to visit Red Beard—to pay his respects, the young man believes, but it turns out that Hiide has hired him as an intern. Taken on a tour of the wards by his departing predecessor, who confides that living and working among the diseased poor made him wonder why he ever became a doctor, Yasumoto is insulted and furious. He finds Koishikawa Clinic repulsive, and he immediately dislikes Red Beard, who eschews social graces and who, when they meet, stares silently at the young man, long and hard, as if he were determining the makeup of a laboratory specimen.

Hiide favors the needs of the patients over the comfort of the medical staff: he houses the sick in the sunnier south end of the building

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