Mockingbird at the Movies, is now available on Kindle! To celebrate, we thought we’d post the first half of John Zahl’s closing essay on Red Beard, which many readers (ourselves included) have mentioned as a highlight.


tumblr_nvtwl5OwQL1r6ivyno1_1280Discussing Akira Kurosawa’s Red Beard (1965) in any detail is a daunting task. After all, it’s a Japanese period piece in black-and-white, and it spans more than three hours—185 minutes to be exact. But Red Beard is also the finest film I can name. It explains love and what grace-on-the-ground really looks like better than any other single movie I have come across, offering a veritable harvest of sermon illustrations.

That said, few people have seen it. You are most likely among them. For perspective, the British Film Institute’s 2015 list “10 Essential Kurosawa Films,” did not feature Red Beard. This movie makes its way onto few lists, and into even fewer DVD players. In 2008, after polling over a thousand readers, Slate reported that Hotel Rwanda rentals spent more time in peoples’ homes than any other DVD in the Netflix catalog.[1] The finding is easily explained: People want to have seen Hotel Rwanda, but they lack the desire to actually ever watch it. When Hotel Rwanda and Billy Madison sit side by side next to the TV, in practice, Billy Madison gets watched almost every time. Most reported that, after keeping the Hotel Rwanda DVD in their home for more than a month, they simply returned it unwatched. If you can identify at all with this vein of human tendency, then understand too that you will most likely never watch Red Beard, for its Criterion Edition release only multiplies this push-pull dynamic to an exponential degree.[2] Still, in my opinion, it should be required viewing for all seminarians, social workers, and health care professionals.

So, since spoilers cannot spoil it, and since these thoughts will most likely never receive any cross-checking, Red Beard is possibly the perfect movie to write about.

While many great films build to a profound and telling climax, Red Beard contains a series of interwoven peaks, which, when grasped as a whole, create a proverbial mountain range that simply reaches further and covers more bases. Here follows an attempt to trek cursorily from one peak to the next.


For starters, consider IMDB’s plot summary: “In nineteenth-century Japan, a rough tempered yet charitable town doctor trains a young intern.”[3] The film takes place at a rural hospital in a poor province outside of Edo (modern-day Tokyo). Just think of the implications that underpin any story that is entirely contained within the context of a hospital. By definition, we encounter a version of life in which there is much need, much tragedy, and also a complementary tenderness. In Red Beard, care is essential to life, and it is from care, and the need for it, that every worthwhile plotline emerges.

As is the case in life, there are in Red Beard many stories, and also one story. Each individual tale is held in place by its relationship to the primary physician of the hospital, the one from whom all care and oversight is derived, in this case a wise old doctor, Kyojo Niide (played by Toshiro Mifune). Dr. Niide is known to his patients—who are mostly too ill or low-class to care anything about formality—by another name, Akahige (‘Red Beard’), referencing his auburn-hued whiskers. So the movie itself derives its title from the doctor, via the perspective of the patients who receive his care. Viewed in such a light, this Bible of a movie is simply named: Jesus.

The film begins when a cocksure young medical student, Noboru Yasumoto, arrives at the hospital under the premise that Red Beard desires to learn about his research. Noboru thinks that he, not Red Beard, is the expert, which of course couldn’t be further from the truth. The film recounts the painful experience Noboru has to undergo in order to see clearly.


The First Half: Resistance and Capitulation

Arriving at the clinic, Noboru is informed that his plan to serve as a medical resident in Edo has been rescinded, that he will instead undertake his residency at Red Beard’s hospital. The news comes as a serious blow to the ambitious young man. Furious, he insults both the staff and the patients, and then announces that he will not participate in such a disrespectable training, and that he will not don the hospital uniform (!). Given that we ourselves often react in similarly immature ways when life does not conform to our desires, it is fair to assume that Noboru provides the viewer with an entry point into the film’s lesson(s), and that we are meant to identify with him even though he offers us a rather unflattering self-portrait.

Red Beard allows him to vent and then gives Noboru his first assignment, in the palliative care wing of the hospital, where he is taken to the bedside of a very old man close to death, and instructed simply to sit with the patient. Begrudgingly, Noboru sits, listening to a patient’s final semi-unintelligible musings about unrequited love. One is forced to imagine the jarring shift in perspective that this setting offers a privileged young man, eager to climb the ladder of his own career.[4] But stubbornness is nothing if not entrenched, and Noboru tries his best not to let slip that he is somewhat rattled. Nonetheless, the (existential) dismantling of his conscience is now underway. Just before the patient dies, Red Beard appears in the room to attend to the man himself with kind assurance.[5]

Akahige-(Red-Beard)Soon after, Noboru wanders across the mental health ward where a young girl from a wealthy family is being treated. Noboru is denied permission to enter, as only Red Beard is allowed to interact with her directly. When he asks Red Beard about her, he is told that she is a very sick and dangerous patient—by today’s standards, ‘mentally ill’ or even psychopathic. Noboru’s curiosity is aroused, and he sneaks into the girl’s quarters, introducing himself as a doctor who can help. She is a beauty, an alluring presence for the dashing young resident who certainly tells himself that he can maintain an appropriate degree of professionalism. But as she recounts her personal story of woe, she moves toward him slowly, with deft little steps, weaving a kind of spell over him. When she collapses in the apparent throes of anguish, Noboru sidles up alongside her, putting his arm around her, when suddenly, with flashing eyes, the girl pulls a sharp hairpin from her bun and tries to stab him. That’s when Red Beard darts into the room, pulling her off of Noboru, who runs from the room embarrassed and shaken, a feeling which is made all the worse later when he receives word that the girl has hanged herself.[6]

Noboru’s reorientation is further crystallized when he is summoned to an operating room to help restrain a female patient. The scene is a far cry from the immaculate, light-drenched operating studios that viewers associate with surgery in the twenty-first century. Just before the writhing woman passes out, Red Beard makes the first incision, and blood sprays onto Noboru’s clothes. Remember, he has refused to wear the practical hospital scrubs, which, up until this point, he has regarded as a symbol of his demotion and an affront to his sensibilities. But pretense serves no purpose in an operating room, and it is significant that, in the next scene, Noboru emerges wearing the hospital uniform. The surgery, by the way, is a success.


Your First Patient

Red Beard determines that the young resident is now ready to assist him more seriously, and they take a daytrip together to a brothel, the site of one of the more theologically unsettling scenes, where the prostitutes welcome Red Beard, not as a ‘guest’ but more as a nonjudgmental grandfather. They shoot the breeze, and he asks about their health. When he asks one of the girls if she’s been taking the medication he prescribed her for syphillis treatment, Noboru realizes that Red Beard has been treating them pro bono for some time. When Red Beard inquires about “the little girl,” one of the women tells him, “She is in the back…with her.

Whimpering sounds emerge from the end of a dark hallway. Red Beard, with Noboru following timidly behind, hurries forward, and comes upon a most awful scene. The Madame is beating a girl for not cooperating with “customers.” Red Beard grabs the stick from the woman’s hand and gathers the girl, of no more than eleven or twelve years, into his arms. The room is completely dark. She is catatonic. She won’t speak a word, and, feeling her forehead, he announces: “This child is sick, and she has to be treated at the hospital!” The evil woman protests: “You’re not taking her out of here. You can treat her fever here if you must.”

Red Beard will have none of it. He is promptly attacked by the brothel’s gang, but using a combination of Judo, brute strength, and chiropractic know-how, he beats them all up. Soon the ground is strewn with moaning men.[7] At this point, he tells Noboru: “These men have been injured. They need our help. Let us treat them before we head back to the hospital.” The two of them then tend to each of the men. It is strikingly counterintuitive. He realigns their sternums and Adam’s apples, and pops their hips and shoulders back into place, and suddenly they find they can move and breathe again.

This scene brings to life the idea of God as an intervening agent in the midst of the fallen world’s darkness. For the helpless young girl, he is a savior of the most loving variety, come in from the outside and unquestionably soteriological in posture. But for the pimp and his associates, Red Beard comes roaring in like Aslan, tearing them down that he also might heal them, though they are too hard of heart initially to recognize and appreciate his good intent. Red Beard relocates one of the men’s shoulders, and there is great fear in his face as the good doctor hunches over him. But Red Beard treats the wound he inflicted with great care.

Taken one step further, we see here a perfect analogy to the ‘theology of the cross,’ wherein the experience of God’s love is misinterpreted by the object. Luther summarized this framework with the line: “God must first be the devil before He can be God.”

On a related note, it is worth mentioning that Red Beard’s general temperament is incredibly gruff. And yet the point of the whole film is that Red Beard is goodness, through and through. From the outside looking in, viewers are taught a profound lesson about divine compassion, which is that it is often missed or misinterpreted because of its unsettling nature and origin.[8] That Red Beard does not exude an overt lovey-dovey-ness only makes Mifune’s portrayal of true compassion that much more compelling.[9]

After tending to the men, they head back to the hospital, with Noboru carrying the girl on his back in a makeshift sling. The sun is setting as they climb the last hill, and Red Beard turns to his pupil. “She will be your first patient,” he says.

And then the intermission rolls across the screen. We are halfway through Red Beard. The girl’s name is Otoyo.

To read the rest of the essay, order your copy of the (recently discounted!) MATM today.

[1] Swansburg, John. “A Very Long Engagement: The Netflix rentals Slate readers just can’t bring themselves to watch.” Slate. Sept 5, 2008.

[2] One wonders if people in Japan hold it in high regard. Have any Japanese people seen it?

[3] Hooked yet? Didn’t think so.

[4] In a related vein, Kurosawa experienced a life-changing moment in 1923, when Tokyo was devastated by the great Kanto earthquake. Akira was thirteen years old at the time. In the aftermath, his older brother, Heigo, took the boy out into the streets to view the devastation. When the young teenager wanted to look away from the human corpses and animal carcasses scattered everywhere, Heigo forbade him to do so, instead encouraging Akira to face both his fears and the reality of the destruction by confronting them directly. The brilliant director went on to cite the profound influence this approach to life had had upon his filmmaking. Clearly it is an angle that informs this scene from the film in a most poignant way, as Noboru stares death in the face. We see here, in other words, that the director himself identified with the Noburo character. Again, we are meant to as well.

[5] This marks the beginning of another theme in the film, that of Red Beard’s preternaturally impeccable timing. He is always present when he needs to be.

[6] It is worth mentioning that Kurosawa’s older brother, Heigo, (previously mentioned in the second footnote) committed suicide in early adulthood. We are undeniably dealing with what is deeply felt and formative material for this famous filmmaker.

[7] The sequence is reminiscent of Kurosawa’s most famous film, Seven Samurai.

[8] “‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are my ways your ways,’ declares the Lord” (Isa 55:8).

[9] It is interesting that Kurosawa was not pleased with Toshiro Mifune’s portrayal of Akahige. Though Mifune famously worked with the director for many years, starring in 16 of his films, this was to be his last role in a Kurosawa film. On this point, I take issue with Kurosawa; I think Mifune is fantastic in this epic role.