The year is 1820 when recent medical school graduate Yasumoto reluctantly visits veteran doctor Red Beard's clinic for the down and out. Tall and lean, with the body language of a prince, Yasumoto is clearly aiming for a brilliant career, empowered by his privileged background, haughty from his studies with prestigious Dutch surgeons, and inflated with an exaggerated sense of his own expertise. Angling for a gilt-edged position as the shogun's personal physician, Yasumoto learns with dismay that he has been assigned to work in the lower depths at this public establishment. His vanity offended, he rebels by refusing to respect Red Beard's rules, while drinking lots of sake.
Behind his gruff exterior, Red Beard believes that "there is always some story of great misfortune behind every illness", and as Yasumoto gradually sees and experiences the humanity beneath the misery at the clinic, this apprenticeship unlocks his compassion. Yet the drama is not a battle of wits between young doctor and old. Red Beard stays out of Yasumoto's way, never criticizing the shallow life that Yasumoto wants. He teaches by his example alone, whether berating a gruntingly obese lord ("You lift nothing heavier than chopsticks") or tenderly excusing the downtrodden ("She saw too much of the world at once").
In this sixteenth and last performance for Kurosawa, a noticeably stockier Toshiro Mifune internalizes his familiar swagger and growling to play a relatively subdued Red Beard. Though the anchor of the drama, Red Beard is not the center of attention (Mifune actually appears onscreen for less than an hour of this three-hour film), but his presence is constantly felt as a figure of clarity and experience. Kurosawa refuses to idealize Red Beard as an all-knowing master (and carefully softens the edges of the character to sidestep any charges of promoting authoritarian power).
Yasumoto's first lesson in his own naiveté comes from his perilous and intense encounter with 'the Mantis', an escaped madwoman who has already murdered three men. When she slips into Yasumoto's room, the beautiful young patient easily seduces his vanity with tales of her abuse at the hands of males. But when she attacks, it takes Red Beard to rescue him, yet the tough-minded veteran refuses to paint her as a victim or to make any excuses for her violence ("Many other girls had experiences like that").
His trials continue as Yasumoto has to hold down the splayed legs of a young woman during a harrowingly primitive operation, and next finds himself shut up alone with an old man choking in his death throes (yet bathed in beautifully modulated light). Then, in a lengthy self-contained sequence, told in concise poetic strokes, Yasumoto witnesses another patient's poignant story of doomed love. With his cleanly elegant design and hard-edged black-and-white lighting, Kurosawa creates a vivid immediacy by choosing the precisely correct images - the parasol in the snowfall, the smoking rubble of an earthquake, the thunder of a hundred chimes - to make it all happen for the first time as we are watching.
Part One closes at a low-rent brothel where Yasumoto and Red Beard find a fearsomely crass madam whipping a twelve-year-old girl, her virtual slave. Brutalized into withdrawing into herself ("as though her mind has been scalded"), the girl flinches like an animal. Red Beard immediately steps in to stop the abuse and forcibly removes the girl (called Otoyo) to safety at his clinic, but only after fighting his way out through a lowlife gang of thugs.
Here follows the sole action scene, allowing Mifune to crack heads and break bones, as he did in classics like Seven Samurai and Sanjuro. It makes a neat joke that the doctor knows precisely where to aim in order to dislocate a jaw or break a leg, and there's no question that Mifune could eat these hoodlums for breakfast. But asking us to accept at face value that Red Beard has acquired these physical superpowers out-of-the-blue disrupts the tone of the story, like a calculated stab at financial success by splicing in a cartoon-like action sequence.
After a five-minute intermission, Part Two opens as Red Beard assigns the care of Otoyo as a test for the now considerably humbled Yasumoto, who is learning that the world does not turn around him. What follows is an often striking narrative staged in darkness as Kurosawa lights only the child's wild and luminous eyes, while Yasumoto nurses the feverish and hostile girl, trying to encourage her to emerge from her protective shell. When he falls ill himself, Otoyo takes care of him in a parallel act of repaying kindness with kindness.
Well into Part Two, however, Kurosawa pushes his main players off to the margins to introduce a new secondary character called 'Little Rat', a mischievous urchin who steals food to help his impoverished family. Otoyo encourages the child thief to turn honest, suggesting that this episode was designed to show that she has been rehabilitated and regained her grounding in humanity, but this adds one parallel development too many. After two and a half hours, the central idea has been firmly established, and this wide-eyed moppet (and his subsequent troubles) detours the narrative.
From where the audience sits, Yasumoto's conversion is never in doubt, but the overstretched plot keeps postponing his epiphany. Instead, the film seems to turn complacent with a conventional wedding (that promises an emotionally shallow marriage) as Yasumoto dutifully accepts his prescribed social position. When he finally receives his long-awaited offer of a court appointment, the drama proceeds to no satisfying summing-up by either Yasumoto or Red Beard, concluding with something closer to a whimper than a bang.
Still, this is full-bodied cinema, impeccably cast, starting with Yuzo Kayama who enacts the young doctor with both dignity and intensity, but also including some familiar faces such as Takashi Shimura, (Kurosawa's bureaucrat hero of Ikiru), as well as the indelible Haruko Sugimura as the white-faced brothel harridan (there's simply no one else like her). Every frame of the film shows the expertise of a master, but after this work, Kurosawa would never again make such a direct and stirring brief for humanity, withdrawing instead into the chilly color splendors of Kagemusha and Ran, and then the expressionist flights of Dodeskaden and Madadayo.