At the yearly list party my friends and I had in February, we not only exchanged the normal, annual "Favorite Movies" list but we put together a group "All-Time Favorites List". Each of the seven of us wrote up a personal "All-Time Top Ten" and I compiled them into a "master list" so we could see where we were all on the same page (The Godfather) and where we went our own ways (I had two Howard Hawks movies on my list - no one else had any). The biggest surprise, though, was that while Kurosawa showed up on a number of lists, the only movie of his that got more than one mention was Red Beard, with two "votes".
I thought this was a little weird: I had never seen Red Beard, but, though I knew it was generally well-regarded, I'd never seen it praised so highly.
After watching it last weekend, I don't think it was weird at all to put it on an All-Time Favorite list and, now, I'd be more apt to think that what's really strange is that the movie doesn't receive more praise.
Well, maybe not so strange: we're used to giving his movies credit for their action scenes (The Seven Samurai), their poetic spectacle (Ran), their narrative complexity (Rashomon), or their simple but deeply-felt humanism (Ikiru), but the most impressive element of Red Beard might just be its psychological insight. And even more impressive: this insight is grounded in a specifically-drawn and nuanced social milieu. In other words, the overall experience is a lot like reading a big novel, but, unlike most "big novel" movies (like, say, The Godfather, The Leopard, or the Apu Trilogy), Red Beard works less by an accumulation of detail - where each incident, image, line gains greater meaning as we see how it fits, bit by bit, into the overall structure - and more through the density of each of its episodes.
In this post, I suggested that Kurosawa took the overt structural device of Rashomon and integrated it, more subtly, into Ikiru. Red Beard has a similar feeling: there are lots of neat structural/formal touches, but Kurosawa doesn't go out of his way to call attention to them. Each sequence is seems to be an example of a different kind of narrative technique that Kurosawa has mastered.
For example, in the first half of the film, there are a number of scenes where a character tells his or her life story. The scene where a patient's daughter explains why she waited so long to visit her dying father is done as a (masterfully-directed) monologue: Kurosawa focusing not only on the actress as she recites the tale of woe, but also using the contrasting reactions of the two doctors to develop the movie's main story. But, the next "life story" sequence, is done as a flashback (which itself contains a flashback), and seems to exist almost as its own little movie (a small romantic tragedy) within the larger one.
Though the project may not have been modest (it was a huge, expensive, and elaborate shoot), the product certainly feels modest. I got a sense from the movie of a director working at the height of his powers, yet not trying to show off or to overreach (compare and contrast this to work by other world-class directors: Bertolucci, Spielberg, Lean). The movie's story deals with the importance of learning humility, and part of the movie's appeal is that it seems to approach the material with humility.