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May 25, 2004

Kurosawa & Dickens?

I've been catching up on my Kurosawa flicks with DVDs from Netflix. Sunday night it was Red Beard, which I hadn't seen before. Earlier in the week it was Seven Samurai for the third time. He continues to amaze me.

The first of his I saw was a bit over twenty years ago. I went with a friend who new him from film classes. At that point I had not had a class in film, and I was a bit ignorant about films in general since my parents were of the generation of Christians that frowned on Hollywood films due to the lack of morals of most actors. I had, on the other hand, read a few Shakespeare plays.

The film was Throne of Blood. I remember walking out of the theatre with Pat, my friend, and suddenly in a flash of insight recognizing the influence of Shakespeare and cross-connecting to MacBeth. I stopped and said "MacBeth in fuedal Japan. He remade MacBeth." She looked at me with that "duh" expression and said something like, "of course. You didn't know that? That's why I wanted you to see it."

Well, anyone who remakes Shakespeare that well is okay in my book, so he went on my mental checklist of directors that I would watch for. Over the years I caught a few more in arts theatres, mostly. I think we saw one in the Into to Film class I finally took years later too. I remember that I first saw Seven Samurai at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta. That when when I first began realizing how influential Kurosawa is in filmmaking. Film class confirmed that.

I tend to associate Kurosawa with Shakespeare now. When I watch a film of his, I am always semi-consciously watching for parallels or influences. So, Red Beard was a surprise.

It's very long, like Seven Samurai (something over two hours). Both have intermissions built in. About one third into it I suddenly thought Dickens. Thematically, the handling of the poor, and the contrast of severity and caring in the doctor, Red Beard, all contributed. As the film went on, the handling of the poor children and the pathos of the poisoning, the calling back from the dead of one little boy, all confirmed the impression. Even the ending, the wedding with the reconciliation, the coming of age of the young doctor, added to the effect.

I have no idea if Kurosawa actually read Dickens, but now I strongly suspect that he did. No direct parallel to one of the novels occurs to me, though. Doctors certainly inhabit Dickens, and there are plenty of scenes of nursing the sick, which are important in the movie, but I can't think of a story arc that focuses on doctors in this fashion in Dickens. So, it doesn't seem to be a remake a la Throne of Blood. I does start a bit more in media res than does Dickens on the whole. We don't see the young doctor get himself into the position he's in at the start or find out about the reasons for his obstinance and bitterness until much later, but the movement historically form that pre-film state to the conclusion is Dickensian.

We non-Japanese speaking viewers can't hear if he plays with dialects the way Dickens does. He certainly has opportunity with his sweeping cast from the lowest all the way to the personal physician of the Shogun. It seems there were some suggestions of dialect in the sub-titles, though. Dialect is something Shakespeare deploys too, however, so use of dialect to highlight "otherness" in some characters could stem from Shakespeare as much as Dickens (who probably took Shakespeare as his master in any case).

It is a very good flick, for those who haven't seen it. It's black and white and subtitled. The cinematography is Kurosawa, which is to say, stunning. The scene of the maids calling down into the well to call back the soul of the little boy from death is powerful. The camera moves up to look down the well, then zooms down to the water far below. We can see through the water and the reflection far above of the well mouth and the heads looking down. Then the picture shatters as something falls into the well from above. After that initial shock, we realize it's a drop of water, since aside from the ripples there's nothing to be seen. And then we make the leap, it's a tear, and must be the little girl's. To call it poignant is to understate the moment.

But the master does not dwell on it after that. Immediately, Red Beard pokes his head out the door and says the poison is out of him, that the boy is weak but should survive.

The film, despite it's main story, does offer up some martial moments. It seems Red Beard is a master of one of the unarmed schools of martial arts. When he takes the young girl from the brothel where she is effectively enslaved to treat her at the clinic, and the guards, about twenty of them, try to interfere, he flattens all of them. It's no choreographed dance; it's brutally effective butchery. There is at least one compound fracture. And he's a doctor.

In the aftermath, Red Beard tells the young doctor to take care of them. As he's doing so he's evaluating their condition. He notes that he overdid it with the one with the badly broken limb. It's a sort of horridly funny moment. He's a bit ashamed and embarrassed at all the havoc he's wrought, yet at the same time he's conscious it was necessary to get the girl away from the brothel to the clinic where she could be treated for her high fever and her obvious mental problems from all the abuse.

Red Beard is a sort of medical Robin Hood. He blackmails the rich with what he knows from being their doctor into doing favors for the poor, or charges them exorbitant rates so that he can personally support the clinic when the government cuts its budget. The social criticism, the criticism aimed upwards, is more subdued than that aimed outward, but it's present all the same. It's more present in the situation than directly in words. We never see the Shogun or "the government." It remains a nebulous authority, unlike Red Beard's benevolent tyranny in the clinic. It sees its subject in the same fashion, we are led to believe.

But in the progress of the film we see the players move from seeing each other as "others," generalities such as "poor," "patient," or "thief," to real humans for which they each can care. That is the Dickensian movement. And we see those who can only see other humans as mere parts of the environment, to be controlled and exploited as they choose, villified. By extension, if not by explicit statement, the government is moved into this category.

When the young doctor, in the end, chooses not to become the Shogun's personal physician, he's choosing to not move to that side again. At the beginning of the film he can't see people as people. He learns, and he learns well enough that his goals in life shift.

Posted by dan at May 25, 2004 12:49 PM