Set in 19th-century Japan, the film’s action centers on the experience of the young doctor Yasumoto (Yuzo Kayama) in his work as an intern at a hospital-clinic for the poor run by the experienced and wise Dr. Kyojo Niide (Toshiro Mifune), nicknamed "Red Beard." Coming from a wealthy and influential family, and fresh from a Western-influenced medical education at Nagasaki, Yasumoto had believed he was on the path to become physician to the shogun (equivalent to a king).

He is initially insulted and deeply unhappy with conditions at the distinctly inglorious clinic. The poverty and suffering (and smell) of the clinic’s patients disgust him, and he tries his hardest to get fired. The mysterious Red Beard, however, is extremely patient, and simply waits. While he waits, we see Dr. Yasumoto slowly being converted as he is brought into close contact with the suffering in the lives of several patients.

Initially rebellious and emotionally unable to watch patients die or assist in surgery, Yasumoto gradually becomes a seasoned and enthusiastic member of the clinic’s medical team and announces that Red Beard is his idol. At the end, when Yasumoto is actually offered the position of physician to the shogun, he refuses, in order to continue his work at the clinic.


This is the last of Kurosawa’s older-style black and white epics starring Toshiro Mifune. It is long, carefully and lovingly shot and somewhat rambling as it tells the stories of several patients in detail. The film’s central conflict is between the views of medical practice represented by Red Beard and his new intern. Yasumoto brings to the clinic the latest of empirical medicine, but Red Beard, who has a much broader view of medicine, is clearly Kurosawa’s ideal doctor. He serves the needs of the very needy and works hard to maintain support for the clinic in the face of social and governmental indifference. Most broadly, he is dedicated to easing the suffering of living.

Red Beard is old-fashioned in the sense that he is acutely aware of the limits of medicine’s powers, On the other hand, he is keenly interested in keeping up--for instance, demanding to see the notes his intern has taken at in his medical training at Nagasaki, historically the Japanese city most open to influence from the West. (We learn from the DVD’s optional running commentary that the nickname "Red Beard" may refer to the Japanese phrase "red-hair medicine," slang for medicine that had been influenced by the Dutch.)

Even more important than Red Beard’s technical prowess, however, is his view of illness as intimately connected with patients’ lives. Poverty is a major cause of illness, in his view, and beyond that are the misfortunes of individual lives. As he tells Yasumoto, "There is always a story of great misfortune behind illness." The lessons Yasumoto learns at Red Beard’s side open him up to the spiritual and existential side of medical care, and his exposure to the harsher side of the poor patients’ lives and to the dignity of those who have suffered is what brings about the change in his views of himself and of doctoring. This is a rich film with a strong statement about medical care that would make a provocative contribution to any discussion of medical education, doctor-patient relations, or medicine’s relation to culture.


English-subtitled version in 1966. Based on the novel "Red Beard Consultation Story" by Shugoro Yamamoto. I strongly recommend the Criterion Edition of the film for improved print and translation, and also for its extra commentary on Japanese medical history, in which we learn, among other things, that in 1804 a pioneering Japanese doctor performed an operation under an anesthetic he had developed some 40 years before the use of anesthesia in the U.S.

Primary Source

Criterion Editions (2001)