Akira Kurosawa’s Red Beard is such a skilfully made film in its individual moments that one almost doesn’t notice what a manipulative piece of filmmaking it is. Every word of the script seems to have been written with the sole intention of getting the viewer to exercise his tear ducts. And yet, some individual moments play so powerfully that they entreat us to ignore the flaws.
The key segment is the one where, over the course of one hellish day, a novice doctor learns what he has to deal with in his job. His boss, the eponymous Red Beard (a magnificent Toshiro Mifune), asks him to watch over a man who is about the die. “A man’s death is a solemn occasion. Watch carefully,” he instructs. The novice tries, but cannot watch after a point.
I have always wondered about death scenes in the movies. I have never seen anyone die before my eyes, so I really have no reference point, but whenever I see someone dying on screen, I wonder if it is realistic. Kurosawa deals with this scene by changing the focus. We are not seeing the patient die — we are seeing the doctor’s cool detachment die.
ps: While on the subject of watching someone die, do read this absolutely fantastic little piece by Ratul. No more than a few paragraphs long, but I doubt it can be said any better than this.