|Toshiro Mifune in Red Beard, a film by Akira Kurosawa|
I am coming around to thinking that the greatest film Akira Kurosawa ever made was not a samurai epic, but the fable about strong compassion called Red Beard.
The story centers on two doctors. One is the 19th century equivalent of a newly minted medical school graduate -- in this case, someone who has had the benefit of "Dutch learning" in Nagasaki, and has now come to Edo (Tokyo) to be the shogun's doctor. The other, nicknamed "Red Beard," is a senior doctor who runs a clinic that principally caters to the poor. The older doctor appears to be a bit of a tyrant, but it is soon revealed that his priority is all-around well-being of the community.
The proud and self-promoting young doctor changes as he witnesses the behavior of the devoted older doctor.
The particular genius of Kurosawa is to show that Red Beard can be both unbelievably compassionate, and also strong and tough in a conventional sense. An example of the former is when he patiently tends to a young girl who has been traumatized by ill-treatment and repays his kindness by lashing out. An example of the latter is when Red Beard single-handedly defeats a gang of ruffians guarding a brothel. (Later, he rues his own behavior. "This is bad. A doctor should not do this.")
One after another, the people in the film seem to be "infected" by the compassion that Red Beard demonstrates. It is a veritable "cascade of compassion."
One of the very first blog posts I ever wrote was about the problem of violence, and whether mere "nonviolence" is an adequate counterweight to it. I wondered if we don't need to go beyond nonviolence to compassion. "It seems to me," I wrote, "that compassion is something that, once experienced, tends to become contagious." (See Is the Opposite of Violence Non-Violence? Or Is It Compassion? )
I continue to think a lot about how violence is "contagious," and how we can find a similarly "contagious" antidote. (See Violence: Taking Over Like a Virus )
In an excellent chapter on Red Beard in The Films of Akira Kurosawa, Donald Richie writes, "One can see what Kurosawa has had the bravery to do in this film. He is suggesting that, like the hospital, the world in which we live may indeed be a hell but that good, after all, is just as infectious as evil."
You can watch Red Beard on Kanopy. (More suggestions of great films on Kanopy here.)