This is a film about human exaltation and suffering. Human nature has a capacity for goodness and nobility commensurate with it's potential for evil. Contemporary art is more comfortable with depicting the latter, often in clever disguises.
Red Beard is a doctor in nineteenth century Japan (it is an age without electricity but the medical practices we see are modern if rudimentary and certainly not primitive). He is fired with a spirit of compassion to help the poor and suffering and earning is nowhere on his agenda. He runs a hospital partly supported by the government. A bright young doctor trained in Dutch medicine in Nagasaki visits him but finds himself trapped to work in the lack luster environment which offers no scope for worldly advancement. But he is quickly infected by the elder doctor's humanity, charisma and zeal to serve.
We are exposed to a pageant of extremes of human suffering seldom depicted to such a pitch of intensity. A dying man unburdens his strange tale of marriage deceit and reconciliation. Another's suffering is so deep that he refuses to say a word until the end. A girl of twelve is saved from the clutches of a brothel but is already broken to the point of insanity. A family is driven to suicide by starvation. One of the inmates is a young and beautiful murderess of three men, and the new intern himself has a narrow escape. What better place can there than a hospital for the poor to encounter the meaning of suffering. Death is a regular visitor and there is a spiritual brotherhood which includes the staff. Of course this is no ordinary hospital, not even the missionary sort. (At one point the good doctor reveals a not altogether surprising side when he beats up and maims a bunch of hoodlums.)
This is perhaps too plain a story and some may find it mawkish. It is perfectly structured and the several strands are tautly drawn together into a powerful composition. The black and white cinematography captures the Japanese environment with powerful and lucid clarity. The tiled sloping roofs seem beautiful and the architecture and interiors are a feast for the eye. Snowfall and rain are filmed exquisitely. Says Ebert most aptly, "I've never seen wetter rain in another movie." I differ slightly, the wettest rain was the unending downpour which opens Rashomon.
One is tempted to compare Kurosawa and Satyajit Ray, particularly in view of their mutual admiration. Both are rooted in their respective soils and depict their respective countries and people with artistry and love. Kurosawa is more robust and warlike, whereas Ray remains a gentle and neutral observer of his universe. Ray weaves delicate tapestries, Kurosawa's fabric is coarse but tough. Perhaps Kurosawa has delved deeper into human reality. However , he cannot match Ray in delicacy or accuracy of characterization. The two children in Red Beard are no match for the children of the Apu Trilogy.Both are optimists and believers in human nature and their movies end on a note of triumph. In Ray, suffering is mute. In the present film, the wounds are raw and cry out, even though the samurai Kurosawa never loses restraint.