akahige (red beard) marked the end of the kurosawa-mifune collaboration that had existed between 1948 and 1965. it took kurosawa 2 years to shoot this ambitious cinematic piece. the set was constructed in its entirety to represent an entire town, a trademark of kurosawa that signified his attention to fine detail. after weeks of owning the dvd, it wasn’t until the recent weekend when i had a chance to sit down to relish another of kurosawa’s masterpieces.

set in the 1860’s, the story revolves around yasumoto (yuzo kayama), a young upstart fresh from a prestigious medical school in nagasaki, with aspirations to become physician to the shogun. he was assigned as an intern to niide sensei (played by the bearded toshiro mifune), the stern chief physician of a public clinic treating the hoi polloi of a small town. obviously disillusioned by the poor state of the public clinic, yasumoto begins his internship with much contempt and reluctance, trying to get on akahige’s bad side at every available opportunity. however, yasumoto’s resentment for akahige’s unorthodox method of medical practice as well as his taciturn demeanour gradually subsides, as he learns akahige’s true nature as a great and kind physician who works tirelessly for his patients. the turning point in yasumoto’s attitude towards the art of tending to the sick was after treating an abused teenager, otoyo.

what struck me while watching akahige were the parallels seen in medicine of the past depicted in the movie with current day practice. the donkeywork of a newly qualified house physician today was reflected accurately in yasumoto’s tenure as akahige’s kohai. the day-to-day dealings with outpatient clinics portrayed here was not much different with those seen in an nhs district general hospital. human issues like poverty, child abuse and mental health were also elegantly illustrated (the child who stole for food, the teenager forced to be a geisha at the tender age of 12 and the daughter of a nobleman who hung herself after suffering from schizophrenia).

this movie made me wonder how this once arrogant graduate from nagasaki was transformed into the emphatic doctor, relinquishing all manner of creature comforts and the chance of becoming a successful shogun’s doctor, so as to treat those who really needed help. on reflection, i wondered what i’d really be like if immediately after graduating from newcastle, i was sent to the far reaches of malaysia.

selfishness over selflessness? i will never know.