Red Beard is a hulking beast of a film dressed up as a small, almost old-fashioned-British style clash of the generations. At over three hours long, the movie's reputation might imply an epic samurai tale of war and empires. Instead, it's a moving socially minded presentation of an exceptional doctor up against the timeless challenges of poverty and disease - it's kind of like Doctors Without Borders set in feudal Japan.
But don't let that fool you - this might be Kurosawa's most massive production, certainly up to this point in his career. The director built an entire city, spent years developing the props and various costumes, and destroyed many of them for momentary glimpses of an earthquake that is only tangentially related to the main plot of the film.
But does this movie need to be three hours long? Red Beard - perhaps more than any other Kurosawa epic - inadvertently delivers persuasive arguments for either side. Certainly the emotional journey of the protagonist of the film can only be as satisfying when we have seen his entire journey, and there aren't many places in which the film lags - in fact, Red Beard was a massive success when it was released in Japan. And yet, the serial nature of so much of the story (particularly before the girl shows up after the intermission) and the limitation of any truly transformative plot developments means that the movie could easily be cut by 30 or 60 minutes and not many people would notice. At two hours, I would certainly be more likely to want to dive back into the film and revisit these extremely likable characters. Roger Ebert once said that no good film is too long, while no bad film is too short. While I often agree with the sentiment here, I do think there is something to be said for creative constraint, and just as my writing has often needed a trim or two to improve the overall impact of the message, so too would many movies benefit from a tightening. I'm not necessarily saying Red Beard is that movie - I couldn't know without having seen a shorter cut - but I do think it's a point worth considering, especially in the current director-centered climate where The Dark Knight Rises runs a full 8 hours and 23 minutes.