Sadly Red Beard must be noted as the final collaboration between Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune ending the greatest actor/director relationship of all time. It sounds as though their relationship had become strained over time to begin with and unfortunately the production of Red Beard did nothing to alleviate this. Apparently Mifune having to keep the titular beard throughout production caused him financial difficult since he was unable to take any other film work. In addition to this one of the screenwriters, Hideo Oguni, apparently criticized Mifune's performance in the film leading Kurosawa to doubt Mifune's abilities for the first time. So ended their collaborative effort which was unfortunate for both men. Mifune although certainly was still a successful actor none of his later films are as remembered as his work with Kurosawa. Kurosawa perhaps suffered even worse since he no longer had the guaranteed star power of Mifune, and was unable to find funding for his ambitious projects leading Kurosawa's output to diminish substantially. This perhaps unfortunately contributed to Kurosawa's suicide attempt in 1971.
It was a true loss to cinema that the two could never professionally reconcile, they did not even personally until late in both of their lives. One could imagine one project in particular which probably would have been Kurosawa's version of Runaway Train. Imagine that film made by Kurosawa instead especially since the leading character from that film seemed to be tailored made for Mifune. Some have claimed that this is not the case for the part of Red Beard and they see Kurosawa's other frequent collaborator Takashi Shimura as a better fit for the role. Shimura is very briefly in the film, but his days of having a substantial role in Kurosawa films dried up for some reason. I'm sure Shimura would have been good in the role, although there is one scene where he would have been considerably less believable, but likely would have been similar to his performances in Stray Dog and Seven Samurai. Mifune playing the mentor for once offers an interesting challenge for the actor, and makes Red Beard perhaps a more unusual character than he may have been otherwise.
Mifune presents a different character than you might expect from merely knowing the synopsis as the older doctor teaches the younger doctor. As you see in the first scene where Yasumoto goes to see Red Beard Mifune does not play him as the warm lovable type of mentor. Mifune naturally commands the scene, as he does every scene in which he appears in the film, and takes an effective approach as Red Beard greets the young man. Mifune actually takes a fairly cold approach in his portrayal of Red Beard's manner as he directs the man to his duty. Mifune's fairly quiet here as well, but the intensity in his performance is still very palatable. Mifune presents Red Beard as a man of his task in this scene and his brush aside of Yasumoto is basically to put him in his place in an instance. Mifune's approach to give Red Beard a sharp edge from the beginning works quite well in realizing the philosophy of his character. Mifune shows that Red Beard only forces his hand when it is an absolute necessity to do right, but when someone else can improve themselves by doing the right thing Red Beard wants them to find that out themselves.
Mifune therefore leaves Red Beard as a much more introverted mentor than you may have expected from this sort of character. Mifune though is excellent in the way he makes the character this iron willed moral conscience in his own unique way. Mifune very much stays away from sentiment for the majority of his performance instead he presents Red Beard as a man who gives his lessons sometimes through harsh truths. This is perhaps first evident in a relatively early scene after Yasumoto has had a close call with a mentally disturbed patient simply because he was interested in the woman as a sort of freak show. There is something Mifune is able to do that is pivotal for the character of Red Beard. That is being both so incisive in his blunt morality yet never for a moment seeming like he is trying to hammer it into the characters. Mifune makes often the silence more powerful than what is said by Red Beard simply through the way he carries the character. One scene where Yasumoto keeps explaining away why he went to brothel once, despite not being asked by Red Beard, is made absolutely convincing because of Mifune's performance.
Mifune's style works incredibly well for the character, and there is something special to be found in almost every second he is onscreen here. I especially love one scene where Red Beard is given a confession by a woman who is guilt stricken over having attempted stabbing her family member. Mifune has this way of personifying compassion in his portrayal of Red Beard's reaction as he hears the story. Mifune's warmth that does come from his performance is not in an at all of an upfront and straightforward fashion. It's fascinating though how Mifune still exudes it in quite a powerful way without every seeming to show exactly. Mifune almost makes it as though Red Beard is compassion so in a way he is love without needing to say it. There is such a subtle poignancy that Mifune brings through the part that actually does a great service to the film. Mifune's approach, while keeping the film quite moving to be sure, is able to prevent it from keeping it schmaltzy because of the way he so strongly earns the emotions in his own work as Red Beard.
Now just to note the scene where Mifune definitely would have more believable than Shimura in. The scene is when Red Beard retrieves a sick girl from the abusive madame of a brothel. Red Beard to do so has to take down a group of thugs in bad ass Mifune style. Well actually, although his physicality is much needed, Mifune does not play the scene as the samurai from Yojimbo taking over for a moment for Red Beard. Mifune even adjusts his performance somewhat playing the scene still as a surgeon as he has no pleasure or hate as he basically puts down each man as simply as he which is completely fitting to the character of Red Beard. This is yet another great performance by Toshiro Mifune, and what I love the most about his work is the unorthodox approach he takes with the character. This is his perhaps the most understated of all the performances, as even High and Low and The Quiet Duel had their well earned breakdowns. Mifune's portrayal of Red Beard is essential to the success of the film as he realizes the philosophy and technique of his character so beautifully. Although it is still unfortunate that this had to be the last time Mifune gave a performance in a film directed Akira Kurosawa, but at least they ended on a high note together.