Akira Kurosawa's Red Beard gives us the great gift of Dr. Niide, on my short list of truly admirable fictional heroes--and played by Toshiro Mifune with his usual understatement, as a man whose great humility and good will--and humor--is untainted by false pride--or false humility. He simply moves forward, implacable and self-effacing, healing as though he has no other choice (he is a doctor in a charity clinic) and shining a light on everyone he meets so they can see clearly their failings, strengths, and needs--mostly the need to stand with him to do the job that waits for them.
Noble, eh? But Niide expresses confusion over the fact of suffering; he never claims to know any will higher than that of his profession, which urges him to heal, even when he feels he shouldn't. He approaches his duties with the kind of--dare I speak his name?--John Wayne forthrightness--a source of strength or weakness, depending on whom you ask. But I don't think Red Beard falls into simplistic sentimentality or lazy self-assurance, as Wayne's movies sometimes do. Instead, it makes generous room for various other characters and stories that form an insistence on compassion, and a faith in our capacity to provide.
The scope broadens beyond Red Beard, shifts to the newest doctor on staff, Yasumoto--who feels the position is a punishment, and is biding his time until he can become "the shogun's doctor." But his life at the clinic shows him what's necessary to become like Red Beard, despite the obstacles and failures.
And then there’s an interlude: a dying patient confesses the great secret of his life in an extended flashback that reminds us of the beauty of black and white photography--combined with a compositional style that can only be described as "humane": the patients forming a protective circle around the dying man, all faces turned to his as it speaks and fades--his last sight, attentive eyes.
Kurosawa and Co. break your heart, then ask you to bend down, gather up the pieces, and put it together again so that you can get back to work: Near the end of the picture, the clinic's female workers call a dying boy's name down a well to bring him back. The sound echoes like the wails of mourners--but it is also an outraged demand across the length of the film. Kurosawa even takes us down the well to look up at their desperate faces, so that we can answer them in thanks and let them know we can hear our own names, even from that depth.