Imagine you just graduated from medical school and expect to become the next Surgeon General; that's how good people think you are and you have the ego to match it. Suddenly, you're told you will be an intern at a backwoods free clinic for the foreseeable future. Think you might be mad? Well, so is Dr. Yamamoto when this happens to him in Japan during the shogunate. He studied new, foreign medicine in school but almost immediately loses both his fiance and his job prospects.
The next three hours of the film show his gradual transformation from a self important and immature boy into a doctor who understands the pain and trials of the poor. Through a few specific vignettes, Yamamoto learns the back story of some old men as they lay on their death beds and then receives the challenge to rehabilitate a young girl who has been abused her whole life and trusts no one.
This film is not for the weak. It's three hour running time pays off at the end during a climactic scene involving an entire poor family who resort to an extreme option to escape their station. The echoes of half a dozen women into a well may seem melodramatic, but it is a fitting capstone for the audience who just witnessed a long and arduous Kurasawa movie.