In March 1954, the Japanese fishing boat Daigo Fukuryu Maru (Lucky Dragon No. 5) was irradiated by fallout from American H-bomb tests on Bikini Atoll. The whole crew developed radiation sickness, radioactive rains fell on Japan, and the Pacific tuna harvest was contaminated reigniting Japanese fears of atomic devastation in the wake of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was a national debate which the Japanese film industry participated in.
The first film of the era is a beloved classic the world over, featuring Takashi Shimura in a supporting role, which makes explicit Japan’s nuclear fears while telling an engrossing, entertaining story full of thrills. That film is Godzilla directed by Akira Kurosawa’s close friend Ishiro Honda. It might not be high art, but it’s a triumph and it was a box office sensation at the time.
I Live in Fear, also known as Record of a Living Being, fully intends to be high art. The script started as a satire, but Kurosawa wasn’t able to follow through on the concept as his thoughts turned serious very quickly. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb shows how well satire can work with nuclear fears, but Kurosawa couldn’t quite wrap his head around it. Instead, Kurosawa treats the subject very seriously and very bluntly. Fortunately he had some incredibly skilled actors working with him and the script is not without its moments, so while it’s definitely a message film it’s a message film presented with a lot of skill.
Kurosawa takes an atypical approach to what essentially is a Japanese drama in his opening shots. Instead of opening on any of the characters, he opens on a God’s eye view of the bustling masses of Tokyo where a theremin accompanies some jazzy woodwinds on the score. It’s easily an opening that could play with a science fiction film, such as Godzilla. It gets across the message that all of Japan is living under the shadow of the bomb which is the main point even if it doesn’t clue us much into the upcoming plot.
Kurosawa does an effective transition out of the street scenes through the windows of a dentist’s office to get into the story. We’re introduced to Dr. Harada (Takashi Shimura) who has been nominated to be a mediator for family court issues. Harada’s son, in a bit of blatant exposition notes that Dr. Harada may grumble about the job, but he’s secretly pleased to be helping families solve their issues. Harada gets a call to come to court for a hearing involving the Nakajima family and the main thrust of the plot starts to appear in a fairly efficient manner.
Toying with audience expectations a bit, Dr. Harada is delayed in the hallway outside the courtroom by the squabbling family members blocking the door. Evidently, the case is about the father of the household, an atypical family with at least one illegitimate adult child present. Whatever else the squabbling may be about, it’s clear that money issues are partly driving the family conflict.
After the quick setup we enter the courtroom and we get our first real surprise as the old patriarch of the family, Kiichi Nakajima, is being portrayed by Toshiro Mifune in subdued old age makeup and coke bottle glasses. The obvious question to ask is why do you need Toshiro Mifune to play an old man when you have Takashi Shimura in your cast? The answer soon becomes present in Toshiro Mifune’s performance. Mifune’s Nakajima may be stooped by age, but he’s otherwise strong, temperamental, and energetic. You can see much of a remaining youthful vigor in how energetically he fans himself in the close quarters of the court room. In essence, it was a part written to Mifune’s strengths, not Shimura’s. Given that they don’t overdo the old age makeup, it’s convincing and Mifune delivers a strong performance.
There’s nowhere to turn in the courtroom, which is perhaps Kurosawa’s statement of intent for the movie. The family is soon dismissed so that the court can fill Dr. Harada, and the audience, in on the nature of the complaint. It turns out that the strong, confident Nakajima is deathly afraid of the hydrogen bomb. He’s behaving erratically and blowing large sums of money on fallout shelters which are abandoned based on the latest news. He’s even trying to move the whole family to Brazil, a country he thinks would be safest in the event of nuclear war.
This represents a real conundrum to the court. It’s not unreasonable to be afraid of the hydrogen bomb. But to what extent is it reasonable to act out on those fears? And who’s being reasonable – the ones that try to do something about it to protect their family or the ones who do nothing? Arguably the craziest part of his plan may be the thought that he can move his former mistresses and illegitimate children with the rest of his family and have them live side by side. They can barely coexist in the same hallway. I suspect that’s a remnant of the original satirical take on the material.
The mediators are split on how to proceed. For the most part, they’re content to give it time for the family squabble to play out as long as Nakajima does nothing untoward. It would be an extraordinary step to commit a man who still appears vital and capable despite a fear which many possess. From that, we follow Dr. Harada who grapples with the ethical implications of the case, and Nakajima as he grapples with his fears and how to get around court orders. Nakajima is a man of action, after all.
Dr. Harada still has his son and family to fall back on. Although he’s troubled, you can sense that he has the support of his family at all times. They’re close and open to each other. What most vexes Dr. Harada is the character of Nakajima. Nakajima hasn’t had a nervous breakdown under fear by any means, but he can’t figure out his character at all.
Much of the rest of the film is the exploration of Nakajima’s character. He appears excessive and obsessed by his nuclear fears, but his grip on reality appears strong. And he’s always pushing towards something. His children appear complacent, spoiled even, and you get the sense that without his sharpness running the company business, a foundry, the business would collapse in short order. Or at least be forced into sale.
Nakajima’s plan of action starts to appear when a Japanese expatriate shows up from Brazil and shows the family a film of the relatively primitive farm that Nakajima intends to move to. It’s a far cry from the urban Tokyo which the family is attached to.
It’s a far cry from the world his illegitimate extended family is attached to as well. Even as he makes the rounds with their monthly allowances, the prospect of moving to Brazil is not enticing. And it’s with this stalemate that we see some of Nakajima’s crippling fears. The roar of jet planes following by a flash of lightning and thunder sends him scrambling to protect his grandchild in abject fear. Up to know the fear has been talked about, but Kurosawa shows it manifest for the first time.
Since Nakajima hasn’t left well enough alone, the whole family is called back to family court. Kurosawa films the whole scene emphasizing deep focus, with Nakajima primarily shown in profile. He’s clearly outfoxed his family showing how he can get around limits on how many US dollars he can obtain legally, by proposing a land barter with the expatriate farmer who wants to move back. Contradictory, just as many Japanese apparently want to move back as move away. And Nakajima reveals himself completely by stating that he can accept death, but can’t accept being murdered.
That’s a note that cuts right to the heart of the matter. It’s at this point the family brings up Nakajima’s plan to bring his mistresses and illegitimate children along to discredit his rationality. I suspect what Kurosawa is aiming at here is not so much a reason to show that Nakajima is really incompetent, his business dealings clearly indicate that he isn’t, but to give the mediators an excuse to side with the family.
There’s an inherent contradiction to Nakajima which stems from his humanity. He can be prone to anger and even violence. He also loves his family very much and even after an outburst he’s thoughtful enough to bring the whole family sodas while they sit in a hot corridor waiting for a ruling.
And, despite a counter-argument from Dr. Harada, the judges take the bait and side with the family, cutting Nakajima off from his money believing restraining him will protect him from his own rash nature. Dr. Harada doesn’t necessarily agree, but he’s outvoted and doesn’t have a convincing argument. And, if nothing else, believes that no harm will come from the decision, even as it pushes his own fears back towards the surface.
That ruling doesn’t necessarily stop Nakajima. He takes to embezzling to fund his land-swap idea, since the farmer he’s buying from has no interest in a foundry. But, there’s some pristine acreage with Mount Fuji in the background that would be perfect if Nakajima can raise the funds in a timely manner.
Despite his embezzling, Nakajima has to resort to begging from his mistresses and his illegitimate children for funds. Like his formal family, they want no part of his schemes. All he can do is honestly confess of his failures to the perspective seller. “Like a man”, his illegitimate daughter advises ironically. To Nakajima’s surprise, the Brazilian farmer takes it as a sign of his honesty and honor, ironically unaware of the embezzlement that fueled the scheme.
That leaves Nakajima nowhere to turn. Dr. Harada runs into Nakajima on the bus and finds him much worse. Instead of giving him an outlet and hope, the court’s constraints have left him nothing to do but stew in his fears. With no outlet, he’s become more fearful. With nothing left but his thoughts, the threat of the H-bomb is all he thinks about. Kurosawa has always advocated action as a succor for worry and in the H-bomb he finds a subject that’s both contemporary and perhaps too immediate for that to be entirely a successful remedy.
That fear leads to a really rash move on Nakajima’s part. In an effort to cut the cord from his family’s ties to the foundry, Nakajima starts a fire which burns the place to the ground. The twisted metal and smoke is a reminder that the H-bomb is not the only weapon of destruction available to man. In his fear, Nakajima is destroying, instead of protecting, his family.
In a prelude to Kurosawa’s masterpiece Ran, Nakajima walks through the destruction at last aware of what he has wrought. His family is without support. His workers are out of a job and the immediate prospects are bleak. And he’s asking someone to return to Japan to take his place in a potential nuclear war. Nakajima’s responsibilities were far beyond his immediate family. He couldn’t possibly take all his workers to Brazil and in his short sightedness he’s immediately damaged Japan. It’s this awareness that ultimately destroys him.
There’s no action that can undo Nakajima’s sins. No action that can make him forget his fears of the H-bomb. The strong man of action ultimately breaks. There’s no place left for him but the asylum. Even there, he can’t escape. He imagines he’s been able to transport himself to another planet, but the fear of the Earth burning in atomic fire still haunts him. In an astonishing shot, Kurosawa points his camera dead into the sun. There are no leaves or mats obscuring the view. It’s a stunning realization of the concept of atomic war consuming a planet and right in plain sight.
Kurosawa ends the film on a decidedly melancholy note. Dr. Harada, obviously shaken, representing the older generation descends a staircase, perhaps considering what his generation has unleashed on the world. Nakajima’s illegitimate daughter with her child ascends a staircase, having no real choice but to confront the fears of the world they live in.
That note of uncertainty is perhaps the best ending possible for this film. Kurosawa obviously has directed a heartfelt film with a fine performance at the center by Toshiro Mifune, but the subject is too large to be dealt with directly with any hope of fully encompassing it in a movie. There’s no action possible to cope. Kurosawa’s portrayal doesn’t give you room to laugh at the absurdity, no call to action, or a catharsis, but simply is a reminder of the very real fears facing a people at a precarious time in history. In many ways, I Live in Fear must have been redundant at the time. Perhaps that’s why Godzilla has endured and I Live in Fear was a flop. It’s in Mifune’s performance and the humanity that the film is worth revisiting and there’s a lot to like there. Record of a Living Being perhaps better summarizes the strengths of the picture than I Live in Fear which evokes the larger concerns of the world. The film works best in its small details rather than its grand statements.
Perhaps Kurosawa recognized it himself at the time. For his next film, he largely turned away from contemporary social issues, but kept the theme of a man’s tragedy through his own character flaws. Kurosawa turned to a favorite of his, Shakespeare, translated it to a Japanese setting, and set forth what would be a recurring motif for the rest of his career.
Next Time: THRONE OF BLOOD (1957)