Akira Kurosawa: Scandal (1950) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Akira Kurosawa: Scandal (1950)

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I was completely confounded by Scandal during my viewing this week.  It was packaging a bunch of ideas that Akira Kurosawa has been toying around with for the last few films and then delivered them all at once in a messy package.  Advice for the Kurosawa veterans or newbies following along with each write up that we’ve posted, this film is definitely scattershot but it is by no means one I think that anyone should skip.  The emotional disorganization of the film is one I can mostly forgive because it still samples up another great performance from Takashi Shimura and introduces a man-made element of weather into the mix.

Scandal is a blown-up case of “they said / we said“ where an encounter between two celebrities, the artists Ichiro (Toshiro Mifune) and the singer Miyako (Shirley Yamaguchi), brings them a lot of headaches.  He is kind enough to offer her a ride on his motorcycle to a hotel they are both staying at, and while enjoying a quiet moment on the balcony together are mistaken for lovers by the paparazzi, and one quick snapshot later brings them months of headaches.  Ichiro sues the tabloid, Amour, that posted the photographs and quickly becomes discredited in the eyes of the public, who love a good love scandal, and the unscrupulous lawyers that represent the corporate interests.

Ichiro is in need of his own lawyer and that is where the brilliant performance of Takashi Shimura, as Hiruta, takes center stage.  He forces his legal services on the belabored man and, in a scene so punchy Robin Williams would both be drawn to and make repulsive, introduces himself as a smart legal mind that is good at playing all sides against the middle.  The question is determining what the middle is, and this is where Hiruta’s plotline loses some punch as we’re introduced to yet another tuberculosis-addled character.  This time it’s Hiruta’s daughter, who is given three scenes to smile like an angel and say comforting words of empty reassurance, right before her dad betrays his client’s and she dies.

Leaving aside the results of the trial, there is a lot to love about Scandal and quite a bit to cock your head at in confusion.  The best thing about the film is the way Kurosawa treats the media as another force of nature in the land.  The opening scenes establish the calm landscape that Ichiro and Miyako are trying desperately to get away to, and once the cameras force their way onto the frame it’s clear why.  There’s an atmosphere of Dr. Seuss absurdity as more and more microphones cut into the view with arms that seem to be attached to a formless mass instead of people.  The cameras themselves become larger and more encompassing of the fore and backgrounds, losing a sense of “natural” landscape for one of perpetual recording.  Then there are those flashing bulbs, relentlessly going off in moments of high stress where it seems like the heat generated by the machines alone is almost too much for the trio to bear.Thankfully, the trial and the corresponding visual style take up more than half the run-time so there is always a fun set of technological scrutiny for us to marvel at.  The other strong positive of the film is an undercurrent of sad acceptance with the Western influences in Japanese culture.  This is the first film in which Christmas is brought up and is done so as a very funny sarcastic cut off to a poorly motivated Santa Claus.  The influence of the media is another factor of this, especially since this is a country of Nationalism that is only now taking tentative steps into Democracy.  This is brought up quite a few times with the old timers longing for the way that things used to be, and Hiruta unable to provide for his family “the way that he used to.”

All this comes together in a scene very late in the run-time when Ichiro and Hiruta go to a bar to celebrate New Year’s Eve together.  This contains the emotional punch that the dying daughter subplot couldn’t pull together.  A stranger in the bar addresses everyone just before the New Year rolls in, telling everyone, “Next year, without fail, I’ll get enough money to buy a home for my wife.  To hell with this year.”  Right afterward he leads everyone in the most off-key, meandering, and beautifully sad rendition of Auld Lang Syne I’ve heard.  The past, with all the baggage that entails, is gone and now they’re faced with a future that seems determined to forget them.  The tears flowed nice and easy throughout the two emotional peaks of One Wonderful Sunday, and they came back to me here.

Even with those wonderful elements in play, Scandal felt like a more scattered effort than Kurosawa’s other films.  Despite the strong emotional core it’s anchored around the sub-character the film is not.  It feels that, right around the mid-point, Kurosawa realized that Ichiro was too dull a hat to hang his entire film around and decided to switch over full-steam into what Hiruta’s life must be like.  So we end up, in the first half of the film, with a number of dull scenes of Ichiro complaining about his lot in life.  Then when Hiruta takes center-stage he’s weighed down by the dying daughter subplot established to give him a connecting point to Ichiro and Miyako while they were the main characters.  The dichotomy of the film becomes very weird, cannonballing from scenes of quiet introspection, to drunken revelry, to tech-based intrusion that H.R. Giger would find inspiring.

Before I launch into another round of Kurosawa gender issues, what did you think of Scandal?The incredible unevenness was too much for me. This does rank among Shimura's best, but the scattered structure of the plot and Kurosawa's wavering sense of what the movie should be and where it's going next pushed any emotional involvement I may have had with the characters to a grinding halt. Even though I watched this in the middle of the day, at one point I had to stop and rewind it, sure I had somehow fallen asleep and woke up to a different movie. It has a vaguely similar effect to that point in the third act of Primer where you realize there's been a twist but you're not exactly sure what it is, and the characters have passed that point, reacted, and are now operating about ten steps ahead of you — except that Primer is a masterpiece and this movie is not.

What is this story about? At first it seems concerned pretty directly with the effects of tabloid media and the need to invade the privacy of others, then makes a bizarre left turn when Shimura's lawyer comes home drunk and insists upon telling his bed-ridden, feverish, TB-infected child about a huge mistake he made—which she divines on her own out of thin air like some creepy, sweaty oracle—at which point the movie seems to become about crying. Later, a lot of drunk people hilariously sing “Auld Lang Syne” in a bar on Christmas Eve. This scene did not play for me the same as it did for you.

My main issue, I think, is that once Scandal switches over into a portrait of Hiruta's shameful decline, it doesn't know what to do with the other characters, who then become all-purpose stand-ins, and this makes it hard to identify with Shimura's admittedly great performance. His betrayal has no real weight because the scandal doesn't really seem like that big of a deal for the two characters involved, who have both switched concerns entirely away from the case and onto visiting Hiruta's bizarre, omniscient daughter. (She's like a Haley Joel Osment of post-war Japanese child actors.)I know all of this is rooted in a sense of “things aren't what they used to be,” but as it's presented, Hiruta's conflict is less a grappling with contemporary social changes and more a result of one shameful, fearful, easy choice. When he overcomes this at the end by coming clean in the courtroom, it didn't strike me as quite the victory Shimura plays it as (and I think Kurosawa intended it to be) because it's essentially just a guy realizing he shouldn't have taken a bribe. If we could feel the social pressures wrought by fallout from the war, the financial demands of his daughter's illness, or the weight that losing the case would put on Ichiro and [Stand-In Female Character], then his betrayal and subsequent reversal may have some teeth to it. As it is, Shimura lends it all the deep-seated, slow-burning despair and dread he can muster (which is substantial, as the man has an incredibly expressive face), but Kurosawa doesn't provide a context within which this despair can feel real, and sometimes that just makes Hiruta seem like a crazy person.

Shimura's performance seems like an excellent warm up for Ikiru, where the desperate decline is a bit more spaced out and developed, but the main points of interest for me here were those that showed a more Westernized and media saturated Japan than the previous films. Though Mifune doesn't have much to do with his character, I would gladly have followed his storyline in the direction it starts out, with a call for respect of one's privacy leading to more and more media exposure and more and more people butting into his life. The voyeuristic way Hiruta first comes to visit him is fitting in this sense.

I'm also intrigued by how Ichiro and Miyako seem to feed the media frenzy started by their lawsuit—the difference between this pointed, cultivated publicity and the unexpected, unwanted publicity caused by the initial scandal-spurring photo could have made for interesting ground to explore, especially when Kurosawa seems to equate so much of the disgust and blame for the tabloids on the Western occupation.You've corrected me on my course regarding the characters.  I was going to talk about how the female characters seem more subservient than ever in this film.  It's especially odd considering Miyako is barely given a voice in the public proceedings.  Aside from her lovely voice, which seems like another westernized carry-over given her song selection and style, she hardly has much of a say nor presents much in the way of resistance to the scandal at large.  The same goes for Hiruta's daughter, who goes in three phases from impossibly angelic, disappointed, and then dead.

I was considering latching onto this as another point about Kurosawa and gender, but realized this is really just a screenwriting weakness overall.  Even Toshiro Mifune, he of the Herculian charisma, is nearly rendered irrelevant because of the sudden shift over into a tale of personalized moralization versus the societal one presented in the beginning.  Hiruta's rise and fall is treated as an entirely separate story, one that barely has any connection with the scandal at large, and even the way Ichiro looks at the drunks of the bar shows that he has become a stranger to what he thought was his own story.

True, we could keep looking at this as another example of how the influence of the West is poisoning young and old alike but the stretch is very tenuous here.  Going back to Hiruta's daughter, she is afflicted with a now common disease that Kurosawa has used to show Japan's failing resistance to them.  But she's infected by proxy, showing how the disease her father should have is being spread back down to her.  This is something that Kurosawa already touched on beautifully with the drunk doctor and the gangster in Drunken Angel, and here just comes off as another confusing aside.I think it's telling that once Ichiro and Miyako's brief encounter at the beginning is over, Miyako is distinctly absent from the movie for some time. The only reason she seems to be brought back is because she is necessary for Ichiro to make his case—in terms of the story and the characters, how she feels about the scandal is almost completely irrelevant. Then, once he's convinced her to to join the suit (do they ever say how?) they're in it together, friends and cohorts, suing the tabloid for insinuating that two single people may have the audacity to stay at a hotel together. (Sidenote: Is it because of how they're dressed? Are they wearing their private-time kimono's? There's a brief exchange of dialogue at one point when both characters indicate that they aren't properly dressed, look down at their kimonos, and then Miyako puts on a second, slightly larger kimono, which seems to support this theory.)

There is one scene that sticks in my mind: Hiruta returns home, drunk, to witness Ichiro and Miyako playing the piano and singing at his daughter, who is surrounded by Christmas decorations, wearing a crown, and, if I remember right, holding some kind of Christmas scepter (this last part could be something my mind is inserting in retrospect in order to deal with the utterly bizarre quality of the scene). The little girl sits still with an unnerving smile throughout, until Hiruta shatters a pane of glass and breaks the action.

It presents an altogether unsettling and almost Lynchian picture of a Westernized nuclear family household at Christmas. I don't know how much of it was intended to come off the way it does, but as a view of such a distinctly American tradition in post-war Japan from a director obviously not fond of the influences of the Allied occupation, this scene is briefly and mildly fascinating.

I feel like a lot of the actual scandalous nature of the story is lost on a contemporary audience because values have changed so much over time, but even this feels a bit deliberately naive. I think this is also part of why I couldn't get into the court case—by the time the trial actually commences it seems less like a stand for one's character and more like a really expensive way to yell “nuh-uh!” across a crowded courtroom. Perhaps I'm wrong and the story run by the tabloid really would have been a matter of serious character assassination when Scandal was made, but even the movie gives up on treating it with any severity after a short time.

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Posted by Andrew

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