Akira Kurosawa: I Live in Fear (1955) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Akira Kurosawa: I Live in Fear (1955)

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I Live in Fear packs a lot of interesting elements into a film that never quite knows what to do with them. It seems to work on paper and in discussion better than as an experience. The plot is simple: Kiichi Nakajima (played by a sometimes unrecognizable Toshiro Mifune) is taken to court by his wife and children, who wish to have him declared mentally incompetent after he becomes obsessed with the notion that fallout from impending nuclear war will reach everywhere on the planet except for South America. He spends exorbitant sums on an underground shelter and begins arranging the sale of the foundry in which his family lives in order to purchase a farm in Brazil, where he expects them all to move. Not wishing to A.) lose their home and inheritance, or B.) move to Brazil, the family grows displeased.

The duration of the film uses this conflict as an engine to explore Nakajima's growing—and increasingly incapacitating—fears of nuclear annihilation, the family's oblivious and entitled reaction to his fears, and the growing unease of a court mediator selected to hear the case (played by Takashi Shimura, who by this point in the project it's clear should have been in every movie ever made). Shimura's character is intended to act as a bridge between the family members who seem to have forgotten—or deliberately suppressed—any lingering fears or scars from the barely decade-old atomic bombing of Hiroshima, and Nakajima's extreme and eventually debilitating manifestation of these fears.

But Shimura is underused as a character, popping up unevenly whenever Akira Kurosawa needs to chart a new level in Nakajima's descent into paranoia. The film can't seem to find its focus, shifting from intense, emotionally charged representations of his fear—such as a scene where he confuses lightning and thunder for a nuclear attack—to his spoiled and clueless family, of which there are so many members and so little done to differentiate between them that they mostly come across as a vague group of “others.”

Does Kurosawa want us to see Nakajima as an all-too-sane man driven mad by the unreasonable indifference of society toward the power of nuclear weapons? Yes, I think, in part—but the family's actions aren't motivated by indifference, they're motivated by greed and entitlement. If he simply wanted to move to Brazil for his own sake and was leaving them their home and inheritance, you get the feeling they'd be fine with it. The movie would be more effective if they simply didn't want to come with him and his struggle was trying to convince them of the validity of his fear. As it is, the squabbling about money and legal matters—while it casts a sad shadow over Nakajima's efforts to do what he genuinely feels is best for his family—gets in the way of the audience empathizing with his fear on a consistent and urgent level.

What we get is a film with some great scenes (the second-to-last one in which Mifune's character points to the sun through the window in the asylum he has ended up in and declares with panic that “the Earth is burning” is chilling, and worth the whole 103-minute running time alone), but not as much accumulated effect as I think Kurosawa's capable of. The family drama gets in the way by taking over the story too heavily in certain scenes—we're made to focus on the family's disfunction rather than Nakajima's panic over their unwillingness to follow him—and, frankly, by the end I wouldn't mind if their small, whiny group was nuclear-annihilated. The real question of the film is whether it's he who's crazy for fearing the bomb or the rest of society for not fearing it.

Of course, Nakajima is right to be afraid of the power of nuclear weapons, and his family is right to think he is overreacting (trying desperately to convince his family to come start new lives with him in Brazil, he remarks at one point that they can even go to the Amazon, proving either that he has never read Werner Herzog's published journals from when he was there filming Fitzcarraldo, or he is insane). The question isn't especially profound in and of itself—it needs to be rooted in the emotional breakdown it triggers in Mifune's character to have any real force. There's plenty of that here, but I wish there was more of it.While I appreciate the attempt to integrate some later cinematic references there at the end, Fitzcarraldo wouldn’t be coming for some time.  Instead, I was thinking about the writings of Rudyard Kipling.  He was someone that Kurosawa might have at least heard about, and his musings about the danger and allure of the forest might have served a nice dichotomous appeal to someone as scared as Nakajima.  I also think that Kurosawa might have enjoyed the irony of someone so paralyzed by the bomb pondering the idea that moving to an environment lush with life but actively pursuing his death would be preferable.

However, it doesn’t appear that kind of musing is really going on in I Live in Fear.  I was awaiting your initial reaction because I watched this film years ago and the only thing I remembered from it was Mifune’s persistently startled expression.  Rewatching it I can at least appreciate some of the scenes a little more, but the foreground performance is too distracting and the overall film is very dull.

The problem is that this film takes the threat of nuclear annihilation very seriously but does not really do much to spice up that fear visually.  Think back to the desolate landscapes of Drunken Angel and One Wonderful Sunday.  The landscape is practically oozing fear and radiation back at the protagonists in Angel and the joyful reunion in Sunday is always tempered back to reality by the bombed out buildings and discarded homes that the lovers try to find some peace in.

By contrast, I Live in Fear is a quaint suburban neighborhood.  Nakajima’s fears are rarely projected into the films visual style, which makes sense given Kurosawa’s confused attempt at observing him from the outside, and that makes for a very dull film.  Aside from that nuclear lightning moment that you mentioned there are few attempts at drawing us into Nakajima’s fear.  Instead we end up with a lot of people talking about how he is afraid, Nakajima reiterating that he is afraid and not afraid, then repeating the cycle with scenes of questionable power.

That repetition is what fuels my boredom.  Early on there is a scene where Nakajima, paralyzed by fear, seems to start strangling a child to death.  This is an illuminating moment directly quoted not too long later when he does almost the exact same thing.  The power generated by the earlier moment is muted and then made kind of silly by repeating it so soon.  The rest of the film also settles in a comfortable routine with dialogue that emphasizes this:

Nakajima: I am not insane or thinking about the bomb (the bomb will destroy everything!)
Family: We want his crazy money.
Dr. Harada (Shimura): He may be crazy, but he is crazy with reason, I must deliberate further.  Nakajima, how are you feeling?
Nakajima: I am not insane…

Were the dialogue not so on the nose I could handle a bit of repetition, but it doesn’t work out that way.  I laughed when Dr. Harada said “Are we the insane ones, the ones that can remain unperturbed in an insane world?”  That kind of bluntness worked well in a fantasy like One Wonderful Sunday, but put into a “realistic” setting here it becomes unintentionally hilarious after this very point has been previously stated by the doctor many times.  For Kurosawa, a director unafraid of using the earth and weather to his advantage, it’s a bit jarring to see him take a more literal approach to his story but not very surprising it ends up so dull.  I wish I could say the “the Earth is burning” scene made up for the rest of the movie but by the time it comes around it’s far too little, much too late.I'm glad we're in agreement that for a movie about a man literally losing his mind with fear, there is surprisingly little visceral power or sensory impact behind most of the scenes. The reason I gravitate toward the scene where he mistakes lightening and thunder for an explosion is that in the moment it makes a completely ordinary effect—we've seen lightening and heard thunder in movies before, and if anything it often comes across as melodramatic and staged—terrifying based solely on his reaction. For a very brief moment, that scene evokes true, paralyzing fear, not because we feel it as viewers, but because we see how completely it strips Nakajima down to his most base instincts. He goes from being a forceful patriarch to a trembling child in seconds, and the way his mistress looks at him afterward, all but rolling her eyes, makes his fear isolating, tragic, and real. If the movie took this as its cue and gave us a look at his life disrupted constantly by these impulses, it could work wonderfully.

Even in this scene though, Kurosawa takes care to show the storm start in the background, as if to jump up in the middle of an effective moment pointing at the screen and yelling “see, it was just a storm HAHAHAHA,” and by doing so, it's as if he's asking us to roll our eyes at Nakajima as well. It takes us forcefully out of the reality of his own experience, which just a second before we wouldn't necessarily have been able to discount so easily. One could guess that the flash and the rumbling were simply the weather, but it could just as well be that he's hallucinating, and by letting the viewer into this sensory experience with him, we can empathize. That's the beauty of film—you can empathize with another's experience on more than just a logical or cerebral level.

That Kurosawa makes this choice at the end of the scene acts as a small example of the main problem you note, which is that he refuses to let us experience the events of the movie on the same level as Nakajima. By denying a chance to then instead see the exterior effects and evolution of his fear—which could have been done by giving Shimura more to do than simply wax philosophical about the same thing in four different scenes—he effectively deprives his movie of any experience at all.

Why—WHY—is so much time spent on the family? What purpose are those scenes supposed to have? It's as if Kurosawa had an idea for a movie about nuclear fears, and also had some scenes on hand for an unfinished story about a group of entitled family members and their all-too-accommodating father, and decided he couldn't let them go to waste. I understand the logic—at least on paper—of introducing Nakajima's family as a force keeping him in the real world, where his concern for them prevents him from running off and embracing his fantasy of safety in Brazil. And I can even see the impetus to add an ironic twist to the way his fear wears him down by showing the viewer that his family isn't even able to appreciate the truly tragic toll his own care for them has as a consequence. But this could all be accomplished in two or three scenes, and instead we get endless arguments over who gets his money, how they'll survive without the housing and allowances he provides, and whether or not his mistresses and their children will be included in his inheritance. None of it matters.

I'm interested at how many of the movies we've watched so far break down, for me, into a collection of scenes that are interesting primarily in the context of this project. That's not how an effective film works, and I'm curious what I'd have thought of them had I just seen them as an isolated event. This one certainly isn't the worst we've seen, and the vague skeleton of a movie I can imagine Kurosawa having made instead sits underneath everything pretty heavily at a few spots—I'm just confused at how disconnected he seems to be from what should have been the clear heart of the movie.I really like what you touched on there in the end.  I Live in Fear works for me about as well as The Men Who Tread on Tiger’s Tail.  Really, Tiger was only three scenes – preparing for the border crossing, being examined at the border, and immediately afterward.  Fear is also only about three scenes – charting Nakajima’s descent, the doctor frowning slightly, and the children plotting.  In both films Kurosawa started with the skeleton of a great idea and then quickly descended into sketches rather than a fully-formed project.

What is less reconcilable with Fear is that he wasn’t working with the wartime atmosphere he was with Tiger.  He had significantly more resources and the backing of a major studio looking to expand on his recent successes.  However, instead of looking at this as an outright negative, I have to give Kurosawa a lot of credit for making the films that he wanted to instead of repeating the success of Rashomon or Seven Samurai.  As much as this film feels like arthouse pandering, especially with the “Submitted for the Festival of the Arts 1955” there at the beginning, it still fits in with the overarching narrative he’s established commenting on contemporary Japanese societies.

Mifune’s performance doesn’t quite fit in though.  I know that he has been long slated as the Kurosawa actor of choice throughout the majority of his productions, but the more we watch these films the more I believe Shimura deserved that title.  Part of why Fear is so confusing is the way Mifune mugs for the camera like a prototype Nicolas Cage.  The first time we see him onscreen he is swatting furiously at imaginary insects with his large fan and modulates his voice in conversation to such differing degrees of volume that he becomes unbearable.

This does fit into the is / isn’t he insane narrative, but since Kurosawa surrounds his cartoonish performance with so much boring fluff the effect is lost.  Instead of questioning his role as leader of the family despite overwhelming evidence of fear we see a collection of boring cyphers against someone who, even in his darkest moment, could crush them with his air movement device.  This would be great if played up for comedic effect, but since I’m supposed to avoid laughing at these moments it gets a little awkward trying to figure out just how I’m supposed to feel.

I wish I could say this is the portrait of Kurosawa, the artist, in transition.  But nothing coheres enough for me to believe this was anything other than just another job for him.

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Next week: Kurosawa takes his first jab at Shakespeare.

Posted by Andrew

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