November 29, 2008

I Live in Fear (1955 film)

Directed by Akira Kurosawa. Written by Fumio Hayasaka, Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, and Hideo Oguni.

In what is considered the last of his films to explore the immediate after effects of WWII and the US occupation in Japan, Kurosawa took another lift in censorship to explore one of the boldest topics of the time:

The Bomb.

Toshiro Mifune plays Kiichi Nakajima, the elderly owner of a successful foundry who lives every day with a deep fear of possible nuclear war. He feels the only place that would be safe from nuclear fallout is South America, so, like a number of Japanese at the time, he arranges the purchase of property in Brazil with the intention of moving his entire family - including three mistresses and their children - out of harm's way. This doesn't sit well with his extended brood, who don't want to give up their individual lives in Japan and shrug off the threat of nuclear annihilation as something beyond their control. When stubbornness rears its ugly head, the case goes to family court as the kids try to have their father declared incompetent and bar him from his finances.

Though I admit he lights up the screen, I've been a bit critical of Mifune's performances in the past, seeing them as just a hair beyond the line that would take them over-the-top. Such is not the case here as he disappears into the role of Kiichi, a man 40 years his senior. Though the powdered hair and darkened age lines are surprisingly effective with the B&W photography, it's Mifune's shambling, weakened gait, grimacing scowl, and defiant yet tired eyes that really sell the part. And he manages to hold himself back just enough to keep it from feeling artificial.

The extended family is marvelously handled with each character getting their own reason for why they want to stop Kiichi's plans. Some don't want him to sell the successful foundry, the business they hope to inherit, as collateral. Some, the younger, don't want to leave their lifestyles behind. Some just think the guy's crazy. What I like is they each get a well rounded exploration of why they believe what they believe, instead of just lumping them together as a collective mass against this old man.

And we get some wonderful drama within the family itself, too, as this incident forces the legitimate kin to come face to face with the mistresses and children of an illegitimate nature. It's fascinating seeing some of these stray relations slowly find themselves enveloped in the warmth of a larger family, while others trigger explosive arguments over who should and shouldn't be included in the will.

I'm so glad Kurosawa has found a pair of writers, Hashimoto and Oguni, who know how to take his ideas and expand them to their fullest potential, while molding all the disparate elements into a collective whole and smoothing over the sentimental moments Kurosawa stumbled over earlier in his career. Between this, Ikiru, and Seven Samurai, they really do make a winning team and I'm very interested to see what their collaborations are like on later projects.

Back to the story, things take a nice twist half way through when the kids succeed in their case to have Kiichi declared incompetent. The film changes gears a bit here and becomes a fascinating exploration of how this man, who really had thought the situation through to a clever degree, slowly slips into his accused senility simply because he finds his choices, his options, his ability to lead his own life, pried from his grasp. It's a reversal, of sorts, on the themes explored in Ikiru. There, an unsuccessful man receives a sentence that leads him to better his life. Here, a successful man receives a sentence that causes his life to fall apart.

It's a tragedy, but a believable one that happens to a surprising degree in real life. And I like how Kurosawa uses Takashi Shimura as a court mediator who initially votes in the kids' favor, then comes to question his decision as he encounters Kiichi several more times and begins to feel for himself the nagging fear in the back of the soul that potential nuclear devastation can trigger.

It's surprising that this is one of Kurosawa's lesser known films, because it certainly isn't among his weakest. Maybe it's the quiet, meditative nature which resembles his final works, or the depressing tale that doesn't offer any easy answers. Whatever the case, this certainly is a film that deserves study, if only for the window it offers into the one society on Earth that fell victim to The Bomb.

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