I Live in Fear: a portrait of society in denial of looming nuclear attack disaster

Akira Kurosawa, “I Live in Fear” (1955)

I must admit to not being very impressed with this film: it seems like an over-long and overwrought soap opera with hammy performances and a rather cheap look. At the very least the tag team of director Kurosawa and star actor Toshiro Mifune prove they can do more than pop out one hero-samurai film after another. Though the film may be rather dated in some respects, it is most noteworthy for its social commentary on the institution of family in Japanese society and as a snapshot of Japanese society and public attitudes in the aftermath of World War II and the atomic bomb hits on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.

Mifune plays ageing industrialist Kiichi Nakajima who is terrified that Japan will soon be targeted for nuclear attack (again) to the extent that he is determined to move his entire extended family, including two mistresses and their children, and another child by a third mistress who is no longer alive, to Brazil where he is trying to buy a farm in São Paulo state. Not surprisingly his children are all upset for various reasons at having to be moved and they are convinced that Dad has gone raving mad. As a result everyone is at loggerheads with one another and the whole affair is referred to third-party mediation. Dentist Dr Harada (Takashi Shimura) tries to listen to and understand all sides’ points of view, but he cannot stop Nakajima from destroying his business or the adult children from dumping him in a mental asylum.

Kurosawa’s film deftly exposes the adult children’s greed and selfishness in wanting to stay in Japan and bickering over their father’s fortune. They are exposed as lazy parasites who think only of themselves and never give a fig about what may happen in the future. Nakajima as played by Mifune is an intense, almost monomaniacal figure: one can appreciate how he must have single-mindedly built up his business with sheer force of will and hard work, and how he drives his workers like a slave-master. Obviously accustomed to being obeyed without question, he is at a loss at how to deal with his children’s rebellion.

The family conflict is a microcosm of the tensions existing in 1950s Japan between an older generation who believed in hard work and absolute obedience to the Emperor and the political elite, and a younger generation that’s politically cynical and more interested in living for today rather than working towards a better future. Into this cauldron Kurosawa throws in a few stereotypes: the compassionate mediator; the young mistress with Nakajima’s latest child, a small baby; and a young teenage boy, another illegitimate offspring, who is loyal to Nakajima. Funny how for all his paranoia about what will happen to Japan, Nakajima still keeps fathering more children.

The whole action takes place in a society where the vast majority of people appear not to care what might or might not happen and who carry on with their lives as if living in an eternal present. Whether they don’t care or are in denial of the future and suppressing their fears is not known; only Nakajima has mentally come out of Plato’s cave and seen the light, and this revelation threatens to drive him insane. Indeed, he does go mad when someone points out that in the event of a nuclear attack, Brazil would not be spared the after-effects and this gives Nakajima’s children the opportunity to appeal to the court which gives them the permit they need to have him admitted to the asylum.

For all its shortcomings, the film is worth watching as a portrayal of a society in denial about a future catastrophe it is helpless to prevent and as an examination of how individuals aware of such a danger might live their lives. Some, like Nakajima, will try to flee and persuade others to come with them, at risk to their sanity and health; others perhaps might try to awaken society and work towards preparing to confront the looming disaster and minimise the potential damage.

The film might have worked better (if more stereotypically) if Shimura’s character Dr Harada had been the main character and the family dispute presented with the two sides appearing to be evenly balanced; the children’s prejudices and selfish motivations could have been exposed more gradually, and the father’s rationality coming as the climax. Dr Harada would have been the individual forced to make a decision as to whether to remain in denial (and stay in Plato’s cave) or to see the light and deal with the consequences of doing so.

The Hidden Fortress: majestic epic tale of honour, loyalty and friendships across social barriers

Akira Kurosawa, “The Hidden Fortress” (1958)

Inspiration for George Lucas’ “Star Wars: A New Hope”, the 1978 space-fantasy flick that spawned an industry, this unusual historical drama road movie tells an epic tale of honour, loyalty and friendships forming across social barriers from the point of view of two lowly peasants, Tahei (Minoru Chiaki) and Matashichi (Kamatari Fujiwara). Originally they had hoped to fight on the side of the Yamana clan but they arrived too late at the battlefield and were forced to bury the dead soldiers. After a few other mishaps, they are taken prisoner again by the Yamanas and forced to dig for the rival clan Akizuki’s gold in a castle. The prisoners inside rebel and the two peasants escape. They find some gold marked with the Azkizuki clan’s emblem in a river and this leads them to General Rokurota (Toshiro Mifune) who is protecting Princess Yumi (Misa Uehara) from the Yamanas. The unlikely quartet form a plan to escape through Yamana territory to a third clan’s territory. Their adventures are many and varied: they acquire a fifth companion, a farmer’s daughter (Toshiko Higuchi), along the way; Rokurota sees off a number of soldiers and fights a duel with an old foe: and the groups nearly loses all its gold, hidden in firewood, when compelled to participate in a village fire festival ritual to hide from the pursuing Yamanas.

Throughout their many travails the peasants are tempted by their greed to make off with all the gold and/or to report Princess Yumi’s movements to her mortal enemies. The haughty tomboy Princess Yumi learns how the poor and lowly subjects of her realm live and saves the farmer’s daughter once or twice. Rokurota spares his foe after defeating him in the duel and the foe repays him in gratitude. Subtle and not-so-subtle lessons about friendship, honour, reciprocity and the importance of teamwork and collective survival over the traditional social hierarchy are learnt here.

The film has a grand epic scale which sometimes means that some scenes are extended well beyond the point they make: the duelling between Rokurota and his old enemy, in which they stampede all over the battle-ground and nearly take down the entire army camp with them, seems far too prolonged, and other scenes in the film also drag on far too long. On the other hand, the fire festival celebration is joyous and raucous and would do many Hollywood musicals of the 1920s – 1950s proud. The cinematography often emphasises the vast richness of the land over and against which the action takes place: grasslands are rippling in the breeze, stony landscapes are extremely harsh and unforgiving on the humans who labour in them, oases of thick undergrowth and bubbling springs really are as refreshing as you can imagine. The pity about making this film in Japan in the late 1950s was that colour filming had only just arrived in the country and Kurosawa probably had to make a difficult decision about making the film in colour and reducing the majestic scale that he wouldn’t to work on, or keeping the style, sticking to the budget but filming in black-and-white.

Acting is quite good though the actors play very stereotyped characters and there really is not any obvious character development apart from what can be inferred from characters’ speech and actions. Tahei and Matashichi more or less remain cowering, greedy wastrels until near the very end. Princess Yumi’s headstrong nature doesn’t serve her much until one of the film’s climaxes.

Plot is quite slow to develop – it doesn’t get going until about halfway through the film – and once it does, it’s basically a string of near-comedy skits in which the characters’ lives are complicated by unexpected incidents that also test their mettle. There’s a mix of slapstick, serious action, plenty of soapie-style drama, situation comedy and, with Toshiro Mifune at the helm, plenty of macho-man heroic derring-do. The historical setting – some time during Japan’s Spring and Autumn warring states period from the 15th to 16th centuries – provides a war-time context in which the old social values are breaking down and new ones based on genuine human feeling and equality of all humans are being born.

The style of the film, the adventure road movie plot that teaches characters more about themselves than they realise, the landscapes and the majestic sweep of the filming ensure that “The Hidden Fortress” remains a true family-oriented classic in spite of its length and the sometimes silly or convoluted story-telling.

Rashomon: still a timely investigation into human nature and its need for approval, and how truth is lost

Akira Kurosawa, “Rashomon” (1950)

For this film, director Kurosawa used a blend of two short stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, “Rashomon” and “In a Grove”, the latter of the two providing the actual plot and characters. The film is an investigation in the nature of truth as interpreted by fallible and unreliable eyewitnesses and the extent to which faith in human nature depends on people’s ability or wish to report objective truth. While sheltering from heavy rain in Rashomon temple, a priest (Minoru Chiaki) and a woodcutter (Takashi Shimura) tell a peasant (Kichijiro Ueda) about a disturbing murder they came across on their travels separately. The priest and woodcutter mention having to attend the murder trial where they hear three different versions of how the murder occurred from the murderer himself, the bandit Tajomaru (Toshiro Mifune), the murder victim’s wife (Machiko Kyo) and the murder victim himself (Masayuki Mori) through a medium. After the trial, the woodcutter tells his version of what he saw of Tajomaru’s rape of the victim’s wife and the subsequent fight between the bandit and the victim.

Each version of the incident highlights the selfishness of the teller: Tajomaru relays the fight between himself and the victim as more noble than the woodcutter’s version in which the two men scrabble in the dirt and Tajomaru manages to kill the other man through luck more than skill; the wife plays pitiful and pathetic while she recounts her version in which she was spurned by her husband as a result of being raped against her will; the husband paints his wife as being wilful and demanding that Tajomaru kill her husband after raping her. The woodcutter’s version of the story undercuts all three versions: the wife is portrayed as manipulative, forcing two spineless men to fight over her.

The priest’s faith in the goodness of humans is shattered, especially after an incident at Rashomon temple in which the woodcutter and peasant find an abandoned baby wrapped in a kimono with an amulet attached. The woodcutter chastises the peasant for stealing the kimono and the amulet from the baby and the peasant accuses the woodcutter of stealing a dagger at the murder scene to sell later. The woodcutter falls silent – this suggests that the peasant is correct – and the other man leaves Rashomon temple, saying that all humans are motivated purely by selfishness and looking out for number one.

It’s not important as to which version of the story is correct: most reviews take for granted that the woodcutter’s version is the correct version despite the fact that he stole the dagger (and so messed with the crime scene) and failed to testify at the trial out of fear for his own life (so he was selfish, just as the peasant deduced). Even his story about having six children to feed may be a well-rehearsed lie to get the naive priest to believe him. What’s most important is how slippery eyewitnesses’ accounts of an incident may be, how these depend on the narrators’ characters and what they hope to gain out of telling their stories the way they do, and what is revealed about human psychology as a result. Self-interest and bolstering one’s reputation or identity are paramount whenever people tell their version of something in which they had some involvement. In the end, no-one emerges with any credit, least of all the priest whose faith in the goodness of people, cut down by several lies, is restored paradoxically by a tale that may yet be another lie. This might hint that objective truth is not always a desirable state; for human life to progress to a more morally enlightened level, some lies are necessary to maintain faith and goodwill.

Acting performances by Mifune and Kyo are excellent: in each version of the rape / murder incident, they become completely different characters. Mifune displays a raw animalistic exuberance as Tajomaru, alternately a clown, a coward, a man with some notion of honour, a suitor. Kyo has an even greater range of characterisation as the wife: she may appear demure in one scene, sexually ravenous in another; weak and pleading in one retelling, sly and scheming in another.

Kurosawa’s direction is another asset of the film: quick editing and jumping from the woodcutter to Tajomaru and back before the plot settles into Tajomaru’s version proper establishes that getting the definitive version of the truth will be very difficult and slippery. The weather plays an important role in the film: for most of the film’s running time while the priest, woodcutter and passer-by are discussing the incident and trial, rain is belting down on the temple; it’s only near the end that rain stops and the sun begins to shine as the woodcutter leaves the temple with the baby. This would seem to give the director’s stamp of approval on the woodcutter’s version of the story though the expression on the man’s face is ambiguous enough as to suggest that he has duped the priest. The wooded setting where the rape and swordfight play out hides as much as it reveals and is an important participant in the events that occur: in a couple of retellings, the wife runs off and Tajomaru can’t find her among the bushes and trees so he gives up the chase. In this way the forest can be said to play an active role in the various narratvies and it’s possible that if some narrators were standing or moving in different parts of the forest, their stories would have been different again.

The straightforward presentation of “Rashomon” masks a highly complex psychological study of fallible human beings and their desire to be seen in a good light by others, and how this affects the search for truth. Film techniques, settings and acting performances all combine to create a highly self-contained universe that questions the nature of truth and with it notions of honour and reputation. After 60 years the message is still relevant to a contemporary audience.