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Posts Tagged ‘Akira Kurosawa’

A quarter of a century ago my then girlfriend and I decided to go and spend our Saturday night watching Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner in The Bodyguard, mainly because it seemed like the kind of thing couples were doing at the time. This was certainly the case at the Odeon in Hull, as the first time we turned up the screening had sold out before we arrived, and we ended up going to see Lord Attenborough’s Chaplin instead (which, truth be told, may well be a better movie, if less mechanically romantic). However, we were young and bloody-minded, and neither of us had yet figured out that the whole traditional relationship thing was possibly not for us, so we went back the following weekend and saw the Saturday matinee.

There’s a bit half-way through The Bodyguard where Costner takes Houston out for the night and, in an unusually interesting move for a Kevin Costner character, takes her to see a black-and-white Japanese movie from 1961, the title of which is not given on-screen. Hence it was that I was the only person in the theatre laughing at the meta-gag of characters in a movie called The Bodyguard going to see another (much better) movie also called The Bodyguard – or, in the original Japanese, Yojimbo.

Yeah, I may have been going to see Whitney Houston movies in my late teens, but my fate was probably already sealed by that point, for I had spent much of my middle teens watching movies like Yojimbo, directed by (of course) Akira Kurosawa. Or perhaps this is less of a surprise than I am insinuating, for it’s not as though we’re discussing some art-house obscurity – in terms of general fame and influence, this is surely one of the most significant Japanese movies of all time, with only Seven Samurai and the original Godzilla ahead of it.

Yojimbo stars that most celebrated of Japanese actors, Toshiro Mifune, in an iconic role as a nameless, drifting samurai swordsman. As the film opens he is wandering aimlessly through the desolate Japanese countryside in the middle of the 19th century (it’s a little startling to consider the film was set only a century or so in the past when it was released). However, he comes upon a small town paralysed by a power struggle between two rival gangs. Partly motivated by some vague moral instinct, and partly (it seems) to amuse himself, the swordsman decides to ‘save’ the town by orchestrating the destruction of both gangs and their leaders. The local innkeeper (Eijiro Tono), the closest thing he has to a confidante in town, immediately concludes he is a madman only intent on causing chaos and destruction.

In any case, his plan hits a number of snags, firstly when the local government inspector pays a visit (causing the gangsters to arrange a hasty truce so as not to attract the attention of the authorities), and later when the temporary cessation in hostilities looks like becoming a more long-term pause. Most serious of all is the appearance of the brother of one of the gangsters, Unosuke (Tatsuya Nakadai, who may perhaps have wanted a word with whoever did his picture on the poster), who has been spending some time on the other side of the Pacific and returned with a classic souvenir of American culture: a handgun…

(Rather appropriately, given there are some allusions in the subtitles to Unosuke apparently meaning rabbit in Japanese, there is a danger of going down a bit of a rabbit hole here about just when Yojimbo is set and exactly what kind of heat the gangster is packing. People who know more about such things than me (not a small group, by the way) have pronounced that the weapon in question is a Smith & Wesson Model 2: however, this only went into production in 1876, ten years after the Meiji restoration. Wikipedia suggests an 1860 setting, based on the introductory captions of the first American dub of the film; the implication certainly seems to be that it takes place in the last years of the Shogunate. The gun is totemic, anyway. (I believe this is what is known as a digression.))

Some people who are really refined in their tastes complain that Kurosawa’s fame as a director is mainly due to his willingness to make films in, for want of a better word, an occidental idiom (I am avoiding the word ‘western’ as it is likely to confuse the issue), and that he is not as properly Japanese a film-maker as, say, Yasujiro Ozu (whose films were not released internationally as they were ‘too Japanese’). Maybe they have a point – for many people, Yojimbo is most recognisable as the source material of A Fistful of Dollars, the Sergio Leone movie which launched the spaghetti western craze and the career of Clint Eastwood (it also spawned a not terribly good 1996 Bruce Willis movie, Last Man Standing). However, what’s considerably less well-known is that Kurosawa admitted the plot of the movie is drawn from a story by Dashiell Hammett, so the American flavour is baked into Yojimbo. The presence of Nakadai’s character is surely an acknowledgement of this – this isn’t just a movie which inspired westerns, on some level it was conceived of as a western.

Of course, it is many other things as well: it starts off as a very black comedy, and perhaps also a wry comment on some of Kurosawa’s earlier movies. Mifune’s character is not a noble, heroic figure from the same mould as Kambei (of Seven Samurai), but a scruffy cynic who initially seems to be interfering in the affairs of the town for rather dubious motives (he vaguely comments that it would be good to get rid of the gangsters, but also notes that it’s his job to be paid for killing). It’s only the fact that he seems to have some kind of integrity, and of course the fact that he is played by Mifune, who is always ferociously cool, that marks him out as in any way better than the venal, morally bankrupt people running the town. Only Unosuke seems in any way similar to him; this is why the gunslinger is really the swordsman’s main antagonist in this movie.

However, as the story progresses it seems that the swordsman becomes aware that this is not just game: innocent people are caught up in the struggle between the gangsters. And it is here that Mifune, perhaps inevitably, reveals that there is a well-hidden core of decency to his character. He professes to hate pathetic people, but it is his decision to help a young family that almost causes his downfall, and his inability to abandon an ally which provokes the climactic battle of the film. And even here he unexpectedly reveals the capacity for mercy, sparing the life of a young man with romantic delusions he briefly encountered at the start of the film. There is no honour or glory in death, the film suggests, there is just death, and it hurts. Even when all is said and done, the swordsman’s mask slips back into place – ‘Now we’ll have some peace and quiet around here,’ he observes, deadpan, at the end of the film, having just single-handedly slaughtered most of the town’s remaining population.

Performance-wise, this is Mifune’s film from start to finish, and he effortlessly dominates it (with Kurosawa’s connivance, naturally). Even the great Takashi Shimura does not make much of an impression as a lovelorn sake brewer in league with one of the gangs – only Nakadai comes close to challenging Mifune, which is surely as it should be. Most of the time Mifune is only competing for attention against Kurosawa’s typically energetic camerawork and editing, and Masaru Sato’s striking, angular score. The music is kind of jaunty and chaotic, as befits a film about a off-kilter, chaotic world.

You can see why Yojimbo was such a big hit that it led to a sequel and numerous remakes, official and otherwise. On one level it is a superbly made piece of entertainment, with moments of comedy, pathos, and action, with a very satisfying structure to the story. But there are also glimpses of more serious issues here, commentary on the state of the world and the people in it. If it seems to be just as cynical as its anti-hero about the characters – well, just as he reveals an unexpected soft streak, so the film treats its characters as flawed human beings, not one-dimensional cartoons. I imagine this is one of those movies that will be around for as long as our culture endures.

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As usual, the film companies have taken pity and not bothered to release any big movies over the Christmas period, thus allowing us a little bit longer to consider the finer works of some of the people who have left this dimension in the last twelve months. Having recently doffed my figurative cap to the late Peter Vaughan, how else could one follow this but by adhering strictly to alphabetical order and paying a small but not unattractively formed tribute to another of the year’s more notable departees, Mr Robert Vaughn?

Vaughn split his career between cinema and TV before it was really acceptable, with plenty of famous movies and iconic TV shows on his CV: The Magnificent Seven, Bullitt, The Towering Inferno, Superman III, The Man from UNCLE, The A-Team, Hustle… However, if we’re short of one thing at this time of year, then it’s surely knockabout late-70s-influenced space opera, and so in remembrance of Mr Vaughn I thought we might cast our minds back and consider Jimmy Murakami’s 1980 movie Battle Beyond The Stars.

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Our story takes place a long time in the future, in a galaxy quite a long way away, where the peaceful natives of the planet Akir find themselves being hassled by interstellar despot Sador of the Malmori (John Saxon) and his mutant raider henchmen. Being a despot with a well-organised schedule, Sador informs the Akira that he will be back in a week to conquer their planet, as he has some other tyrannising to do in the meantime. Cue concerned discussions amongst the Akira, and the decision to send bold young fellow Shad (Richard Thomas) off in their one and only spaceship to recruit some mercenaries to help defend the village – sorry, I mean planet…

Is this sounding a bit familiar, plot-wise? Well, it should, because… hmmm. Firstly, we should take a moment to pay tribute to the wisdom of producer Roger Corman and screenwriter John Sayles. Corman is a legendary figure in the low-budget exploitation movie business, but justly admired for his willingness to leave his writers and directors alone as long as their films hit the requisite quotas of whatever exploitation ingredients he was after. Hence, they are quite often much more interesting movies than you might expect, and some very distinguished people started their careers working on Corman movies (as we shall see). It was this policy that allowed Sayles to write a script which is much more inventive and knowing than could easily have been the case.

You couldn’t turn round in a cinema in the late 70s without falling over a homage/rip-off clearly inspired by a George Lucas stellar conflict project (how far we have come since then), and the question was obviously one of how to make Battle Beyond The Stars distinctive and less obviously a rip-off. Sayles hit upon the solution of diverting everyone’s attention by making it an equally blatant rip-off of another, equally famous film, The Magnificent Seven. It would be lazy critical shorthand to describe Battle Beyond The Stars as The Magnificent Seven in Space. But it would also be perfectly true.

The real cleverness of this ploy, if you ask me, is that it means the movie is essentially remaking Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai again, and quite apart from the fact that this is almost never a bad idea, it puts this film on a much more level pegging with that other stellar conflict movie which we’re being quite careful not to name, for that itself was famously inspired by another Kurosawa film, Hidden Fortress. Sayles clearly knows exactly what he’s doing – as well as various tips of the hat to The Magnificent Seven, the script references elements of Seven Samurai which didn’t make it into the 1960 remake (plus, of course, the villagers in peril are called Akira).

Chief amongst the loving little references is, of course, the presence of Robert Vaughn as Gelt, the most experienced and lethal of the mercenaries gathered to defend the Akira. It’s not exactly a reprise of his role as Lee from The Magnificent Seven, but it’s close enough, and if Vaughn found appearing in a low-budget SF B-movie in any way beneath him, you can’t tell that from his performance, which is immaculate. Elsewhere the film looks a little further afield, and isn’t afraid to go properly SF on the audience: apart from Shad and his techie love interest (Darlanne Fluegel), the team includes Gelt, a wise-cracking trucker called Space Cowboy, a cloned telepathic hive-mind entity, Cayman the space-whaling slaver lizard, two dwarves who communicate through manipulating the local temperature, and a warrior woman called Saint-Exmin. It’s a toss up whether the characters are any more of a mixed bag than the cast assembled to play them, which includes one of The Waltons, two bona fide movie stars in Vaughn and George Peppard, Morgan Woodward (probably best known for playing a nutty Federation captain in an episode of Star Trek only I seem to like), a handful of anonymous character actors, and Sybil Danning, an actress who started her career appearing in, erm, specialist films for German gentlemen. (When this movie got a UK release I distinctly recall Danning doing the publicity circuit to promote it, which must have been the only time anyone from The Long Swift Sword of Siegfried turned up on Saturday morning kids’ TV.)

Battle Beyond The Stars arguably surpasses many of its late 70s brethren in its imagination and its capacity to build some of its SF ideas into the plot, rather than just treating them as set dressing: the various alien powers of the hive-mind and the thermal dwarves do end up influencing the action, one way or another. Being only 100 minutes or so long means that the film never has time to get stale or particularly repetitive; it may not all quite be killer, but there’s certainly no filler – there is a consistently high level of inventiveness and wit that makes it easy to overlook the obviously very low budget. The ebullient score is another major plus – one of the very first works of James Horner, later to go on to score two of the better Star Trek movies and Krull (plus, if you really must, Titanic and Avatar).

In fact, the only thing that keeps this film from being a real gem is the slightly ropey nature of the special effects, primarily the space battles. Now, some of the ship designs are interesting and most of the models are okay, but the special effects people responsible just don’t have the technical capacity to put more than one spaceship in any given shot, which is a bit of a problem in any film with as many space dogfights as this one: it’s the equivalent of trying to film a drama with the camera locked in a static medium shot. The rest of the film is good enough for this not to completely torpedo it, and given that the special effects guy involved was James Cameron, later to direct The Terminator and Aliens (plus, if you really must, Titanic and Avatar), we must assume he was doing the best he could.

A lot of homaging and ripping-off has gone on over the past nearly-forty years since George Lucas had his bright idea; it continues to this day and shows no signs of stopping. The quality of the results has frankly been rather variable, with actual possession of the rights apparently no guarantee of a good movie being the end result. Battle Beyond The Stars gets much closer than many better-resourced movies to capturing the same imagination and free-wheeling sense of fun that Lucas did in his original films: this is the movie that deserved the big budget, all-star remake, not The Magnificent Seven (which they got right the first time round anyway). One would have thought James Cameron would have felt some obligation… but no, apparently not. Oh well: nothing can change the fact that this is a great little movie, and a fine showcase for everyone involved. Except James Cameron, obviously.

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Most people, if you mention the name Akira Kurosawa to them, will of course say ‘Who’s that? Is he Japanese?’ People who do know who Kurosawa is are mostly aware of him for the same handful of reasons: he’s the guy who did the original versions of much-remade stories like The Magnificent Seven and A Fistful of Dollars, he’s the guy who did those extraordinarily epic historical dramas in the 1980s, and – inevitably – he’s the guy whose movies had such an influence on Star Wars.

Public perceptions of Kurosawa only really scratch the surface of a very long and extraordinarily diverse career, containing more than a few genuine oddities. Nothing brings that home quite as firmly as watching his 1975 film Dersu Uzala. This isn’t a sweeping historical epic in the manner of his other films, isn’t a contemporary drama, isn’t even remotely Japanese in its subject: it’s a Russian-language adaptation of the memoirs of an explorer in the far east of Siberia.

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Yury Solomin plays Vladimir Arsenyev, the explorer in question, and the film opens with him searching for the grave of his old friend – but the frontier is being opened up, and the old sites are being lost in the chaos of development. The rest of the film is set in flashback, properly getting under way in the very early years of the 20th century with Arsenyev’s first expedition. Arsenyev and the soldiers accompanying him are somewhat startled to encounter a native hunter named Dersu Uzala (Maxim Munchuk), who they recruit as their guide due to his knowledge of the local terrain.

The Russians initially dismiss Dersu as a half-savage simpleton, for he can barely speak and views the world in terms of spirits inhabiting elements and objects, but Arsenyev at least soon comes to be deeply impressed by his knowledge and understanding of the natural world, his wisdom, and his compassion for others. Various adventures ensue, with Dersu saving Arsenyev’s life on at least one occasion, and the two forge a friendship that will have a great influence on both their lives.

Why was a feted Japanese director like Kurosawa making a movie in Russia in the early 1970s? The moment found Kurosawa in something of a transitional period in his career: he had only made one movie since Red Beard in 1965, the unsuccessful Dodes’ka-den, and – the same old story – he couldn’t persuade anyone to give him the money to make another film. Kurosawa was dispirited and apparently suicidal when the Russian company Mosfilm gave him the chance to make Dersu Uzala, a project he had supposedly been interested in for many years.

Kurosawa’s career naturally falls into two halves – the lively black and white films he produced with great frequency up until the mid 60s (many of them with Toshiro Mifune in the engine room), and then the rather more intermittent colour films which followed, some of them made due to the patronage of successful American fans like George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola. It seems to me that this latter period is about Kurosawa’s adoption as a Legendary Director, and it seems to me that it’s not a title that he wears particularly lightly: the films have a rather stately quality and can feel a bit concerned with their own deep significance.

And you sometimes get the sense that Kurosawa is measuring himself against other Legendary Directors. Maybe it’s just me, but watching Dersu Uzala I got a very odd sense of Kurosawa trying to be David Lean: this is a long movie with an built-in interval, set amidst the glories of nature, with a superficial adventure narrative concealing a more serious meditation on how to live and the fallibility of man. Comparisons with Lawrence of Arabia would not be unreasonable, it seems to me.

Is it that good a film, though? Well – it’s hard to compare it to your typical epic piece of cinema, because it only has about three proper characters and on the face of things not very much happens for most of the duration except for people wandering about in the woods. And yet it remains thoroughly engaging: the developing friendship between Arsenyev and Dersu is moving, and the last act of the film, where events take a darker turn, is profoundly poignant.

I suppose you could argue that the film is a little bit simplistic and predictable in the way it lauds the simple folk wisdom of someone living in the wilderness – I can’t help thinking the tendency to do so says more about our own disenchantment with modern technological society than any real merit in going back to nature – but it’s far from alone in doing so. Very few of those other films have the same sheer quality as Dersu Uzala: there is some breathtaking cinematography of the wilderness, a thoughtful, economical script… added to a minimalist soundtrack, the result is a film with an almost mystical quality, a genuine sense of occurring beyond civilisation.

It’s not that surprising that American directors weren’t exactly queueing up for the English-language remake rights, though. (You could argue that those went to Australia, anyway: a quick gender change for one of the characters, a few more jokes, and a considerably happier ending, and Dersu Uzala essentially transforms into Crocodile Dundee.) Perhaps that’s for the best, as this does feel like one of those unique films. Much more accessible than it sounds (and its reputation would suggest); not just of interest to Kurosawa completists, this is a genuinely great movie.

 

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There is a class of film which is well-known and highly acclaimed, but not necessarily especially widely watched. The result of this is that it’s possible to become more-or-less familiar with the story and themes of the film, along with any other points of particular distinction about it, without having actually seen more than a handful of frames of it. One runs the risk of being spoiled, of course, but also completely wrong-footed when the realisation of the film turns out to be much subtler and more surprising than the study notes cut-down version has implied. I certainly found this to be the case with Kurosawa’s Ikiru (E-title: Living, or To Live), which is usually described as the story of a terminally-ill civil servant’s battle to construct a children’s playground. Saying ‘it’s actually nothing of the sort’ is probably overstating things, but there is a lot more going on here.

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The protagonist is Watanabe (Takashi Shimura), a middle-ranking bureaucrat at the public works department in Tokyo. A dispassionate voiceover informs us that Watanabe is already dying of stomach cancer, but it is also scathing in assessing him as a man: he is not alive, he simply persists – he has done nothing, felt nothing, for the last thirty years. To his subordinates he is a grey nonentity, while to his son and daughter-in-law he is simply a source of an inheritance-to-come.

Then Watanabe discovers his disease – in a slightly startling scene, the doctors fob him off with claims that it’s just a small ulcer, despite the fact they know full well it’s terminal cancer (the reasons for this are never made entirely clear), but Watanabe works it out for himself – and, inevitably, everything changes. He reassesses his life, remembers his dead wife, realises the degree to which he does not connect with his son or daughter-in-law, and contemplates how to spend the short time remaining to him.

At this point, being aware of the plot synopsis for Ikiru, one of course expects the playground-building plotline to kick in – it is foreshadowed from the start of the film, when a group of housewives from the neighbourhood turn up at Watanabe’s office trying to launch the project – but it doesn’t. Instead, Watanabe, quite naturally, abandons his usual sobriety and embarks on a whistle-stop tour of the fleshpots of Tokyo with a novelist he has befriended, hoping to find some sort of hedonistic solace. And when that doesn’t work he finds himself drawn to Toyo, a vivacious young woman who used to work in his office (played by Miki Odagiri), simply for her sheer love of life. Their relationship is noted and misinterpreted by his family, amongst others.

Toyo’s new job is as a toymaker and she suggests that it’s from this she derives her sense of fulfilment and engagement with the world. It strikes Watanabe that perhaps he can achieve something similar, by using his remaining time to create something positive – and it’s only now, past the half-way point of the film, that he embarks on the playground-building mission.

And then the film abruptly jumps forward in time and the narrator announces that Watanabe died five months later. The final act of the film is Watanabe’s wake, a long, complex, and to be honest rather stagey scene in which various characters from his life gather in remembrance of him and try to come to some understanding of the odd behaviour which characterised his final months. As they recall him and his somewhat quixotic quest, we see flashbacks of Watanabe (there are distinct shades of Rashomon about this, not surprisingly as it was Kurosawa’s immediately previous film), but these scenes are disjointed and there’s no real sense of a narrative. But then this is as it should be, as it’s clear none of the mourners really understand the man they have gathered to remember.

So most of the actual playground-building quest happens off-screen. What, then, is Ikiru actually concerned with? It seems to me that there are a number of things going on here – not least of them being Kurosawa’s intention to put something of then-contemporary Japan on screen. To this day, it’s probably the case that it’s Kurosawa’s samurai movies which are best-known and best-loved (and rightly so: they’re wonderful), with his present-day movies more obscure. Of these, Ikiru is almost certainly the best-known, and it does feel like it’s showing something of the birth of modern Japan, with a deeply traditional society beginning to be obscured under layers of American-influenced culture. Kurosawa identifies a sense of urban alienation – a lack of empathy and communication between the generations – which also features in similar films from this period like Ozu’s Tokyo Story.

But then again it is also a personal story, built around the question of what makes life worth living. Asking the question is of course Watanabe, played by Takashi Shimura, perhaps Kurosawa’s most brilliantly versatile collaborator. Arrestingly sagacious and invincibly capable as the leader in Seven Samurai, here he is equally persuasive as a man undergoing a profound existential crisis, teetering on the edge of ultimate despair. Shimura wrings every ounce of pathos from Watanabe’s plight without ever becoming too sentimental. Watanabe has allowed himself to be obliterated by his job, in the belief it was the best thing for his son – but his son has grown to be selfish and materialistic. Was it worth it? Either way, the first two thirds of Ikiru are about Watanabe’s attempts to realise himself as a person again.

The third act, though, raises different, but equally profound questions. The playground has been built, true, but swarms of bureaucrats and minor politicians are jockeying to take the credit for it: Watanabe seems to have been written out of the official history, and it’s clear that his colleagues have only the faintest glimmer of understanding as to what actually motivated him (much time is spent pondering whether or not he even knew he was ill). But to suggest that Kurosawa is saying that Watanabe devoted his last days to a folly seems to me to be mistaken. Watanabe’s colleagues’ declaration that they will honour his memory by following his example may come to nothing, but the people using the playground still hold him in high regard, the playground itself still exists, and Watanabe himself appears to have died in contentment. Perhaps here we can see Kurosawa’s prizing of the individual above wider society most clearly: a very un-Japanese sentiment, but this may explain his popularity in other countries.

There’s clearly a lot of depth to Ikiru, with many big universal themes touched upon. It’s certainly not Kurosawa’s most accessible film – the oddness of the structure sees to that – and it may not have the energy and pace of most of his period films from around this period of time. But it is a deeply thoughtful and quite moving piece of work, and quite probably Takashi Shimura’s best showcase.

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As threatened, the first of a series of Kurosawa reviews – and if we’re going to do this, why not start with an obscure one? Plenty of time for Yojimbo and Throne of Blood later in the year.

Akira Kurosawa’s international reputation, certainly today, rests on his costume dramas – or, as they’re probably more widely known, his samurai movies. These are the films which have travelled, lasted, inspired: you could argue that several of the major trends in Western mainstream cinema over the last fifty years all owe their existence to American and European directors aping Kurosawa’s stories and style.

Considerably less influential, and indeed not even released outside Japan until the decade after it was produced, is Ikimono no kiroku, made in 1955. The American title is the slightly lurid I Live in Fear, which is representative up to a point, but apparently closer to the original (and certainly more appropriate) is the British title, Record of a Living Being – so that’s the one I’ll be using.

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The movie opens with everyday scenes of Tokyo life from the mid-1950s, after which we are introduced to mild-mannered dentist Harada (Takashi Shimura). Harada has taken on a second job as a mediator at a family court, and it’s this which leads us into the heart of the film.

Harada is summoned to work on the case of a bitter family rift. The elderly patriarch of the Nakajima family (Toshiro Mifune), painfully aware of the risks presented by the global proliferation of atom and hydrogen bombs, wants to sell his profitable business and uproot his entire family to rural Brazil, which he believes is the only safe part of the world. The family think he has gone mad, and want him declared unfit to manage his own affairs.

Nakajima’s insistence on pursuing his scheme seems to suggest they are right – but are the family motivated more by the reluctance to swap their affluent urban lifestyle for the lives of farmers in South America? And, Harada finds himself wondering, who is more unhinged – the person unable to ignore the constant threat of nuclear obliteration, or the one who carries on their life, completely ignoring it?

Kurosawa was apparently very proud of this film, for all that its subject and style are quite far removed from that of most of his movies. It’s very much a social drama, almost a potboiler, rather than a sweeping adventure or black comedy. That said, of course, it features a number of familiar faces from better-known movies.

Chief amongst these is of course Toshiro Mifune, playing the old man. It’s initially a little baffling that Kurosawa chose Mifune, in his mid-30s, to play a character at least twice his age, while casting the somewhat older Shimura as Harada (Minoru Chiaki, who plays a contemporary of Mifune’s in a couple of other films, is one of his younger children here). It seems to me that this decision was at least partly motivated by the actors’ natural range – in Kurosawa movies, at least, Shimura is often the thoughtful, calm one, while Mifune represents surly energy and passion. Shimura is certainly right as Harada, but I’m not sure about Mifune: vanishing behind the props of the part (glasses, dyed hair, a walking stick), he is never quite able to bring his full power to bear in a difficult role.

Never afraid to look far afield for material, late in his career Kurosawa tackled King Lear in epic fashion – but it seems to me that the play has a distinct influence upon Record of a Living Being, too: the self-centred, ogre-ish old man, insisting on exerting his authority over his children and their spouses, the bitter squabbling over inheritances, the eventual descent into madness. The final scenes show Nakajima abandoned and ignored by all of his legitimate family, with the only person showing any concern for him being his youngest mistress, the mother of a child he has refused to acknowledge. It is a bleak but moving moment.

A rather better-known Japanese film from around this time was, of course, the original Godzilla (Shimura appears in both) – the social drama and the monster movie seem to have very little in common, but they are surely both instances of Japanese culture processing the fact that the country had been atom-bombed only ten years earlier. Godzilla handles this via a large and iconic metaphor (hurry up with the new one, Gareth Edwards), but Record of a Living Being is more direct about it.

The central question of the film is – is it crazy to want to protect yourself from nuclear weapons as fully as possible? And the rational answer is no, of course not. The crazy approach is surely the head-in-the-sand one adopted by the younger members of the Nakajima clan, and indeed everyone else in the movie, choosing to ignore the danger. Implicitly, the audience also goes along with the consensus. But we are encouraged to question this, as Harada – our point of access to the story – begins to question who exactly is talking most sense.

The focus on family squabbles and the examination of Japanese patriarchy go some way to making this film less obviously preachy or earnest, and it’s true that it also explicitly criticises Nakajima’s solution to the problem (running off to San Paulo). He can only do so by exchanging properties with a Japanese emigre wanting to return home – does he not care that this man is now in danger? By breaking up his business, he will make his loyal workers unemployed – is that the act of a decent man? Is he not in fact just being selfish in thinking of his own survival? Left unsaid is the suggestion that the only truly moral course is for society as a whole to remove the threat to itself. But that was unthinkable in 1955 and it still seems to be the case 58 years later. We may be living under less immediate threat of nuclear war than our parents or grandparents, but the bombs are still there, at least in part because we want them to be. As long as this state continues, Record of a Living Being, a little clunky and dated though it is, will continue to have the power to make us question ourselves.

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