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Posts Tagged ‘Record of a Living Being’

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.

iliveinfear

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┬ápart (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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