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Posts Tagged ‘Takashi Shimura’

You know that thing, when you meet a person and initially don’t get on, but after spending some time together and getting to know them, you actually become really close friends? That’s really what Motoyoshi Oda’s 1955 film Godzilla Raids Again (also known as Godzilla’s Counter-attack and Gigantis the Fire Monster) is about – well, it illustrates the first part of the process, anyway. (I make no apologies for reviewing two Godzilla movies in a row, by the way.)

I was discussing this topic (Godzilla movies, not the process of making a friend) with Anglo-Iranian Affairs the other day. We are talking about possibly going to see Godzilla: King of the Monsters (again, in my case), and he expressed the hope that it was better than the last Godzilla movie we saw together, which was Shin Gojira (aka Godzilla: Resurgence), a couple of summers ago. I have to say that the response to this movie from my colleagues was neither kind nor especially positive, with the googly-eyed incarnation of Godzilla from the start of the film and the long scenes of dysfunctional committee meetings drawing particular stick. My response was to make the point that Godzilla movies are kind of like a lens, through which you can look at different things and get different responses: Shin Gojira is obviously a seriously-intentioned film with things to say about the Fukushima nuclear disaster, in an oblique way, very much in the tradition of the very first Godzilla, while King of the Monsters, though not entirely bereft of subtext, is much more of a fun monster mash.

So what kind of a movie is Godzilla Raids Again? Well, it was made relatively quickly following the massive success of the first film, and you can almost detect the producers wondering just exactly what they’re going to do to avoid a simple retread. The idea they eventually hit upon is one that has sustained the series for over sixty years since it was made, so the film has that in its favour – on the other hand, as is wont to happen in these cases, the idea as implemented here clearly still has a few wrinkles to be worked out.

The film opens with the introduction of its two protagonists, Kobayashi (Chiaki Minoru, guaranteed immortality as one of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai) and Tsukioka (Hiroshi Koizumi), who are both pilots working for a tuna canning company in Osaka. It’s business as usual for the lads until Kobayashi’s plane has engine trouble and he is forced to land near a desolate volcanic island. Tsukioka goes to rescue him, and both pilots are shocked by the appearance of Godzilla, locked in battle with another giant creature. (The film is very clear about the fact that this is a different Godzilla to that in the first film, the original being dead at the bottom of Tokyo bay.)

The pilots report this discovery, rather to the dismay of the authorities. Nobody worries too much about where the monsters have come from (‘atomic testing’ is the handwave used), the big issue is how to stop them. The second monster is identified as Angilas (or possibly Anguirus, depending on which version you’re watching), a mutated ankylosaurus, although judging from his contribution, the chap doing the identification appears to be one of those escaped lunatics you often find pretending to be paleontogists in this sort of film.

The authorities hold a big meeting to decide what to do to resolve this new Godzilla crisis, which is honoured by the appearance of another of the Seven Samurai – Takeshi Shimura, reprising his role from the first film and making his sole contribution to this one. After showing some clips from the original film, he basically gives a big shrug and says that with the Oxygen Destroyer no longer available, Godzilla is essentially unstoppable and Japan is completely screwed. All he can offer is the idea that Godzilla is especially annoyed by bright lights and can be lured away from populated areas by dropping a ‘light bomb’ (basically, flares).

Well, it’s better than nothing, and when Godzilla resurfaces heading for Osaka, the authorities go for it, ordering a blackout and the use of flares. One of the real weaknesses of this film is that Ishiro Honda and Akira Ifukube don’t return as director and composer, but the following sequence does have an impressively eerie quality to it, the lights descending around Godzilla as he wades across the bay. Unfortunately, a group of convicts take advantage of the chaos to break out of custody, and end up crashing their stolen van into a gas refinery (as inevitably happens in these situations). The resulting fireball far outshines the flares and soon Godzilla is stomping into Osaka, looking intent on breaking things – and the news gets worse, as Angilas is not far behind, looking for a fight…

Yes, the main reason to see Godzilla Raids Again is the city-flattening tussle between Godzilla and Angilas which ensues. By the time the series entered the 1970s, Angilas was quite well-established as one of Godzilla’s key allies, even a friend, but there is little to suggest that here: the fight takes a surprisingly grisly turn, as Godzilla tears out his opponent’s throat with his teeth before setting fire to the corpse with his nuclear breath. The main reason to watch it may be, but it’s still not necessarily a very good one – in subsequent films, the film-makers had figured out that to make suitamation fights more convincing, they had to overcrank the camera so the creatures appeared to be moving more slowly and ponderously. Here, they hadn’t worked that out yet, with the distracting result that the monsters appear to be moving much too quickly and jerkily.

I’m not going to say that the discerning viewer may as well switch off at this point, but I do think that the main problem with Godzilla Raids Again is that all the interesting stuff is in the first half. The film is weirdly structured and badly-paced, with the monster fight that should really be the climax occurring round about the mid-point of the film. Following this there is a long and far from scintillating digression into the lives of the tuna canning factory owner, his family and employees. The first film’s subtext is clearly about the experiences of Japan during the Second World War; if this one has a subtext, it’s that the emergence of giant atomic monsters really complicates the business of running a tuna canning company. Godzilla burns down the factory! They have to think about relocating the company to Hokkaido, where there are at least fewer monsters (heh, just wait until King Kong and Legion turn up). There is a school reunion and a fairly well-mannered stag party, of sorts.

From here we go into a climax which just about deserves the name, as it is extremely protracted and not exactly gripping stuff: Godzilla is tracked down to another remote island, which is repeatedly bombed until he is buried under ice cubes. It is notably short on tension, though sadly not on sentimentality – once again, a heroic self-sacrifice is required to put a stop to the marauding monster.

That’s really the main problem with Godzilla Raids Again: too often, it just feels like a limp retread of the original, surprisingly formulaic even though this is only the second film in the series (the scene where the armed forces turn up and shoot at the monsters a lot, to no effect, already has a formal, almost ritualistic feel to it). Nor does it have the same kind of intensity or fire in its belly – the monster rampage in the first film is shocking for the horrendous casualties it causes amongst the civilian population, but here it just seems to be spectacle – pow, there goes Osaka Castle! – with no-one worth worrying about dying.

The monster suits are good, and there are some genuinely impressive special effects shots at various points in the film, but it really does suffer from the poor structure of the script and the lack of a strong final act. Although this film was a financial success, you can almost understand why it was six years before they made a third Godzilla film. Monster wrestling was to prove the future of the franchise (that, and regular appearances by aliens from Planet X), but the main problem with this film is that it’s treated as filler for the story, rather than the main attraction. It was not a mistake the series ever made again; this is obviously an important film in the franchise, but you would struggle to call it a great or even a particularly good one.

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Before we go any further: Ishiro Honda’s 1964 movie Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster is one of those which exists in various different versions depending on which country you’re in – the changes extend as far as certain plot elements (mostly ones communicated by the dialogue, which is of course dubbed for the English-language release), but there is also the question of the title, which is given on screen as Ghidrah (etc). As any fule kno, the three-headed monster spells his name with an O near the middle of it, and the title card therefore contains a blatant typo which I will be ignoring. So, Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster it shall be.

The movie may be short on vowels but it’s certainly not lacking in plot, or outrageous coincidences. Things get under way at a meeting of the Flying Saucer People, which is also attended by perky young journalist Naoko (Yuriko Hoshi). The assembled goofballs mostly spout gibberish but also give ominous warnings of impending disaster, pointing out the unseasonal heatwave afflicting Japan. Actual flying saucers do not turn up (this being a mid-60s Toho monster movie, this is probably something of a surprise), but a shower of meteorites does fall to Earth.

It just so happens that in charge of the scientific expedition that hikes off to examine the largest of the fallen meteorites is Naoko’s friend and possible suitor (things are never allowed to get particularly soppy in these movies), Professor Murai (Hiroshi Koizumi). Murai is startled by the size of the rock, and also the weird electromagnetic anomalies that periodically manifest around it.

Also relevant to the story is Naoko’s brother, police detective Shindo (Yosuke Natsuki), who is given the important but strangely under-resourced job of protecting Princess Selina (Akiko Wakabayashi), heir apparent to the remote Himalayan kingdom of Selgina. The cultural distinctiveness of the Selginan people is amply established by the fact that the ruff remains an important part of their national dress, to the point where they resemble an entire country of birds who’ve swallowed plates. It seems that the former king has recently been assassinated in a communist plot, and the killers now have Selina in their sights. Chief assassin Malmess (Hisaya Ito) signifies his evilness by always wearing sinister dark glasses, which is an odd combination when paired with his ruff. But I digress.

The assassins succeed in blowing up Selina’s plane (bits of charred neckwear flutter down over many square miles), little suspecting she jumped out at the last minute, guided by a disembodied voice. Soon enough she resurfaces as a mysterious prophet, claiming to come from Venus (or Mars, depending on which version you’re watching), with no memory of her former terrestrial life.

As you can see, there’s a lot going on, but not much sign of any monsters so far. This changes (sort of) when Shindo and Naoko pause to watch TV, settling on what seems to be a sort of 60s Japanese version of the Michael MacIntyre show (God knows why). Making an appearance, for no adequately explained reason, are the Shobijin fairies, who provide an update on what Mothra’s been up to (in short, not much: just lying around being worshipped by the natives of his island – Mothra is male in this movie).

The plot does start to pick up pace now, as Selina the prophetess’ various predictions of disaster start to come true: tourists at the volcano Mount Aso are alarmed by the emergence of the giant pterodactyl Rodan, who has been hibernating in the crater, while her prophecy of doom for one particular ship comes to pass when Godzilla surfaces and nukes it. Unfortunately the only people who seem to pay her any attention are the Shobijin, who were due to go back to Infant Island on that ship and wisely changed their travel arrangements.

Worst of all, the meteorite cracks open and disgorges a golden, three-headed dragon, which Selina announces is called Ghidorah. It appears that, thousands of years before, Ghidorah devastated the ancient and advanced civilisation of Venus (or Mars), and Selina has actually been possessed by the spirit of one of the survivors who fled to Earth (the English dub, at least, is really not very clear on this point). Anyway, Ghidorah is now all set to lay waste to earthly civilisation as well – or at least that part of it not already flattened by some playful tussling between Godzilla and Rodan which is already in progress.

The reaction of the Japanese authorities does not really inspire confidence, and so our heroes propose an alternative to the committee in charge of Monster Crisis Response – given that Mothra managed to halt Godzilla’s last rampage (in Mothra Vs Godzilla), could the Shobijin persuade him to tackle Ghidorah as well? The fairies are dubious, given the new Mothra is still young and larval. It will take all three of Earth’s monsters to deal with the menace of Ghidorah – always assuming that Godzilla and Rodan can be persuaded to play ball…

Toho’s shared world of monster movies had got under way earlier the same year with Mothra Vs Godzilla, but in many ways this is the film that established the template for the Japanese monster movie as it is generally known today: freewheeling monster wrestling action in the background, a rather preposterous B-movie plot going on in the foreground, some bonkers sci-fi and fantasy ideas incorporated into the plot, marginal turns from the human cast, and so on. To be honest, Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster deviates from this last point a little, as Malmess’ gang of hired killers give notably terrible performances even by the standards of a Godzilla movie. Possibly making up for this is the presence of a genuinely great movie actor, in the form of Takashi Shimura, whose celluloid immortality was assured by his appearances as Kambei in Seven Samurai and the central character in Ikiru. This is technically Shimura’s fourth appearance in the Godzilla series, having played one character in the first two films and a different one in Mothra – here he is someone else again, playing a brain specialist who wanders about with the heroes through the second half of the film. It’s hardly demanding for a performer of his calibre but he seems to be enjoying himself.

The film is probably more notable for the way it handles its monster characters, anyway. The big innovation, obviously, is the creation of Ghidorah, who would go on to appear in a pile of other movies and could make a decent claim to be Godzilla’s greatest enemy (Mothra’s too, come to that). I have to confess that – and here we go down the rabbit hole – I’ve always found Ghidorah to be a rather two-dimensional character, certainly compared to other monsters like Mothra and Mechagodzilla. It’s a striking design but the concept of the character – evil space dragon! – isn’t as engaging as many of the other Toho kaiju.

The other, less obvious innovation comes in the way that the film genuinely does start to treat its monster characters as characters. The original movie treats Godzilla as an implacable force of nature, not something with a personality that could potentially be reasoned with; here there is a scene in which Mothra, Godzilla and Rodan have an actual conversation (sadly, we only hear the Shobijin’s translation of it, but apparently Godzilla has a bit of a foul mouth) – it’s a relatively short step from here to the scene in Godzilla Vs Gigan with Godzilla and Anguirus talking to each other by speech bubbles. Perhaps this also explains why the film also displays the signs of the jokey tone first introduced in King Kong Vs Godzilla, which would become more and more prevalent as the series went on.

For the most part, though, this is a film which takes itself just seriously enough to be fun, without feeling ridiculous, with plenty of incidental pleasures to go with the grandiose kitsch of the monster battles. If you were going to show a kaiju movie to Hollywood in the hope they would really understand the attraction of the genre, then this might very well be the one. Always assuming someone hasn’t already done so – Godzilla, Mothra, Rodan and Ghidorah have been working for a big American studio recently, after all, and the trailer for their new movie is already running in theatres. We can only hope it is quite as charmingly entertaining as their first film together.

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What makes things happen? Every cause has its own cause, and sometimes events have many sources. So to talk about the origins of anything is arguable a slightly dubious proposition. But for some reason it seems particularly questionable when talking about the original Godzilla (J-title: Gojira), the 1954 movie, directed by Ishiro Honda, which unleashed the great beast on an unsuspecting world.

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On the face of it, this is a monster movie in the classic style, albeit an unusually bleak and intense one. The story opens with a string of unexplained shipping losses in the Pacific, shortly after some H-bomb tests in the region. Fish stocks in the region also seem to have been devastated, causing some consternation to the villagers of Odo Island: one of the elders suggests that Godzilla, a legendary sea monster, is responsible. Then a powerful storm strikes the island one night, and something comes out of the sea and wreaks terrible havoc in the village, crushing buildings and their inhabitants.

Well, obviously the authorities in Japan can’t let that sort of thing go on, and they despatch top palaeontologist Dr Yamane (Takashi Shimura, who spends most of the movie looking haunted) to investigate – although, to be honest, given that Yamane is under the impression that the Jurassic Era was only two million years ago, his academic credentials seem a bit suspect. Fortunately (or perhaps not), the question of Yamane’s academic standing is soon, er, academic, as there is indeed a huge radioactive dinosaur running amok on Odo Island, although it soon takes to the sea…

Yamane is very depressed by the response of the Japanese government, whose sole aim is to kill Godzilla rather than do research on him, and almost completely ignores what’s going on in his daughter’s personal life: Emiko (Momoko Kochi) has decided to settle down with nice young sea captain Hideto (Akira Takarada), but is fully aware the anguish this will cause her former beau Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata), a brilliant scientist who was maimed in the war and has become a bitter recluse, and whose research has led to the development of a dreadful weapon, particularly effective against marine life…

The plotting of the bits with the human characters is always one of the special pleasures of the Godzilla series, and as you can see that was there right from the start: not only is there a melodramatic, soap operatic quality to all of this, but it’s also the most outrageous coincidence that nearly all the key human characters in the story should have this kind of pre-existing relationship. I suppose the film-makers would try to justify it by saying that a film as dark and fantastical as this one needs some kind of readily-accessible human story for audiences to connect to.

They would have a point, too, for the really memorable bits of Godzilla do not really concern the Yamanes and their friends, but Godzilla himself, particular the sequence in which the monster (initially referred to as ‘the Godzilla’, though this is quickly abandoned – the confusion may be due to the fact that there isn’t a definite article in Japanese) rises from Tokyo Bay and proceeds to lay waste to the city. Again, on paper this sounds like just another genre staple – the JSDF shoot at Godzilla a lot, which has absolutely no effect, and he goes on to tread on various buildings, set fire to others with his nuclear breath, and so on. However, on this occasion the realisation is very different: in subsequent films it’s extremely unusual for anyone to actually be shown dying in the course of a monster rampage, but on this occasion the death toll seems astronomical – Godzilla toasts fleeing civilians in the street, rips down towers and sends the onlookers in them plummeting to their doom, and so on. At one point we see a young woman, in the midst of the destruction, clutching her young children to her and telling them that they will all soon be together in heaven with their father. The aftermath of the main Godzilla attack is depicted like that of a major natural disaster, which is rather in line with how Godzilla is presented – an elemental force of devastation, like a tsunami or a typhoon, only much worse.

And here of course is where we come to the nub of the issue, namely what inspired Godzilla and what the film is really about. The film-makers themselves acknowledged The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms as an inspiration, a movie which was itself based on a Ray Bradbury short story, but that film doesn’t have remotely the same sense of utter trauma about it. The truth behind the central metaphor of Godzilla is of course well-known, and it isn’t as if the film itself isn’t dotted with clues: it opens with a terrible disaster befalling a Japanese fishing boat, but (tellingly) this isn’t a Godzilla attack, but being caught on the fringes of an H-bomb test – clearly an allusion to events befalling an actual vessel in 1954, the same year the film was made. Serizawa himself is a tormented, Oppenheimer-like figure, much given to musing on the responsibilities of scientists when it comes to their research being used as the basis of dreadful weapons.

It’s not quite so much that Godzilla himself is a metaphor for the atom bomb, than that his attacks on Japan are in some way representative of what befell the country in the closing stages of the Second World War – Tokyo burned, thousands were displaced or died, and so on. It took the Japanese people a long time to come to terms with how the war ended, and there’s clearly some sort of catharsis going on here, with the fantastical nature of the film making it possible to address these issues in a way that would not be possible in a more naturalistic story. And, once again tellingly, the story of Godzilla is very much in line with the official version of Japanese history, as far as the war is concerned – Godzilla himself is roused not by the Japanese but the Americans (or so it is implied). Japan is an innocent victim of incomprehensible outside aggression.

The original Godzilla is a dark and complex film, and in a way it’s quite surprising that so much of this hefty underpinning was abandoned so quickly in favour of knockabout monster battles. This first one isn’t nearly as much fun as many of the sequels, certainly, and it does have its own issues as a film – primarily, the climax is rather underwhelming and flat given how strong the earlier Godzilla rampage sequences were. But it does have a gravitas and power that the sequels just don’t, and it’s surely this that explains why people are still making films about Godzilla over sixty years later.

 

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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.

ikiru

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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