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Posts Tagged ‘Toshiro Mifune’

I seem to recall that at one time there was a school of thought that the reason Akira Kurosawa became the most internationally-feted Japanese film director of his generation (as opposed to, say, Yasujiro Ozu or Kenji Mizoguchi) was that he deliberately made films that were accessible to foreign audiences and thus (there was always an implicit sniff at this point) not really authentically Japanese enough. Proof of this is sometimes offered in the fact that Kurosawa was always open to using western stories as the source material for his films (there are his famous adaptations of Macbeth and King Lear to a Japanese milieu) and also that his own original films proved to have enormous potential when it came to English-language remakes. There is a whole lineage of remakes of Seven Samurai, usually as westerns but also as science fiction, horror, and kung fu movies, and the same is also true to a lesser extent when it comes to Yojimbo (two remakes and various sequels).

None of these did quite as well as the English-language remakes of The Hidden Fortress (J-title: Kakushi toride no san akunin), a film Kurosawa made in 1958 (when I was younger I’m sure this film’s title was usually translated without the definite article – hey ho), but then these were rather less faithful and more thematic versions of the story anyway. The first of these was made in 1977 and directed by George Lucas, and was the first (but also the fourth) episode in his stellar conflict franchise. The second was made in 1999 and directed by George Lucas, and was the first (but also the fourth) episode in his stellar conflict franchise. One of them is adored, but the other reviled, which only goes to show – exactly what, I’m not sure, but it must show something.

The film opens with two ragged, miserable peasants named Matashichi and Tahei (Kamatari Fujiwara and Minoru Chiaki) staggering across an inhospitable landscape, endlessly bickering about which one of them smells worse. It turns out that they are former farmers, who made the unwise decision to invest in the most recent civil war and become soldiers, only to lose everything as a result. Angrily, they separate and try to make their own way out of enemy territory – but they are equally useless and pathetic when operating individually, and both get captured very quickly by the enemy.

It seems that their captors are looking for the gold reserves of the recently vanquished House of Akizuki, and the prisoners are put to work digging for it in truly hellish conditions – so hellish, in fact, that the peasants mount a revolt and break free from their captivity – an epic set-piece ensues, with swarms of desperate loincloth-clad prisoners charging down a flight of stone steps towards rows of musket-carrying ashigaru – it feels like it has been influenced by Sergei Eisenstein, while also anticipating the truly spectacular battle scenes in Ran (Ran was supposed to be being revived this spring at the UPP in Cowley: a small casualty of the lockdown, of course, but still one I feel keenly).

Tahei and Matashichi are quite surprised not to die in the fighting, but head for the hills. Here their luck seems to change, as they find gold bars hidden inside hollow sticks – it’s the Akizuki treasure everyone’s been looking for! Unfortunately, they also find a taciturn but imposing stranger (Toshiro Mifune, almost inevitably), who seems to know a bit about the gold himself. He leads the peasants to a – here we are at last – hidden fortress, previously owned by the House of Akizuki, where a few desperate survivors have gathered and are planning to make the dangerous journey to friendlier territory. The stranger turns out to be Makabe, the Akizuki family’s general, while as well as the gold the family’s other great treasure is here: Princess Yuki (Misa Uehara), a wilful teenager who doesn’t like being told what to do by the general.

Eventually Makabe decides the circumstances are right, and the motley group set off for the border: Makabe himself, the princess (pretending to be a deaf mute), and the two peasants, all of them loaded down with the gold. Will Makabe and Yuki stop squabbling long enough to notice their companions plotting to steal all the gold and run away? Will any of them make it to safety without being shot?

Truth be told, you could probably watch The Hidden Fortress and never notice the influence it had on either of the stellar conflict movies it supposedly inspired: those aren’t anything like as close to the original, in plot terms, as the American remakes of Seven Samurai or Yojimbo, although I suppose you can see an echo of the relationship between Mifune and Uehara’s characters in that between Liam Neeson and Natalie Portman in the 1999 film. Lucas himself has said that the main inspiration was really one of perspective: for a story which is largely concerned with the fate and deeds of nobles and their retainers, it’s quite unusual that the viewpoint characters are the people of the lowest social standing in the story, but it’s this that he retained in his own script.

That said, I think you would struggle to find much sign of Lucas’ famous droid double act in the scumbag peasants here, for they are much more morally dubious and often unsympathetic characters: at one point they find themselves left alone with the sleeping princess, and promptly start drawing straws for who will have the pleasure (it is strongly implied) of raping her (another character appears and intervenes before this goes anywhere). This is an extreme moment, and perhaps a rare misjudgement from Kurosawa, for in many ways what the film is about is the difference in perspective between the two duos (Makabe and Yuki, and Tahei and Matashichi) and their outlooks on life: the peasants live life on the most basic level, concerned with simple survival and grubbing for money, while on the level of the general and the princess it is honour and nobility which is most important (it is the honourability of Makabe which ultimately leads to the film’s happy ending). But the film is also about what the two sides learn from each other: the princess comes to appreciate the privileges she enjoys, and what it is to live like one of her subjects, while the peasants learn about the value of trust and friendship before the film is over (but only just).

It all sounds like Kurosawa in the classic style, and there is indeed much to enjoy here: Mifune is at his most formidably dynamic, Chiaki shows off some of the comic timing he displayed as the joker amongst the seven samurai (a third member of that immortal septet also shows up, as Takashi Shimura gets a brief cameo as another Akizuki advisor), and there are some epic set pieces and compositions. The problem is that, to a modern audience at least, the film seems rather slow and self-indulgent – it doesn’t have anything like the simplicity of premise or economy of script that Seven Samurai had: you know that bit near the start of the ’77 stellar conflict movie where the droids have a row, split up, but get captured and stuck back together, and the whole thing has no bearing on the plot? That’s a very Hidden Fortress-y bit of meandering plot. Of course, some of the various tangents and diversions eventually set up key plot developments, but some of them don’t. For this reason, I have to say that Hidden Fortress seems to me to be mid-table Kurosawa at best: interesting, and with some really good individual bits, but lacking in the sustained quality of his true masterpieces. As the film which inspired the film which changed the course of cinema history, it doesn’t quite live up to its own publicity.

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I can’t help thinking that there have been a lot of drossy movies on this blog in the last few days, and watching and thinking about all these bad movies does wear one down a little (the films I watched but didn’t bother writing about – Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, two of the Indiana Jones series, and Krull – were hardly classics, to be perfectly honest). So let’s look at some good films, for a change, undisputed works of brilliance – undisputed by me, anyway, and as this blog is run on a democratic, one-person, one-vote basis (I’m the person and I get the only vote), I get to decide what counts as brilliant.

There was a time when I was in my late teens and early twenties when I would occasionally have cause for great excitement: I was already very interested in films, and was starting to get a sense of what was agreed to be in the canon of great movies. Occasionally something I really wanted to see would come on TV (as often as not in the middle of the night, but so it goes) and so I would have the slightly nervous experience of setting the VCR, then checking the settings several times, coming down early to make sure the film had recorded okay, and then finally watching it (frequently to discover it didn’t quite live up to expectations – for example, it took me many years to learn to appreciate the quality of an oddball film like Phase IV).

One film that did live up to expectations was Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (J-title: Shichinin no Samurai), which played very late one Sunday night just before my last few A-levels. It felt like a very well-timed reward for the end of my school education, although it was a few days before I could secure the TV for long enough to actually watch it. I had already seen a couple of Kurosawa movies by this point – Yojimbo and Ran had both been on in the previous couple of years – but I knew that Seven Samurai was the big one, already guaranteed a place in cinema history simply because of the number of other films and TV episodes that had, essentially, ripped it off (three of those, Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, Battle Beyond the Stars and the 2016 remake of The Magnificent Seven, I’ve looked at already).

The movie opens with a brief caption explaining the strife-riven nature of sixteenth-century Japan, then fades up on a black horizon under a gloomy, overcast sky. Armoured horsemen rise into view, silhouetted in long shot, and the thunder of hooves is the only sound. These are the bandits who are the chief driver of the plot. They halt atop a hill overlooking a small village, and have a shouted discussion as to their plans: the villagers will have nothing worth taking at the moment, but if they return once the crops are harvested…

The bandits ride off, and will not appear again until the second half of the movie. But their plan has been overheard by a villager, who tells his fellows, and there is a fraught debate as to what to do – try to appease the bandits? Mass suicide? Attempt to resist them? Every option seems to end with the destruction of the village. The oldest and wisest man in the village has another idea, however: recalling a similar situation where the bandits were driven off by samurai warriors hired for protecton. But how are they to pay for the services of these elite, aristocratic warriors? ‘Find hungry samurai,’ is the old man’s advice.

This proves to be slightly trickier than expected: on going to the nearest big town, their first candidate proves to be a lazy, craven slob. But things turn around when they meet Kambei (Takashi Shimura), a vastly experienced warrior prepared to make sacrifices if the cause is right. He is soon joined by Katsushiro (Isao Kimura), a young boy looking for training; Gorobei (Yoshio Inaba), a strongman who becomes Kambei’s lieutenant; Shichiroji (Daisuke Kato), an old comrade of Kambei’s; Heihachi (Minoru Chiaki), an irreverent clown; and Kyuzo (Seiji Miyaguchi), a supremely skilled swordsman. Also tagging along, and bringing the numbers up to that all-important seven, is Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune), who affects to be a samurai but is really an uncouth, unpredictable slob.

You’re probably already familiar with this story, even if you haven’t seen any of the various remakes and reimaginings that have followed it: the samurai return to the village, where they gradually win the trust and respect of their new employers. Preparations are made and then the bandits finally return, in which the skill and determination of the defenders is tested to the utmost. It is such a sturdy story-structure, with its various sub-components (for instance, the recruiting of the team) able to be extracted and repurposed as well. And Kurosawa seems to have invented it virtually from scratch, even if he did apparently get the idea for the film from an actual historical incident.

Apart from the fact that this film was made by one of the masters, there are a couple of things that elevate it above the films and TV episodes that followed (and, it must be said, some of those are also very good indeed). The sheer length of the film – getting on for three and a half hours – gives space for a plethora of subplots and character moments, giving each of the seven – and many of the villagers – a chance to develop into a genuine character. They play off each other in a variety of combinations throughout the film; no-one is there just to make the numbers up, everybody gets at least one big moment. This may be a long film but it is also supremely economical: there is barely a wasted moment.

The other thing that distinguishes it is that most of the films that followed are fantasies, one way or another: even the original version of The Magnificent Seven, which is supposedly a ‘straight’ western, is obliged to engage in some awkward plot contrivances to preserve Kurosawa’s structure (keeping the Mexican government on-side may also have been a factor). This version, however, is set in a specific historical context, which heavily informs the story. Many of the subplots arise from the tensions arising between the farmers and the samurai, who are basically from different social castes and are initially somewhat suspicious of each other (perhaps with good reason). You possibly have to be Japanese to appreciate all the nuances of this, but you can get a strong sense of what’s going on no matter where you’re from.

In the end it resolves with the famous battle in the rain, a last-man-standing struggle to the death between the samurai and villagers on one side and the last few bandits on the other. Obviously, the technical capacities of the 1950s were different from those of today, and this is reflected in the special effects and fight choreography, but in terms of movement and composition and editing, there are still few things to match the battle sequences of this film for fluency and energy.

You probably know how it concludes: there are winners and losers, possibly on the same side. But there is still something about the ending that seems very satisfying and appropriate, for all of the sadness that comes with it. Sadness for the fallen villagers and their defenders, and sadness that not even this film can go on forever. Although, to be perfectly honest, I think it probably will.

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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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‘Madness conquers Hollywood!’ said the poster for the French release of Steven Spielberg’s 1979 film, 1941. It’s a bit unclear as to whether this is a description of the plot of the movie or a criticism of the thought processes involved in the thing being made in the first place; it’s arguably equally accurate as both. This is the early Spielberg movie that most people don’t think of and haven’t seen, and the one that tends to be described as a failure despite the fact it made nearly $100 million at the box office (three times its budget). Personally I always think of the film as a kind of folie de grandeur, for want of a better expression: it’s deeply mystifying that a film like this one ever got made, but I’m very glad it was.

Stanley Kubrick said the biggest mistake Spielberg made with 1941 was telling everybody it was supposed to be a comedy, and the film certainly doesn’t start like one, with a mock-grave caption describing the somewhat febrile mood of panic and tension gripping the United States in the days following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941. It soon becomes apparent that this is absolutely not your typical Spielberg film about the Second World War – a young woman out for a swim in the Pacific Ocean off the southern Californian coast is startled to find a Japanese submarine surfacing beneath her – not only is the scene directed as a spoof of the opening of Jaws, but John Williams reuses the theme from that movie, and it’s even the same actress (Susan Backlinie).

We then proceed to a scene between the commander of the sub (Toshiro Mifune) and a German advisor (Christopher Lee) discussing their situation (in Japanese and German respectively) and the commander’s desire to strike at a significant target in the continental US so they can return to Japan with honour. Both these movie legends play the entire film almost completely straight, no matter what else is going on around them (in this scene, for instance, there is a naked woman clinging to the periscope above them while they talk). It certainly makes a change from the gurning and screaming which is the preferred style of performance of nearly everyone else in the film as it goes on.

Well, anyway. 1941 has a huge number of characters and nearly as many subplots. In addition to Mifune and Lee trying to work out where their sub is and deliver an appropriately crushing attack on America, the film also concerns a young man trying to stop a soldier from stealing his girlfriend, an unhinged fighter pilot (John Belushi) trying to track down non-existent Japanese planes, a mild-mannered homeowner who has an anti-aircraft gun deposited in his garden by the army, an army officer trying to lure his superior’s secretary into a plane for, ahem, personal reasons (she is an aviophiliac, for want of a better word), and a motor pool sergeant (Dan Aykroyd) and his crew who are trying to maintain some kind of order. Courtesy of some ingenious plotting (the script is by Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis, who of course went on to write Back to the Future), all these elements bounce off each other as the film proceeds (it essentially takes place within a single day) and the situation in Los Angeles gets more and more chaotic.

It is, if anything, a disaster movie played for laughs, having the same kind of structure – the difference being that here the disaster is largely self-inflicted (the first time I saw Independence Day, itself an heir to the 70s disaster tradition in many ways, I remember thinking ‘This reminds me of 1941‘, and I was not the only one to spot the resemblance). 1941 takes all the technical advances of late-70s cinema and puts them to the purpose of trying to be funny.

Set in 1941 and made in 1979, this movie is of course now closer to the time it depicts than the present day, and it is perhaps inevitable that it feels a little dated in some ways. Much of the comedy is of a broad, early Saturday Night Live kind, unsurprisingly given Belushi and Aykroyd found fame on SNL – there is a lot of Belushi’s bull-in-a-china-shop slapstick, in particular. There is a wilful irreverence about the war in this film which is not at all what one would expect, and which indeed made it somewhat controversial at the time – Spielberg offered John Wayne a role in it at one point, and Wayne not only refused but told him he shouldn’t make the film at all as it was un-American and unpatriotic. With Spielberg so well established as a Hollywood grandee these days, it’s fascinating to revisit a time when he was still a subversive young rebel.

In other ways, of course, this is very recognisably a Spielberg movie – there is music from John Williams (he contributes one of his more rousing marches), a strong sense of nostalgia, and of course the usual technical mastery. The appearance of Backlinie, reprising her role from Jaws, isn’t the only in-joke in the film, either – Lucille Benson appears in virtually the same role she had in Duel, made nearly a decade earlier, playing a gas station owner saddled with an awkward customer.

Perhaps it’s this sort of thing which has led many people to label 1941 as self-indulgent – Spielberg, fresh from the massive success of Jaws and Close Encounters, being given carte blanche to do whatever he wanted, with the result being an overblown mess (‘Spielberg playing with cinema like a child with a toy train set’ was one comment). I don’t think it’s remotely fair to call 1941 a mess, for it manages to tell a complex story with a minimum of confusion. If there is a problem with the film, it’s that it’s a comedy which is not very funny – at least, not consistently.

There’s a relentless, manic quality to the film which eventually becomes a little exhausting rather than completely enjoyable, and it does require you to accept that the characters do absurd and ridiculous things for no other reason than that they’re supposed to be funny (a character on air raid warden duty takes a ventriloquist’s dummy with him). It almost anticipates Airplane! in its belief that if you bombard the audience continuously with jokes, enough of them will be funny for the film to succeed – and I suppose this is true, for this is a movie which never fails to entertain me. This may partly be because I just enjoy the fact that so much talent and so many resources have been devoted to bringing such an absurdly silly story to the screen, but as well as being a lavish piece of movie-making, 1941 is filled with colour and movement and action. The hectic pace may be a problem, but if the film slowed down for a moment it would surely fail entirely.

As I say, 1941 is a film I have always liked, even if Spielberg considers it to have not completely worked, and steered clear of comedy as a result (a shame, especially as he was supposedly planning to do a movie with the Goodies before this one came out). It’s hit and miss as a comedy, but as a technical achievement and above all as a spectacle, it has lots to offer.

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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.

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 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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