Tuesday, October 19, 2010

I Live in Fear

Akira Kurosawa, 1955, 105m, Japan

There is more than one reason for recommending this film. Not the least is the vibrant yet restrained cinematography, which recreates with wistful and nostalgic realism the Japan waking up from the shock of defeat. It's a kind of ashen yet luminescent black and white, vibrating with the energy of Tokyo streets humming with surging multitudes. In the process of telling his tale, Kurosawa gives an incredibly lucid introduction to a society at a particular time. It is camera-poetry which touches the sublime in it's simplicity, unaffectedness, faithfulness and utter ordinariness. It is in fact the grandeur of ordinary life.

Yet all is not ordinary. This is a movie about living with the new reality of the Bomb, and 1955 Japan is the right time and place to talk about it, neither too early nor too late.

Nakajima (played by Toshiro Mifune) is a prosperous aging businessman scared out of his wits by the H-bomb and utterly convinced about the imminence of nuclear attack. Not satisfied with constructing an underground dwelling, he takes concrete steps to dispose of his assets and invest in a farm in Brazil, where he wants to move with his entire family including the offspring of his mistresses. But the family petitions the court to have him declared mentally incompetent since they all see no reason to be running away from their comfortable lives in Japan. The story, which starts of on a low key, takes grim overtones, as the depth of the old fellow's fixation emerges, and it becomes clear that he means business.

Kurosawa's intention seems to be clear and the hero is in fact meant to be a blend of sanity and insanity. A world whistling merrily atop a lethal heap of nuclear weapons is not entirely sane. Neither is the person who sees this reality to be easily dismissed as paranoid.

In 2010, we know that the disaster feared by the protagonist in 1955 has not yet happened but the realities are the same. The fact remains that the Japanese in 1955 seemed to have already forgotten what they alone had experienced.

There does to be some clumsiness in the delivery of the "message", and it is not clear whose side the film-maker is on . Neither was it easy for the legal intercessaries who had to decide the issue of Nakajima's mental competence. And nor, for that matter, is it for us. Blindness seems to be a fundamentally inherent human defense mechanism.

Thanks to Nathanael Hood for suggesting this movie.

Review by Nathanael Hood


Nathanael Hood said...

I think the message was that the society ignored or neglected people who were truly affected by the bomb...

That...or the entire film could be a commentary on how the atomic bomb affected the Japanese mindset.

S. M. Rana said...

@Nathanael Hood

As a Japanese director who catapulted to international prominence in the fifties, Kurosawa must have felt it obligatory to make a statement about the nuclear issue.

IMHO, the message is the unimaginable destructive potential of such weapons. ("Fog of War" was a great movie which highlighted the immediacy of this problem). In one scripture, the greatest wonder of the world is that men can live as they do, knowing the certainty of death. A similar statement may be made of our blissful oblivion vis a vis the holocaustic weaponry stockpiled all around the place.

Using the device of one person's response, aided no doubt by clinical pre-dispositions, Kurosawa has attempted to convey the larger problem.

I think his success is partial, since he does not seem to be sufficiently passionate about it himself. After all, during the war, Kurosawa did make pro-war films in the spirit of nationalistic militarism. He changed his tune after the war.

Great cinematographer that he is, he has made a visually beautiful movie, and in the muted contrasts of his black and white, he has captured the vitality of the rising Japanese phoenix (excuse the flourish).

Dramatically the film limps towards the end and comes to a clumsy conclusion. I think this is because Kurosawa can intellectually understand Nakajima's position but emotionally he is more with the bunch of his family members, "normal" guys like us.

After all, Kurosawa did not wind up his cameras and opt to start off afresh as a farmer in Brazil.

I plan to re-visit "Dr Strangelove" son..one movie leads to another...

Anonymous said...

I saw it around 2005. I also thought it was a little too heavy-handed with its message, although the lead performance by Mifune was memorable and there were several scenes I remember well. Still, it was engaging to watch.

S. M. Rana said...

kaist455:The nuclear reality like the Nazi holocaust, is a reality so beyond our human comprehension, that it would have to be quite a movie which could give a jolt to the audience about it's extent. Kurosawa made another movie around this issue towards the end of his career--Rhapsody in August, which I might see. Another beautiful film was "Hiroshima, mon Amour" where Alan Resnais with his new wave indirection caught a glimpse of this monster. I have reviewed this on my blog.