Kurosawa’s best and most popular films all had one thing in common: an allegorical nature that transcended their contemporary socio-historical setting while still alluding to it metaphorically. For a director that felt so comfortable in cinematic settings of Japan’s past, who felt so at home in fable-like stories that seemed to reach audiences on a universal level, it may be surprising that Kurosawa could be the definitive cinematic chronicler of the socio-realism of post-war Japan. Many of his post-war Japanese films were inspired by the Italian neo-realist movement, and, indeed, Kurosawa has admitted to greatly admiring Vittorio De Sica1. What’s startling about his films that deal directly with Japan’s post-war context is just how diverse they are. No Regrets for Our Youth, the first film in that neo-realist mode, was concerned with the initial recovery efforts, presenting an almost pastoral setting for its characters attempting to work and rebuild from the ground up. One Wonderful Sunday found Kurosawa turning his eyes on economic uncertainty and its effect on the shomin-geki or common man. Drunken Angel and Stray Dog offered comparative looks at the thriving crime in contrast to widespread poverty and desolation of the land. Scandal turned its eye on the dark side of post-war freedom, investigating the sensationalist media and its own destructive powers.
Between the release of Scandal in 1950 and I Live in Fear in 1955 Kurosawa had become a major force in world cinema through films that had largely abandoned their direct link to contemporary Japan. Kurosawa himself noted this, saying that he would have preferred to win Venice’s Golden Lion not for the period piece Rashomon but for something “reflecting more of present-day Japan, such a film as Bicycle Thieves“. I Live in Fear finds Kurosawa finally tackling that most ominous shadow hanging over post-war Japan: the threat of nuclear annihilation. But unlike the films that came before it, Kurosawa is less interested in direct depictions of society, perhaps because in the mid-50s Japan was already entering their economic “miracle” boom. Instead, he sees that most horrible of lingering post-war threats as something deeply psychological, rather than physical or social.
I Live in Fear features both of Kurosawa’s mainstay actors, Toshirô Mifune and Takashi Shimura. Mifune plays Kiichi Nakajima, a wealthy business owner who is terrified of the idea of nuclear annihilation. He’s so terrified that he’s planned to sell his business and relocate himself and his entire family to Brazil. His family, not wanting to leave their profitable business and established lives behind, attempt to have Kiichi declared insane. Their petition is taken to the Domestic Courts where Takashi Shimura plays Counselor Dr. Harada. Kiichi’s case deeply disturbs Harada who, though he can sympathize with Kiichi’s family in recognizing that such a move is extreme and would likely ruin them, can’t shake the feeling that Kiichi has a legitimate cause for alarm. Afterall, how can anyone remain sane in a world where the very real threat of total extinction seems like not just a possibility, but a probability?
This last issue dominates the film thematically. Kurosawa was always a director slightly ahead of the cinematic curve, and here it’s no different. American cinema wouldn’t have their own version of films tackling the nuclear problem until Sidney Lumet dramatized it with Fail-Safe and Stanley Kubrick parodied it with Dr. Strangelove. But Kurosawa always fashioned himself a teacher and has even faced charges of cinematic didacticism before. Here, he takes to dialectically arguing the issue in the context of Harada and the other council members, and in the context of Kiichi and his family. As with Rashomon, Kurosawa prefers to remain fair and balanced on issues concerning such ambiguous and complex morality: even if we agree that Kiichi’s intentions are extreme, are they unjustifiable? Unwarranted? Incomprehensible? Certainly not, considering that even the newspapers are spreading the sensationalist idea of complete extermination.
Kurosawa, like Shakespeare, was never content with merely discussing issues without setting them in a highly dramatic context. If I Live in Fear could be said to be a failure in any area, however, it would be in its sense of drama. It lacks the sharpness and pristine characterizations of Seven Samurai, the narrative inventiveness of Rashomon, even the poignant humanism of Ikiru. The writing is occasionally sloppy, and Kurosawa can’t seem to transition between the family drama of Kiichi and his family and Harada’s own wrestling with the issue. The film always works better when they’re together, as opposed to when they’re apart. Kurosawa also takes an unusual amount of time establishing the conflict (the first 16 minutes are devoted to simply presenting the characters and the case at court), and once he does the film does feel rather repetitive with the family arguments. The problem is that the film presents a conflict that doesn’t allow for much development.
That said, Kurosawa receives tremendous help from both Mifune and Shimura. Both were amongst the best actors Japan ever had, but they were also a wonderful study in contrast. Mifune was simply a force of nature. Here, he transforms himself into a somewhat-elderly patriarch who is just a nervous ball of tension with a constant scowl over his face, wringing his fan like he’s trying to strangle it. Shimura is much more nuanced and natural, which makes a perfect fit for the rather meek and timid Harada. When the two are on screen together it’s like a theatrical representation of the yin-yang concept. This especially makes for the finest moment in the film when Harada visits Kiichi in a mental hospital after Kiichi has burned down his business and finally gone insane. Kiichi stands at the window, staring at the sun, believing that he’s witnessing the Earth burning up from the purview of another planet while Harada stands by and merely watches, likely wondering if he and the rest of Japan aren’t even more insane for being sane in such an uncertain world.
Kurosawa’s direction was always more subtle in his post-war neo-realist films than it was in the films that made him famous. Whether this was intentional or not is impossible to say, but his directorial ingenuity tended to remain subdued in these films, and this one is no different. It can mostly be seen in his packed frames which frequently squeeze nine or more people in them while making them all visible. His editing is only occasionally used for dramatic impact, and when it is it’s usually in smaller moments, such as when Kiichi slams his fist down on a table and Kurosawa cuts from a mid-shot of him and his family to his fist as it hits the table, providing a visual jolt. One case of dramatic editing finds Kurosawa cutting from Kiichi’s outburst in the arbitration to the stunned faces of the counselors themselves. The final scene of Mifune and Shimura in front of the window with the blazing sun at its center is truly one of the gems in Kurosawa’s filmography, and will likely be seared into my brain permanently.
On a sad and final note, I Live in Fear was the final collaboration between Kurosawa and his good friend and composer, Fumio Hayasaka. Hayasaka was one of Japan’s most revolutionary and influential film composers and Kurosawa said of him that he radically changed how he approached film music in that music should be used for counterpoint, rather than accompaniment. He also aided Kurosawa in developing many of his stories. Hayasaka worked with Kurosawa on many of his key films and also composed the scores for some of Kenji Mizoguchi’s best films including Ugetsu, Sansho the Baliff and The Crucified Lovers. His score for this film was completed by Masaru Sato, as Hayasaka sadly died of tuberculosis at the age of 41 before he could complete it. While the score is minimally used in the film, it provides both an incredibly ominous, unsettling opening and an equally haunting closing: in both cases musically suggesting the threat itself, but also suggesting that it’s something intangible or psychological that penetrates deeper than the mere surface of things, certainly deeper than the surface of Japan’s surging economy.