Scandal opens with a mountaintop vista as painter Ichirô Aoe (Toshiro Mifune) plies away at his interpretation of Mt. Fuji to a coterie of interested farmers. A young woman in need of transport to town walks by and Aoe happily obliges her with a lift upon his motorcycle. As chance would have it the two are staying at the same inn and, as it turns out, the young woman is a famous actress by the name of Maiko Saijo. Aoe discovers this and decides to pay her a visit. Unbeknownst to them a cadre of tabloid reporters have been hunting the actress day and night with the hope of capturing a scandal. One of them manages to secure a snapshot of the two in a compromising position upon Maiko’s balcony, and the next day the scandalous headline “Love on a Motorcycle” greets millions of gossip hungry Japanese at newsstands nationwide. Aoe resolves to clear his name and hers by filing suit against the unscrupulous magazine, named “Amour”, and for that task he hires a pathetic, but seemingly honest lawyer by the name of Hiruta (Takashi Shimura).
Kurosawa’s continuing fascination with the dichotomy of illusion and reality—and that which is shown versus that which is implied—is sadly less emphasized here than it could be. It is perhaps most pronounced through the use of multiple exposure, the physical action superimposed over newspaper headlines describing the action. This device is used to much greater effect in its brief appearance in The Bad Sleep Well. It is less effective here probably due to some uncharacteristically puerile morals. Instead of questioning the motives of the newspapermen, Kurosawa summarily condemns them as bad from the very beginning. We never see or attempt to understand their perspective but only that of the ostensible victims. In many ways Scandal is an unrealized prototype for later successes, The Bad Sleep Well coming to mind most readily.
Instead of using the plot for romantic contrivances—because Kurosawa could have easily given us a real romance between these two, developing from their case to prove their innocence—_Scandal_ takes a very different path. We do see a relationship develop, but it seems to be one of respect and friendship (an artistic kinship) rather than romance. Amidst this we find a tale of redemption, one that might otherwise have fallen flat if not for the performance of Takashi Shimura, who cringes and cowers throughout, almost taking the form of the “worm” of which he accuses himself. He is perhaps the most pathetic creature to ever grace the silver screen, thoroughly downtrodden, accident-prone and weak. Too weak to resist the temptation of “Amour”‘s publisher.
It’s interesting that the lawyer emerges as the protagonist, dominating the second half of the film where Mifune’s character commanded the first. This decision gives Shimura license for perhaps the strongest performance of his career, but it squanders a grand opportunity for a true indictment of yellow journalism which was the ostensible purpose of the film to begin with. This also explains the downplaying of appearances, or what is reported and believed by society at large versus the truth as Kurosawa sees it.
Attorney Hiruta is desperate to care for his ailing daughter, dying of tuberculosis, so he sacrifices what little remained of his professional integrity by throwing the case. This daughter character allows Kurosawa to explore an interesting dichotomy. She has some preternatural ability to detect the emotional character of those around her. She knows that Mr. Aoe is a good and righteous man, and that her father, though good in his heart also, is a scoundrel. On her death bed she understands that her father has been bought, that he is intentionally losing the case for Aoe and Maiko. She is physically weak and she knows that she will die, but her fortitude, sincerity and compassion soars. She has the emotional strength of a lion, as opposed to her father who is healthy but commands the will of a slug.
Yet he is the only character to admit his guilt. This leads to the most effective sequence in the entire film and Kurosawa’s first and only affair with the courtroom. Taking the witness stand with tears in his eyes, he submits to evidence a check for 100,000 yen from the defendant and bears his soul before the court. This single act of bravery is the greatest and most difficult task undertaken by anyone. For not only do we realize that he held on to the check (meaning he never used the money to help his daughter but only considered it), but he finds the strength to admit his disgraceful actions and indict himself whatever the outcome knowing that his guilt is also the defendant’s. He also knows that he will be disbarred and therefore lose his only remaining reason for living.
Reporter: How does it feel to win?
Mifune: I’m happy, of course—but more than that…
R: More than that?
M: It won’t make much of a story.
R: Come on, tell us.
M: We just saw a star form in the sky.
R: Can you explain?
R: You mean Mr. Hiruta?
R: Not a very pure star, if you ask me.
M: For the first time in my life, I saw a star come in to existence. Compared to that feeling, our victory was nothing.
Scandals come and go. And the scandal with which this story is concerned has given way to the greater scandal of “Amour”‘s publisher paying off a lawyer to cover up his magazine’s wrongdoing. Kurosawa’s closing shot showing the wall earlier plastered with the scandalous magazine cover story eroded and forgotten makes the point, and in a more instantly potent and gratifying way than all the exposition in the world could conjure.