[18 October 2010]
I Live in Fear
The human race has always had a fascination with naming and labeling, arguing, both alternately and with great contradiction, that assigning designations to items, eras, and individuals will either give them power or strip them of it. The Iron Age, the Dark Ages, the Industrial Revolution, the Crusades, all are easily identifiable by the labels we have given these momentous occasions in man’s history. Everyone knows, if not through first-hand experience then through the power of their labels, exactly what the Brooklyn Bridge is, what the Spanish Inquisition did, and the importance of the Jack the Ripper murders in the history of criminology.
Of course, the ultimate expression of power, both in terms of force and naming, occurred when The Gadget detonated in the vicinity of Socorro, New Mexico on July 16, 1945, and humanity officially entered the Atomic Age.
And because of all this, everyone knows what happened next.
The destruction caused by Little Boy on Hiroshima and Fat Man on Nagasaki, which included cancer and other crippling diseases and side-effects, killed up to 246,000 people within the first four months of the post-attack period. 246,000 lives lost. 246,000 potential poets, doctors, artists, and leaders wiped out by two weapons.
A country does not bounce back from such a massive loss so quickly. There was no precedent for it. There were no established measures by which to make sure the nation of Japan recovered adequately. There are many who still claim Japan is still struggling with the after-effects of the bombing to this day, and there is assuredly some truth in that.
One of the many strategies Japan undertook in an attempt to heal, as the United States has done since September 11, 2001, was to create a cinematic catharsis, a 2-D slate with which the nation could project their feelings and emotions onto a canvas for the nation’s director to paint with. While post-attack America has received Niels Mueller’s The Assassination of Richard Nixon, Matt Reeves’s Cloverfield, and Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Japan received, in the years following the bombs, Ishiro Honda’s Gojira, the latter-day-but-still-critical Royal Space Force: Wings of Honneamise) and, of course, Akira Kurosawa’s superlative I Live in Fear.
Oddly paralleling the life of American industrialist Howard Hughes, whose private battles with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder were occurring concurrently but had yet to become truly public, I Live in Fear told the heartbreaking story of Kiichi Nakajima, played by Toshiro Mifune, a man living in post-Nagasaki Japan whose mind has slowly started to slip just as the nation attempts, as the old song says, to pick itself up, dust itself off and start all over again. Gripped with the all-too-real fear that the next war will be the last real war, a battle that will surely wipe out mankind with a vast array of nuclear weaponry, Nakajima snaps and insists his family move to Brazil, which he is certain is safe from nuclear catastrophe regardless of the circumstances. His family, of course, recognizes his illness, taking him to court to be rendered mentally ill (This theme, of course, of a family going against their patriarch, would later reoccur in Kurosawa’s output, most notably in the Shakespeare-based Ran, a recasting of King Lear in Japan’s Sengoku period).
As in any reconstruction period following such a terrible disaster, all the people of the affected area want is to feel safe and secure, and that’s what Nakajima wants: the assurance of a safe, long life for those he loves. Thematically, this fits in very well with his other films of this period: Rashomon, for instance, examines the terror of perpetual uncertainty in the quest for what should be a simple truth; High and Low, documents the struggle to rescue a child from kidnappers and the desire of all involved to be emotionally, financially and professionally secure.
What’s most fascinating about I Live in Fear, however, is that while it emerged in the midst of Kurosawa’s period of international recognition, it still remains largely unknown and ignored, not unlike Kiichi Nakajima and his own private little battle with mental illness. When one realizes the film was released in the midst of a sequence that included Ikiru, Seven Samurai and
, this becomes almost inexcusable.
In an oddly prophetic way, this notion of lack of appreciation and respect is mirrored midway through the film, when a still-ailing Nakajima encounters the court’s physician, Dr. Harada (Takashi Shimura), on a bus. Nakajima attempts to ignore him, even going so far as to leave the bus to escape. Realizing his solitude isn’t as important as his own sense of dignity, turns around and, perhaps justifiably, blames Harada and the rest of the court for his present state of despair in “a living hell”. Harada, awestruck, takes the man’s tirade in stride, not knowing what to say, and the older man shambles off, leaving the physician staring at him as he goes. If the respected Kurosawa canon is Dr. Harada, the sharply-dressed, well-loved city official, I Live in Fear.is the slightly more frightening Nakajima, the older, more distraught, emotionally exhausting and vulnerable patriarch who has lost all hope. The film’s brilliance lies in its emotional honesty and raw psychology, which, interestingly, seems to be the aspect that scares both fans and scholars away from it.
Nakajima was deemed “incompetent”; another label, like Harada’s title of “Doctor” that can be removed or reinstated by a simple court ruling.
What the United States as a nation did to Japan was ugly and horrible, and we cannot avoid talking about it. No matter what travesties the Empire of Japan had committed at the time, the escalation to nuclear weaponry was inexcusable. A four-year-old child had nothing to do with torturing the Chinese or decimating Pearl Harbor. Despite the in-your-face emotional stylings of the film, Kurosawa never waves the obvious in our face: that Hiroshima and Nagasaki, by way of Fat Man and Little Boy, more than likely created as many Nakajimas as they killed innocents.
There are always other ways than the extremes with which humans generally tend to do things, and that is the overall lesson of I Live in Fear, the terror, the lack of necessity, the ill results of these massive, horrible choices we make as a society, and how they affect each and every one of us to the seemingly smallest of individuals.
It is also a seething indictment of concurrent Japanese law and psychotherapy, and their shared inability to stay up-to-date, especially in regards to trauma and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. This is especially evident in the film’s final act, wherein Nakajima cannot possibly go on living in society any longer and is eventually committed, firmly believing he is living safely off-world, watching what he believes to be the Earth (but what is, in actuality, the sun) burning from his hospital room in the final scene.
In a bizarre moment of synchronicity that can only occur in the cinema, Howard Hughes’s well-publicized battle with OCD was reaching a fever pitch in the 1950s. The irony of a wealthy American businessman, part of the Military Industrial Complex responsible for reducing two Japanese cities to rubble, going through the same basic terrors from the same centers of the human mind as a fictional Japanese man in a film by an acclaimed Japanese director, should not be lost on anyone. It may be a bit much to say that the average American’s concurrent mental illness was a sort of symbiotic grief shared with the wounded Japanese civilian, but there’s certainly something to be said about the morphogenetic field in this regard, as well as the human race’s capacity for compassion, which often goes hand-in-hand with their capacity for great, unreasonable violence.
With I Live in Fear, Kurosawa tapped into the psychology of his countrymen and, consciously or not, tapped into the inner mind of the human race at a very volatile time in the 20th century. The advent of the nuclear bomb, like the fall of Thermopylae or the realization that the Earth revolved around the sun that Nakajima thought was his home, changed the world forever, and its full effect will not be known for years, if not centuries to come. Kurosawa knew this, and with his film offered but one simple declaration, a one-word request to all of humanity to be good to one another and to take care of each other, to remember how to love and respect.
That word is, and always will be, “Help”.
Throne of Blood
To remake an artistic work well requires a shift in statement of theme and a further exploration of the original author’s wanderings. Leave it to Akira Kurosawa to remake not only multiple plays by Shakespeare, but also a novel written by Dostoevsky, arguably the most innovative psychological writer since Shakespeare. Kurosawa also remade a genre Western (practically shot for shot).
Somewhere in between Dostoevsky’s novel and a genre Western lies Macbeth, which is arguably one of the greatest works in all of literature, which, as noted previously, makes it damn near impossible to remake well. Nonetheless, it is the jump off point for one of Kurosawa’s greatest films, which is therefore a great remake of a greatest work. Enter Throne of Blood.
Taketoki Washizu (Toshiro Mifune) is a samurai warrior driven to multiple murders in a desperate grab for power. Kurosawa set this film in a time of constant warfare among rival samurai clans. The film begins and ends on the same shot of fog over black volcanic soil (the film was shot high on Mt. Fuji). A chorus-like narration prefaces the arc of the film with a poetic intro. In this opening shot, the land closer to the foreground is lower than the land in the background and the two sections are divided by fog. The visible portions can be interpreted as different levels or stations. The fog may represent the uncertainty in between (but only if you play along).
While riding through a forest on their to a fortress, Washizu and his comrade Miki (Minoru Chiaki) come across a white-faced woman-spirit who, while spinning a wheeled textile machine, prophesies that Washizu will rise in station not once but twice in the near future. The spirit mocks Washizu, saying that it cannot understand humans because they hide their true natures, an allusion to both the nature of ambition and the actor’s own makeup: the makeup and hairstyles of both the spirit and Lady Macbeth are directly influenced by traditional Noh theater, their white makeup echoing the emotive masks of the Noh.
In the first act of the film, the word labyrinth is used to describe both a forest and a fortress. The notion of being lost, or caught in a kind of limbo, is recurring idea in this film. While labyrinths are designed to keep people out of certain places, their flaw is that they provide those who know them well with many places to hide. The same can be said for forests and fortresses.
When the emperor arrives at Washizu’s fortress on the pretense of attacking a rival, Washizu’s wife Asaji (Isuzu Yamada) suggests that by having him lead the attack and Miki guard the fortress, his superior is setting him up to be killed.
“Without ambition,” she says, “A man is not a man,” her words eventually compelling him to kill the emperor and seize the throne.
Mifune and Yamada’s interactions are particularly memorable in this film. Yamada’s blank expression underscores Asaji’s emotional coldness. Mifune, on the other hand, is unusually animated in their conversations.
Once the deed is done, Asaji shouts out, “Murder!” and Washizu kills one of the slain emperor’s bodyguards, which not only reinforces his tough-guy persona but also sates his snowballing bloodlust. Meanwhile, all sorts of omens begin to portent. Crows start cawing and a master’s horse can’t be tamed. In a particularly comic touch, Washizu is visited by an absurd number of crows and pigeons before he is eventually shot down for his crimes.
Ambition is a particularly devilish feeling, especially in the way that it hides behind people’s faces. Unlike happiness or sadness, it doesn’t have a facial expression closely associated with it. Paranoia and desperation are far easier to express, which is what Mifune seems to have aimed for in his performance. He wears the same heavy grimace for much of the film, communicating mostly with darting eye movements and trembling lip, his eyebrows and facial hair doing most of the work. When he does let loose, the effect is quite powerful, as in his scenes with Yamada and the dinner with his court. One cannot watch this movie without having Mifune’s grimace etched into one’s memory.
Part of translating a piece of drama to cinema is conceiving how to best transfer thematic ideas into imagery. The stark, foggy landscape and the densely wooded forest are perhaps the most obvious creations, but the true genius technique in this film is Kurosawa’s use of shadow.
One might first notice it on Mifune’s face while he’s turning his head from one side to the other, which he does quite a lot in this film to great effect. By using shadow as a kind of graphic multiplier for actors onscreen, Kurosawa is able to take Washizu’s paranoia and give it a kind of visual corollary. Washizu’s often finds himself backed into corners, and light sources from multiple sides leave him with not one but two shadows. They seem to visually crowd him into the corner. In the dinner scene when he sees Miki’s ghost and seemingly goes mad in front of his court’s eyes, the shadows of those present are quite noticeable on the wooden walls of the dining room. Visually, it suggests a more crowded space.
After evergreens start slowly creeping towards the castle (which, by some strange coincidence, happened to be the only signal that Washizu would be in for trouble), his troops turn on him. The viewer is then graced with a wonderful Tony Montana-esque sign-off, except arrows are flying instead of bullets.
After Washizu’s been hit multiple times (arrows dangling from his chest) he then takes one sideways through the neck, somehow managing to stay alive for a while, not even falling down at first. At this point the viewer can either do one of two things: a) begin ruminating on the plausibility of surviving multiple arrow wounds, including one through the neck (sideways!) or, b) simply say to one’s self in honest admiration: “That is one tough samurai.”
The Lower Depths
The Lower Depths is an adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s naturalistic play about a particularly antagonistic tenement teeming with the outcasts of society. Alcoholics, gamblers, prostitutes, and other people chewed up and spit out by city life converge and conflict in this filthy hovel to either drink, fight or lay down and await death (sometimes all three!). Incredibly sad stories of lost fortunes and lost loves are passed between the peasants like small talk, responded to with only unimpressed guffaws or insults.
For Gorky, The Lower Depths focuses on Russian peasants at the turn of the 20th century—but Kurosawa has transplanted the story earlier into the chaotic Edo period of Japan’s history. The chaos snugly fits Gorky’s story, which is less of a linear plot and more of an intricate web of bitter rivalries, jealousies, poorly thought-out plans and their subsequent miserable failures.
Taking the forefront of The Lower Depths’ dramatic action is a four-way conflict between the most (relatively) affluent characters. The crotchety landlord Rokubei struggles to keep his property from his greedy and hostile wife, Osugi. Osugi has taken a boisterous young thief Sutekichi (Toshirō Mifune) as a paramour and would-be assassin, although she slowly notices Sutekichi’s affections drift towards her younger and considerably less evil sister, Okayo. Meanwhile, Okayo is disinterested with the brash Sutekichi’s increasingly bold advances.
With the stage set, all four characters are primed to explode until a wise, but enigmatic soul named Kahei wanders into the tenement and starts dispensing platitudes. “Once you set your mind to it, you can do anything,” Kahei repeats ad nauseam like some 17th Century guidance counselor.
The new wisdom appears to positively affect the slum at first, inspiring a mad drunk to seek help and a heartbroken prostitute to regain her self esteem. However, once the tenement reaches some level of amity, Kahei’s ominous past threatens to undo the fruits of his sage compassion.
At this point, the fragile peace of the tenement reaches its breaking point, and the focus of The Lower Depths shifts to an ever-relevant question: in a society defined by birthright and self-interest, can we change our lot in life through wisdom and perseverance, or are we simply deluding ourselves?
Originally produced by the staunch naturalist Konstantin Stanislavski, the impressionistic, abstract Kurosawa is seen very little here. Rather, The Lower Depths follows a strict, realist style that rarely wanders out of the tenement. Special effects are very minimalistic, keying into the poverty and forced conservatism of The Lower Depths’ cast of characters.
The most dramatic bits of production come from loud, blustery rain storms that serve as an exclamation point to the trapped nature of Rokubei’s tenants. Cinematography favors a lot of shots low to the ground, with most characters shown sitting or lying down through their dialogues. There is a constant feeling of oppression throughout the entire film, despite the fact that legitimate authority figures only enter into the story for a fleeting moment—almost exclusively to further the narrative between the powerless.
The most action we see out of Lower Depths’ supporting cast is when they drink and gamble together. These scenes are given a sacred, yet still tongue-in-cheek tone, usually incorporating a steady beating drum and solemn chants. “Money buys your fate in hell,” is the guiding chorus for the tenants’ chants, suggesting that within The Lower Depths, profanity has become sacrosanct. With no other escape from a crushing reality, the drinking of sake and cheating at cards come together for the residents as a sort of religious ritual.
By the end of the film, Kahei’s seed of optimism has been planted of the tenants of The Lower Depths, but not without a healthy compliment of tragedy and loss. A rousing celebration that finally appears to bring all of the residents together in a brief moment of harmony is crushed when news comes that the thought-rehabilitated drunk has hung himself.
Kahei’s upbeat message seems to be finally squashed underneath the weight of a cruel, unforgiving world. The party ends with one of the peasants cursing the drunk’s name for ruining the party. However, as the George Bernard Shaw quote goes and as the bleak, but never hopeless tone of the film confirms: “Life does not cease to be funny when people die any more than it ceases to be serious when people laugh.”
The Hidden Fortress
Kurosawa was setting out to make a pure adventure film when he made The Hidden Fortress. Two frightened peasants, fleeing the death and destruction of the civil wars in 16th century Japan are captured and forced into slavery. Making their escape, they hear of a reward for the capture of a fugitive princess and soon thereafter they find a fortune in gold, hidden inside kindling wood. This gold is the treasure of the very same Princess Yuki being hunted, and is needed to rebuild her army, now in retreat.
Perhaps predictably by this point, the peasants are thrown together with the princess and her protector, General Makabe. Motivated by greed and fear (of the general, primarily) and in no small part the general’s deceptions, the peasants assist the princess and the general in getting themselves and the gold to friendly territory, having great adventures along the way, all the while scheming against and attempting to betray one another.
Interestingly, the Japanese title for this film translates to “Three Bad Men in a Hidden Fortress.” While the two peasants are certainly portrayed as greedy and cowardly, why would Kurosawa group the seemingly heroic general in with them as being bad? Perhaps it is for his treatment of the peasants, but more likely it is for how he puts all other concerns as secondary to his goal, including protecting the lives of his fellow travelers (aside from the princess).
Kurosawa’s approach to telling this story is at once very typical and very innovative. He successfully creates a new perspective on an old familiar scene, and this is what makes The Hidden Fortress the classic it is within its genre. Kurosawa breaks the mold of typical jidai-geki adventure films by telling this story through the eyes of the two comical peasants, and this device works well for him.
It is perhaps a bit disappointing, although ultimately probably more realistic, that the two peasants, through whom the story is told, are in the end little better off than they were at the beginning of the film. Ultimately, though, while they have gained much less than they once hoped, they have at least learned to share without greed interfering.
The Hidden Fortress was filmed on location in the area around Mount Fuji, lending the film an epic, if often stark feel.
No discussion of The Hidden Fortress would be complete without mention of George Lucas’s Star Wars films. Lucas had openly credited The Hidden Fortress with being the inspiration for the narrative of the first Star Wars film, and by extension, the entire Star Wars phenomenon. Specifically Lucas cites the use of two comical characters that are apparently negligible and peripheral to tell the central story. The two peasants become R2-D2 and C-3PO in Lucas’s version, though Lucas insists that both films featuring a princess on the run is a coincidence.
The Hidden Fortress was Kurosawa’s last film under contract with Toho Studios. On all future projects through Red Beard Toho and Kurosawa’s newly formed company split production costs, with increased profits for Kurosawa, while Toho continued to act as distributor of the completed films.