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Post-War Kurosawa: Eclipse Series 7

Director: Akira Kurosawa
Cast: Toshiro Mifune, Setsuko Hara

(US DVD: 15 Jan 2008)

Scandal

Scandal


Postwar Kurosawa assembles five movies united by three facts: they’re directed by Akira Kurosawa, they’re set in contemporary postwar Japan, and they aren’t going to get their own single Criterion release.


The least interesting title here is Scandal (1950), although the theme is surprisingly contemporary. Toshiro Mifune plays a painter who’s photographed by a paparazzo (not called that, since Fellini hadn’t made La Dolce Vita yet) and romantically linked with an actress in a scandal sheet. It winds up in the courtroom as people argue about libel and truth. One of the eternal rules of drama that no one seems to understand is that ending in a courtroom is always, always death—the great exception being Take the Money and Run. Dramatists seem to be attracted to the instant formula of opposition, passionate argument, and alleged suspense, but nothing deflates a story faster than going to court. Even Perry Mason knew the true function of a courtroom is to unmask a killer, not resolve an issue.


That aside, of course the picture is well-made and has its charms, from Mifune at his most dashing to the figure of a morally ambiguous attorney whose weary Everyman persona anticipates the desperate salaryman who would take center stage in Ikiru (1952).


Next on the interest meter is One Wonderful Sunday (1947), a semi-neorealist slice of life that follows a young couple in love. Their Sunday is hardly wonderful, since they are constantly threatened or thwarted by their lack of money, which among other things prevents their marriage. The theme is the difficulty of getting by in the postwar era (still under US occupation), and the idea is to present a portrait of a city (Tokyo) at a certain point in its history. It may be compared with Vincente Minnelli’s hopeful yet bittersweet The Clock or even with King Vidor’s The Crowd, which are both about how ordinary couples try to entertain themselves on a single day.


One Wonderful Sunday

One Wonderful Sunday


This film is overlong, and its greatest point of interest is a device employed at the end when Kurosawa breaks the fourth wall, in a manner oddly reminiscent of Peter Pan but perhaps really indebted to Brecht, in order to snap the viewer out of passivity and engage the issues more directly, if hardly intellectually. Suddenly this previously quiet, low-key film becomes a tour-de-force of style, and this contrast in itself is engaging.


The most immediate postwar film here, No Regrets for Our Youth (1946), is intriguing in several ways. First, its style is quite smooth and lilting as it follows the moral development of a young woman who learns about social responsibility after falling in love with a handsome proletarian and eventually leaving the city to work on his parents’ farm. Her political consciousness runs counter to the rise of militarism that sweeps the country into war and victimizes the lovers in different ways, which is why she need have no regrets for her youth. In the angst of defeat and occupation, this film’s point would seem to be consolation and assertion that not everybody shares the guilt of political collaboration, that many Japanese resisted militarism and that now they can work for a brighter future.


No Regrets for Our Youth

No Regrets for Our Youth


While this is an important point historically, it also sidesteps the issue of everyone who does have guilt and regrets, and who don’t have movies made about them. That issue might have been too sensitive, perhaps even forbidden by US censorship and Japanese self-censorship. It’s an understandable impulse, shared with the tendency of European cinema to make movies about individuals who fought the Nazis and hid Jews in the basement instead of movies about people who turned them in. It really wasn’t until the 1960s that Japan began to produce angry films about what they had gone through and to search for guilt and blame.

The final two films in this set are the best and could easily have sustained their own single discs on aesthetic principles alone. Indeed, The Idiot (1951) might have made an interesting double-feature with the Russian adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s novel from the same decade, also owned by Janus Films. Kurosawa’s version is more complete, more brilliant and possibly even more faithful in spirit if not letter, despite being updated to postwar Japan.


The Idiot

The Idiot


The holy-fool Prince Myshkin character is now a returning POW instead of a recovering invalid. Setsuko Hara, the fresh-faced heroine of No Regrets for Our Youth, is riveting as the sophisticated, demonic Nastasya character, and the film really belongs to her. The camera uses her as its center of gravity as it slinks about the well-appointed rooms with astonishing vigor. Everyone is perfectly cast, reminding us that Kurosawa was excellent at adapting the work of others and had no trouble applying non-Japanese sources to Japanese cinema. In an aesthetic crime on the order of the gutting of Erich von Stroheim’s Greed, this 166-minute film was butchered by the studio from a now-lost director’s cut that ran more than four hours. This accounts for the fragmentary nature of some plot developments, yet it underlines the sense of an intense fever-dream. If this is minor Kurosawa, it’s major minor Kurosawa.

On the other hand, I Live in Fear (1955) is major Kurosawa, and perhaps this will finally be understood if enough people see it. This is Kurosawa’s Godzilla movie.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: Wait a minute, Kurosawa’s Godzilla movie was one of the segments of the magisterial late masterpiece Dreams (1990). That’s what you were thinking, right? Well, the two works are linked, since one attempts to present the undiluted dream, while I Live in Fear (also known as Record of a Living Being) is the waking drama of the dreamer.

A Godzilla movie addresses the two grim, overwhelming facts of postwar Japan: the traumatic past and the dreadful future. The past means war and images of destroyed cities: the nuclear victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the actually more widespread devastation of the firebombed Tokyo. The future means war and further nuclear destruction, this time as Japan is caught between the US and USSR, both frighteningly near with their atomic tests. Godzilla movies address these topics directly as well as mythically and metaphorically; their science-fiction formula is ultimately cathartic and hopeful. The specific seed of the first Godzilla movie in 1954 was an incident of that year when two fishermen were contaminated by fallout from American nuclear tests, an event that catalyzed the country’s ambiguous fears and feelings about its relations to the US, now that the postwar economic miracle was finally occurring.


I Live in Fear

I Live in Fear


Kurosawa, living in the same country and partaking of the same zeitgeist that spawned the Godzilla movies, chose to make a film that addressed these issues without the metaphor, catharsis, and hope. Mifune plays an industrialist paralyzed by fear of a coming nuclear apocalypse. It leads him to breakdown as he attempts to convince his family of the danger and alert them to what they must do (pull up stakes and move to South America), while their loyalties are increasingly torn between love and rage.

It’s an impasse created by his own sense of historical complicity and guilt and their desire to avoid all bad issues and move on, and by his own willful, active nature against their inertia and devotion to the system. Nothing will help this man but extensive therapy, and the film dwells so convincingly in his helpless paranoia, or rather his embodiment is so unnervingly convincing, that the viewer begins to wonder how this uncanny and uncomfortable scenario can end. Will his certainty conjure the apocalypse into being? Call it Waiting for Godzilla.

Of course, the monster doesn’t arrive because this isn’t a science fiction movie, but Kurosawa’s message is the flipside of One Wonderful Sunday, which suggests that optimistic belief can have positive effects. Here, belief is equally powerful in its effects, though not for the good. It seems to be a parable suggesting that nuclear apocalypse is possible precisely because there are those in the world who believe in it, who commit themselves to it, and these people are sure to bring about destruction for themselves and others. But will the destruction come from those who fear it or those who ignore it? It’s a valid scenario for fear, a study of “fear itself”. Many films of that era (and before, and after) tap into fear and paranoia but not many address this particular topic and this particular facet of how we become the reality we create.

Rating:

Michael Barrett is a San Antonio-based freelance writer who tries not to leave the house. He has degrees from Trinity University in San Antonio and University of California at Davis. He watches one film a day. In addition to his features and reviews on PopMatters, see also his PopMatters column, Canon Fodder. Since the early '90s he has written a monthly video column for the San Antonio Express-News, and his national publications include Library Journal and the Chicago-based Nostalgia Digest.


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