Scandal is regarded by many as one of Kurosawa’s weakest films. Kurosawa was throughout his career a moralist, either providing us examples of how people should live, as with Watanabe in Ikiru, who awakens from his death-in-life to fight the city bureaucracy to build a playground, or with the samurai Kambei in Seven Samurai, who organizes the defense of a group of villagers from bandits out of compassion for their plight; or on the contrary with cautionary tales of what can happen with lives lived for greed or for the wrong motives, such as Throne of Blood and Ran. All of his films reflect a deeply moral point of view, but a couple move beyond this to out and out moralizing, and this is something that no filmmaker, not even Kurosawa, can do well.
The other Kurosawa film that Scandal most closely resembles is The Bad Sleep Well, which also tries to expose the immorality of a segment of Japanese society. In the latter, the attack is against corporate immorality or companies that put the needs of those in economic power over that of individuals. Although The Bad Sleep Well begins with a justly celebrated wedding dinner that is among the most brilliant scenes that Kurosawa has ever directed, the rest of the film feels like someone yelling from a soapbox. Sadly, there are no comparable brilliant moments in Scandal, and even the least interesting parts of the Bad Sleep Well are more interesting than any parts of the earlier film. It is not merely one of Kurosawa’s weakest films, but one of his least interesting.
The target in Scandal is the gossip tabloids that arose in Japan along with the freedom of the press that was guaranteed by the American Occupation. It is frequently said that Kurosawa was the most Western of Japanese filmmakers, but he was also the most brutal critic of the changes being wrought in Japan by American influence. In The Bad Sleep Well he gave voice to his dislike of the free market capitalism brought to Japan by America; in Scandal he attacked the more tawdry side effects of having a free press, along with more than a few jibes at the rising consumerism in Japan.
The story in the film is a simple one: a painter and a famous singer meet very casually while on vacation. After they each shower in their own rooms, he enters her room to small talk and suggests a beautiful area nearby she should visit. Leaning out over the balcony to point the spot out, both of them in their bathrobes and towels in hand, paparazzi take their picture, and a tabloid prints stories of their supposed romance.
The painter (played by Toshiro Mifune) decides to sue the tabloid and the most entertaining performance of the film is provided by Takashi Shimura, who plays the seedy lawyer whom Mifune hires out of sympathy for Shimura’s young daughter, who is dying of tuberculosis (a very widespread condition in post-WW II). In order to buy toys to comfort his daughter, Shimura takes a bribe from the owner of the tabloid. But after his daughter dies, he confesses to the court his misdeeds, which causes the case for the defense to collapse.
The only interesting parts of the film revolve around the implied critique of the negative effects of the American occupation. The film constantly shows signs in English around the city and shows countless forms of American influence. In one scene a character is accosted by a tall Japanese man dressed weirdly as Santa Claus, in front of a glass window advertising a Christmas sale. Later we see Mifune’s artist and the singer helping the lawyer’s daughter celebrate Christmas by singing “Silent Night” in Japanese. And in perhaps the oddest scene in the film, we see Toshiro Mifune riding his motorcycle with a fully decorated Christmas tree on the back.
Interestingly, from Drunken Angel until Throne of Blood, every other Kurosawa film was a relatively weak film, the one exception being the consecutive films Ikiru and Seven Samurai. Luckily, every film from Throne of Blood through Red Beard, except for The Bad Sleep Well, is an outstanding film. Scandal, unfortunately, represents one of the “off” years. — Robert Moore
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This article was originally published on 12 October 2010.