I Live in Fear (1955)
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 humanity’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”. — Kevin Brettauer