Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Kiichi Nakajima: “Oh look, it's burning. It's all burning.”
After the end of World War Two, the fear of nuclear weapons and atomic fallout infected the zeitgeist of the Japanese people. Nowhere was this more evident than in Japanese cinema. The most obvious example would be the monster Godzilla, a walking metaphor for the destruction brought upon the Japanese homeland. Other examples were much more subtle, such as the faces of the victims of the demon-mask in Onibaba (1964) which resembled the real life victims of atomic radiation. But while most films addressed this subject through metaphor or symbolism, few addressed the issue as powerfully as Akira Kurosawa's 生きものの記録, which literally translates to Record of a Living Being. But I believe that it's Western title, I Live in Fear, is a more appropriate title, for this film examines one individual wracked by fear and anxiety over the possibility of nuclear attack. It documents his descent from fear to madness as he desperately struggles to escape Tokyo with his family and move to Brazil in order to flee from the threat of nuclear bombs. The only problem is that his family, and most of Japan for that matter, has moved on and are unresponsive to his cries and efforts. It is through this conflict that Kurosawa paints one of his most powerful, and yet tragically underrated, masterpieces.
I Live in Fear was a surprising choice of a follow-up to his most beloved work, Seven Samurai (1954). It shies away from the thrilling adventure of its predecessor. Instead, it adopts a tone more familiar to the Italian neorealist school of film making. Instead of opening on a plain full of samurai warriors, it begins in a family court room. Instead of villagers, we have simple businessmen and housewives. We find a family, the Nakajima family to be exact, embroiled in a nasty affair. The head of the family, Kiichi Nakajima (here played by Kurosawa regular Toshiro Mifune) is suffering from a plot by his family to declare him mentally incompetent. He has been trying to get his whole family to move to Brazil. This would mean the disruption of the rest of the family's lives. So they bitterly fight against him. During this opening scene, Mifune presents one of his most terrifying performances since Tajōmaru in Rashōmon (1950). Covered in makeup intended to make him look like an old man, Mifune is a pile of uncontrollable nerves and jerks. He spits out each of his lines like a machine gun. Underneath his shivers of outrage (and later, fear) is a veritable volcano of uncontrollable rage. We worry about what will happen when he finally erupts. He admonishes his family, the lawyers, and the judge with a fury bridled with indignation. The thought that his family isn't as scared as he is and that they don't feel any danger at all is inconceivable to him. In his mind, they are the crazy ones for not fleeing the way he wants to.
To hear his voice is to recognize him, but if Mifune had kept silent, it would be almost impossible to identify him. Mifune was a master of body language. Similar to how Alec Guinness played eight different characters in Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), Mifune was able to transform into different characters by way of his mannerisms. We always know that we are looking at Mifune when we see him in movies, but we never doubt for a minute that he actually is the character that he is portraying. Even though he was frequently cast as samurai or ronin, he was able to bring an uncanny sense of individuality to every character that he assumed, unlike John Wayne who always played John Wayne playing a cowboy. In fact, it could be argued that he was one of the earliest practitioners of method acting. While preparing for his roles in Seven Samurai and Rashōmon, it is said that he studied footage of lions in the wild and then mimicked their mannerisms once in front of the camera. His raw, unrestrained performances were as stunning as they were captivating. This ability to channel raw emotion became one of his most important characteristics as an actor. Kurosawa once commented that, “He could convey in only three feet of film an emotion for which the average Japanese actor would require ten feet.” And yet here, he channels all of this ferocious energy into an old man. He walks and moves like a man poisoned with age, and yet when we hear his voice, we are reminded that there is a powerhouse actor inhabiting his body.
We see him evolve over the course of the movie. At first, he is just furious and terrified. Then, as the movie progresses, and it becomes clear that nobody wants to go to he Brazil with him, he slowly goes insane. One of the earliest indicators is a poignant scene where he visits one of his mistresses. As they talk, we hear the sounds of two jets streaking overhead. Considering the time period, we assume that they are American fighter planes. The mistress ignores them and continues to work in the kitchen. But Mifune looks visually disturbed. Then, there is a gigantic flash. Mifune throws himself onto the floor to cover their infant child with his body. The baby is awakened and begins to cry as Mifune shivers and shakes on top of him. Alas, it was not a bomb, but a lightning bolt. As the rain begins, Mifune slowly gets up only to be admonished by his mistress. She thinks that he overreacted and may have hurt the baby. It appears that she is not afraid of atomic annihilation.
This touches on one of the key themes of this movie: the gap between the generations that lived through the bomb and the generation raised during the economic miracle. To Mifune's character, the nuclear bomb is a very real threat. Having lived through World War Two and witnessed the devastation of Japan first hand, he knows instinctively fears threats of nuclear attack. His children, and the rest of the public in general, have moved on. They had no cause to brood or be scared of a nuclear attack. Tokyo has been reconstructed. In fact, at no point during the movie do we see reconstruction efforts, rubble left over from the war, or people suffering from nuclear radiation. Things have gotten back to normal and Japan is functioning as a regular country again. The people are now more concerned with their own lives and economic stability. Indeed, one of the key reason's why Mifune's sons wanted him to be declared mentally incompetent at the beginning of the movie was because they were scared that they would lose their inheritance. So Mifune is alone in his fear. Perhaps the exasperation that he felt from an indifferent society helped to make Mifune's condition worse. Or maybe the sight of his children growing up to become more self-centered than Mifune's generation was allowed to be made him feel like all his efforts were in vain. Whatever the case, nobody agrees with Mifune's plans to go to Brazil.
Here is one of the central tragedies of the film. Of course we feel sympathy (and pity, perhaps?) towards Mifune's character because of his condition. But we also mourn Mifune's character because we understand that he doesn't want to move to Brazil to save himself. Oh no, Mifune wants to move to Brazil because he wants to protect his family. This first becomes apparent during the first scene in the courthouse where Mifune states that he wants to take his whole family to Brazil with him, including his many mistresses and illegitimate children. Despite his actions, his motivations are selfless. He wants to save them from a future that contains certain destruction in his eyes. And yet it is his family that prevents him from taking them to Brazil. So not only must Mifune deal with fear, but also with feelings of betrayal.
While I was studying literary theory in school, I learned that one of the key elements to a tragic hero was that he had to start from a position of power or esteem. A tragic character isn't a poor orphan baby (at least not in the classical sense). A tragic character is a person who starts with something great, and then loses it. A tragic character is Oedipus, king of Thebes, forced to leave his city for the actions of his parents. A tragic character is Okonkwo, strong man of his village who is destroyed by the forces of modernization. A tragic character is Kiichi Nakajima, once a captain of industry in Japan, but reduced to an inmate in an asylum. In a last ditch effort to get his family to move to Brazil, he burns his own factory down, effectively destroying the economic sanctity of his family. Of course, he doesn't realize that now he has put all of his employees out of work. When he realizes this, he screams out, “I'll take you all with me!” Of course he can't. But he doesn't understand. There is just Brazil. There is just fear.
In probably the most powerful scene in the movie, Mifune is visited in the hospital by Dr. Harada (played by Takashi Shimura, another Kurosawa regular), one of the court judges from the opening scene. He has felt guilt about the decision he made in the court. He finds Mifune in a near catatonic state. He walks over to him, and Mifune looks out the window at the sun. “Oh look, it's burning.” He is so mentally disturbed, that he now believes himself to be on another planet. The sun is the planet earth. “Look at it burning.” It's burning. It's all gone, now. But the real question is, has it ever been there in the first place? For Mifune, it was gone a long time ago.