Thursday, September 15, 2005

I LIVE IN FEAR (1955) - Akira Kurosawa

When I was a young whipper-snapper, let’s say the early '80s, I used to be plagued by nuclear nightmares. Missiles would shoot down from the sky toward my school, sometimes with Russian writing plainly visible on the warhead. Students and teachers would cower in filing cabinets. And as the missiles impacted, for some reason, peoples' fingers would begin shrinking. The dream would usually end abruptly with me trying to outrun an incoming warhead like some kind of desperate little Pac-Man until…BOOM!
   
Sure, these dreams were far from realistic. There were no mushroom clouds, no immediate vaporization, and I’m pretty sure even Jesse Owens couldn’t outrun a nuclear missile. As for the finger shrinking, I’ll leave that to the Freudians to chew on. But none of that mattered. These nightmares were painfully real to me, realistic or not. Chalk it up to the Atari games, growing up in the Reagan era, or being scared out of my wits by the ’83 TV movie The Day After. However you slice it, I most certainly was living (and dreaming) in fear.
 
Kurosawa’s I Live in Fear finds Toshiro Mifune’s old patriarch Nakajima in much the same mind state and a much more serious dilemma. It’s one thing for a child to live in fear of night terrors, but for the breadwinner in a large Japanese family to suddenly become so stricken by his fear of the H-Bomb that he is willing to sell off his foundry and face financial ruin by moving them all to the safe haven of Brazil…that’s real terror.
 
Or so it would seem. The reason I Live in Fear didn’t really have a deep impact for me is one of tone and perspective. Kurosawa plays this story as a domestic drama told from the outside point of view of a full-time dentist and part-time court mediator played by Takashi Shimura. He’s called in to help deliver a verdict in the case Nakajima’s family is bringing against the old man – they want to have him deemed mentally unstable in the eyes of the court so that he will stop wasting the family coin on bomb shelters and South American escape plans.
 
Shimura takes on this assignment with great seriousness, as he should. Delivering a verdict of “mentally unstable” will ruin the old man and most likely confine him to an institution. His fears are very heightened, yes, but are they completely unsound? (This was, mind you, only 10 years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki) On the other hand, are his fears founded enough to deliver a “mentally competent” verdict that will likely ruin his family financially?
 
It’s a difficult and intriguing dilemma, I admit. But, for me, that’s not where the drama lies. I wanted to get inside Nakajima’s head where all the mushroom clouds and H-Bombs were going off, leaving him so paralyzed with fear that anything is better than staying in Japan. Yes, that would have been an entirely different movie all together (most likely, a horror movie) but I think it would have been a more interesting one than what we get.
 
Kurosawa’s chosen POV focuses more on the financial ruin rather than nuclear, giving the short shrift to the legitimacy of Nakajima’s fears. You could replace the nuclear fear with pretty much any other nameless fear that would prompt him to want to move the family (hurricane, flood, pestilence etc.) and the primary story would not change. Other than Nakajima’s angry outbursts, the only peek into his ravaged mind are the sudden moves he makes whenever a plane flies overhead or a thunderclap strikes.
 
I’m guessing Kurosawa didn’t want to focus too much on the nuclear aspect of things since his country’s wounds were still fresh. And that’s the tasteful approach, but then I have to ask, why deal with the subject at all? He’s not really addressing the two mega-ton elephant in the room.

1 comment:

Jordan Hoffman said...

Shrinking fingers, eh?

I saw this one soon after 9/11, here in NYC. For a period of 12 months after the attacks, I would definitely say I lived in fear. I didn't really realize it until 9/11/02 -- the one year anniversary really brightened me up and, I dunno, gave me a sense of safety. But for the first year, I seriously considered leaving -- I figured we were due for a biological attack any minute.

So -- when I saw this -- I really empathized with the main character. I even wondered to myself, do I have the cojones to say to my girlfriend, family, friends - -hey, I'm splitting cause we've got big targets on our foreheads living in NYC?

All I remember of this movie, though, is the old man ducking whenever he saw lightning. And a lot of wailing and breastbeating at the end.