This is the latest installment in a survey of Akira Kurosawa movies, mostly from early in his career and never seen by me before. Given a choice between Netflix rentals and the risk of crappy movies and bedbugs at my local Cineplex, there’s no contest.
As you may know, Kurosawa adapted Shakespeare’s King Lear in the 1985 Ran. But in 1955, he had his first shot at adapting the tragedy in 1955 with I Live in Fear, a movie that starred Toshiro Mifune as Kiichi Nakajima, the elderly owner of an iron foundry who has become paralyzed by fear over the threat of nuclear war. In the opening scene, he is in family court surrounded by his many children and grandchildren (including a number from his two mistresses) who want him judged incompetent. They want to prevent him from selling the foundry and using the proceeds to buy a ranch in Brazil where he is convinced that will elude the fallout from nuclear war.
A heavily made-up Toshiro Mifune as a Lear-like figure
Even though he has offered to bring everybody along with him, where they will continue to receive the allowances they now receive, they refuse to go. They clearly view him as having lost his mind. Not only do they understand that Brazil is no haven from all-out nuclear war, they also have ties to Japan that they do not want to break. The irony, of course, is that Nakajima’s fears are not that irrational. In 1955, Japan was only 10 years removed from Hiroshima and Nagasaki as well as the recipient of radioactive rain, courtesy of American H-Bomb testing in the South Pacific.
I can recommend I Live in Fear despite a couple of problems. Toshiro Mifune is actually quite believable in a role that arguably should have been performed by a true oldster but has a limited range of emotions to convey. He is either in a state of rage over the refusal of his offspring to come to Brazil with him or in a total state of panic fearing nuclear war. The other characters are not that well-developed as well, mostly expressing the venality of King Lear’s daughters and little else.
The movie has a stunning climax, however, in which Nakajima finally goes off the deep end.
I recommend the Turner Classic Movies website article on the movie:
Kurosawa later claimed that I Live in Fear was inspired by conversations he had with his longtime film composer Fumio Hayasaka, who had become seriously ill during the making of Seven Samurai. Hayasaka had said to him, “The world has come to such a state that we don’t really know what is in store for us tomorrow. I wouldn’t even know how to go on living – I’m that uncertain. Uncertainties, nothing but uncertainties. Every day there are fewer and fewer places that are safe. Soon there will be no place at all.” These thoughts eventually led to a screenplay about the nuclear age and a man who was driven insane by it but at first, Kurosawa wanted to approach it as a satire. “But how do you make a satire on the H-bomb?” he asked. Instead his story became a tragedy and the somber tone deepened when Hayasaka succumbed to tuberculosis during the film’s production.
When he wasn’t drawing from Shakespeare, Kurosawa turned eastwards toward Russia. As a long-time Russian literature devotee, something like Maxim Gorky’s Lower Depths would prove irresistible. It is structured around an ensemble cast of humble people such as the kind found in Seven Samurai.
Apparently Kurosawa’s adaptation is quite faithful to the original, including much of the dialog. He relocates Gorky’s play to the 19th century Edo period, one which shared the economic misery of Russian Czarism. Gorky of course was a Marxist revolutionary who became close friends with Lenin. After growing disenchanted with Bolshevik rule in the USSR, he moved to Italy. He eventually returned to Russia and became an apologist for Stalin. Some argue that this was motivated primarily by economic duress just as was the case of G.W. Pabst’s return to Nazi Germany.
Despite the author’s leftwing politics, Lower Depths was anything but socialist agitprop. The story is much more evocative of a Eugene O’Neill play with its characters lost in booze-soaked reverie, especially The Iceman Cometh.
Nearly all of the action in Kurosawa’s version takes place in a barn-like structure where the characters live pretty much like in the Bowery flophouses of yore. There is very little action as such. Instead the movie consists of dialog between one denizen and the other, mostly along the lines of pissing on each other’s pipe dreams.
The central drama involves a love triangle between one of the dwellers, a thief played memorably by Toshiro Mifune and two sisters—one the vicious wife of the landlord and the other her abused younger sister, a Cinderella like figure.
But the most interesting character is a Buddhist monk named Kahei who offers up wry commentary on the others after the fashion of a Greek chorus. He is played by Kurosawa favorite Bokuzen Hidari who steals every scene he is in.
Although the movie is great fun throughout (despite its grim material, Kurosawa played it as comedy just as Gorky intended), the final two minutes consist of a drunken song-and-dance played by the cast ensemble. It is just one more example of the director’s uncanny sense of how to use madcap musical performance to great effect. Below you can see this scene, as well as a scene from Drunken Angel that I have reviewed here previously and that is also inspired madness.