Film Forum’s four week festival screening of 33 films starring iconic Japanese actor Toshirō Mifune (1920-1997) and directed by Akira Kurosawa kicks off Friday, February 11 and ends on 30th of March at Film Forum. What is amazing about this festival is that not only are Kurosawa’s masterpieces included like Rashomon, Seven Samuri, High and Low, Yojimbo and Hidden Fortress, but also found are Kurosawa’s and Mifune’s rarities and rediscoveries in 35mm. These have been imported from the libraries of The Japan Foundation and The National Film Archive of Japan. For the entire schedule of films go to their website: https://filmforum.org/series/toshiro-mifune
Unless you go to Japan, or Martin Scorsese and film restoration foundations secure and restore them, you will not be able to see these rare rediscoveries in the Kurosawa/Mifune lexicon. Over the years these films have been given short shrift, occluded by the others that achieved legendary status because they were presented at the right time and place. Nevertheless, the rare ones must be examined and appreciated, not only for their subject matter, but for the earliest performances of Mifune and acute direction of Kurasawa, who also wrote the original screenplays that reveal another view of Japan after WWII. Looking closely, you will find that Mifune was always focused on inhabiting his characters, even before that was completely understood in the cinematic world globally as it is today.
After working in the Aviation Division in the Aerial photography unit during World War II, Mifune arrived at Toho Studios in 1947. He was searching for a photographer’s assistant job since he had worked in his father’s photography shop before the war. Young contract director Akira Kurosaws identified Mifune’s uniqueness and striking features. It takes talent to see the possibilities in others. Kurosawa’s talent lay in recognizing opportunity when Mifune came on the studio lot. Years later, Kurosaw admitted that without Mifune, he would have had no great films. Their artistic teamwork and collaboration produced a phenomenal raft of Japanese cinematic work that has landed on list after list of world cinema greats.
I Live in Fear (Record of a Living Being) Screening at Film Forum
Friday, February 11 at 12:40, 4:55, 9:10
Friday, February 18 at 12:30
Saturday, February 19 at 2:50
I Live in Fear (Record of a Living Being) is one Kurasawa’s and Mifune’s overlooked films. Mifune (35) in the challenging role of a 70-year old foundry owner is taken to court by his wife and family to determine his mental competence as patriarchal fiduciary in control of his sizable fortune and company operations. Alarmed by the the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the radiation threats with 200 bomb tests in the Pacific Ocean and elsewhere, Kiichi Nakajima increasingly is obsessed with the safety of his family (even his mistresses and children) who he intends to move to Brazil, away from the trade winds blowing the clouds of radiation to Japan’s shores, and possibilities of future H-bomb explosions in their backyard. The family, especially the sons, refuse to leave, despite their father’s authority and leadership success. They assert their standing by obviating their father’s wishes and fears, rendering him a mentally infirm nullity. They insist upon the convenience of their fine lives at home in Japan, rather than to adjust to an uncertain environment without friends or familiar resources in Brazil.
The framework of the film is from the perspective of appointed Domestic Court Counselor Dr. Harada (the excellent Takashi Shimura) who takes time off from his dental practice to arbitrate the suit Nakajima’s wife takes up against her husband. The wife is in turmoil, torn between overthrowing Japanese cultural mores and obeying her sons, or standing with her husband against her children’s petition to take fiduciary authority. Nakajima, indulging his obsession about radiation, has been damaged by the devastation of the bombs dropped in Japan and even reveals PTSD (a prescient observation by Kurosawa) by recoiling to flashes of lightning during a thunder storm. His family uses his fears to justify the declaration of incompetence and senility. In a thoughtful, meditative performance by Takashi Shimura, the dentist considers all sides and acknowledges that all Japanese fear the bomb and radiation for good reason. Nakajima’s panic and obsession is more rational than his grasping family would credit him for.
Kurosawa draws the conundrums and human struggle with empathy and richness, revealing that all players have their own agendas, though there is logic and reason for their manipulations. Nevertheless, the father, who indulges his fears goes a step too far; he effects an event, that in his mind will hasten along the move to Brazil, but works the opposite result. Kurosawa reveals the overarching irony that the fear of destruction, too, is a kind of destruction that harms its fearful creator/perpetrator. This is a Shakespearean trope and the film, if seen through the lens of Dr. Harada, truly rises to mythic levels. Consider Japan as the test case, the bombing ground zero of a Christian Church; it is the sacrificial lamb to reveal the results of nuclear disaster in 1945 and possibly forever. This is especially so since weapons of mass destruction have yet to be eliminated so they do no harm anywhere on this planet. We just don’t think about it, nor does Nakajima’s family. Ironically, as a symbolic “crazy” Everyman, that is all that Nakajima thinks about.
Mifune’s performance is authentic and tragic as the shuffling patriarch whose vision is repudiated and vacated because it requires the sacrifice of the familiar and comfortable. That they cannot achieve a compromise, that the family appear to be grasping and cruel is one vital element of this most noxious of all family struggles about who controls the inheritance. And pitted against the sons’ selfish avarice is Nakajima’s obsessive, insistence that the radiation and the dropping of another H Bomb and nuclear proliferation will annihilate them unless they mitigate against it by moving away (South America has yet to establish nuclear facilities, so Kurasawa reveals his character’s judgment wasn’t unsound.)
Kurosawa once again presents the untenable and impossible situation where there are no winners, no heroes, only fools and philosophers, who watch the deaf, dumb and blind act like chaotic rats in a cage. Interestingly, this is not history back in the Samuri days. But the Japanese in homely family terms are mundane 20th century Samuri, fighting threats beyond their control, that the governmental leaders themselves have allowed to proliferate to dangerous global levels, caught in power games, knowing full well what a nuclear disaster means. That is the theme and subject matter conveyed by the extraordinary performance of Mifune, who becomes the symbol for human awareness under oppression, considered demented and feeble, though he is the lone, ignored voice in the midst of his family’s oblivion. Either he is a fool or he is acutely sentient, despite the hopeless situation he faces alone to confront the danger for life on this planet with the only rational action being to flee.
Avoiding/protesting against this proliferation of imminent destruction (certainly the effects of radiation in the cancer rates) deemed an insanity or an obsession of the incompetent, is monstrous. Yet, Kurosawa through his actors’ performances, and the way he presents Nakajima’s terror of a fact that the Japanese lived and suffered with is made more real as his family discounts it and him as nuts. The conundrum of either attempting to confront apocalyptic destruction or pretending it doesn’t exist and living one’s life without reflection, becomes more than a philosophical question in this brilliant, layered film which can be appreciated at its most human levels. At once it is about a family taking the reins of authority and control of the money, somewhat heartlessly because they have a great reason to. On the other hand, their justification for their greed is as senseless and heartless as one of the son’s explanations that we all have to die sometime; don’t sweat the bomb and the radiation that is killing you slowly. Don’t sweat the possibility of a few more Chernobyls or Three Mile Islands? Indeed.
The ending of the film is certainly a gem. This is a spoiler alert. Against his better judgment, Dr. Harada declares Nakajima febrile and demented. After Nakajima admits to criminal measures, after he has been ignored, lost his money, power, authority, family, he still clings to the idea that Japan (indeed symbolizing the planet) is in danger of annihilation. He is placed in an institution where his daughter says that finally he will be safe. She localizes danger only to her father’s mind. In her kind words, she epitomizes the extent of the family’s blindness and deafness.
Of course, Nakajima is not safe anywhere. And he is more tormented than ever. As he looks out the window at the sun, he proclaims that the earth is burning: the effects of a bomb drop or radiation. Or as Kurosawa leaves it up to the viewer, maybe the guy is just uber confused. In the final symbolic shot, the screen perfectly split by a stairway in the asylum, Nakajima’s daughter with a baby on her back walks up and Dr. Harada moves down the stairs. The profound Dr. Harada stops in thought. And, attempting to divine his thoughts, perhaps we remember one of the psychologist’s statements about Mifune’s poignant, desperate Nakajima: “Is he crazy or are those who are unperturbed in an insane world the crazy ones?” Then Harada continues and only the sound of his steps echoes after him, leaving us with this metaphoric film that is even more current for today with the shot of the sun and Mifune’s cries of “burning,” referring to radiation proliferation, nuclear warfare and more trenchant global warming which Kurosawa couldn’t have foreseen unless he was uncanny.
Kurosaw’s original works are his most personal and vital. His characterization of the foundry owner through casting Mifune is brilliant. Who better than a vital, energetic, powerful, younger actor to contain that vibrance and compact it into the habitation of a much older body. And then to create the dynamism of the elite Nakajima who has lived a full privileged life, only to see its possibilities smashed by a terrifying uncontrollable chain reaction of explosions with the power to disintegrate all life? Mifune delivers the intensity of that understanding in his manifested physical panic and especially in the last statements he makes about burning.
In Record of a Living Being (I live in Fear) Mifune and Kurosawa have outdone themselves, not with flashy action, but with understatement and symbol. Kurosaw boldly affirms nothing can keep us safe, not the government, not the institutions that once conveyed us from birth to death. They can’t when science and industry (or digital technology) have taken us on a trajectory that is little understood until it is too late, and then, the effects are ignored. For tickets to see this must-see film, go to: https://filmforum.org/series/toshiro-mifune