Having long ago seen the greatest Akira Kurosawa movies (in chronological order of their making: The Drunken Angel, Stray Dog. Rashômon, Ikiru, 7 Samurai, Throne of Blood, Yojimbo, Sanjuro, Red Beard, Dersu Uzala, Kagemusha, Ran), I’ve been watching the early postwar movies available in a Criterion Eclipse (no bonus feature) set. “I Live in Fear” is the most ambitious and is available in the best print/transfer. A tragedy about a raving older man obsessed with the prospects of nuclear warfare annihilation of his family(/ies), that is an easier film to admire than to like.
The one I like the most is Scandal (Shubun, 1950), an indictment of celebrity privacy-invasion and corruption of the judicial system. The young but already charismatic Mifune Toshirô played Ichirô Aoye, a genial and pure-of-heart painter working in the mountains who meets a young pop singer Miyako Saijo (Yoshiko Yamaguchi, also known as Shirley Yamaguchi) who has refused to be interviewed by a scandal sheet called Amour.
She is being stalked by paparazzi (before the word was coined). Ichirô gives her a ride on his motorcycle back to the inn where both are staying, and Amour published a lurid “The True Love Story of Miyako Saijo. Ichirô sues for slander, but his lawyer Hiruta (Takashi Shimura who appeared in more than twenty Kurosawa films and about as many Godzilla movies), who is not particularly good at his job (and knows it), is bribed b the magazine publishers to throw the case. His greed is not for personal gain but to buy things for his tubercular dying daughter (Katsuragi Yukô). As in “I Live in Fear,” Shimura’s character wrestles with his conscience. The second half of the movie is Shimura’s. Mifune’s idealistic (or naive) young hero becomes a supporting character, as Yamaguchi i,s even in the first part which would seem to center on smearing her in retaliation for non-cooperation with the tabloid press. Neither of their characters is much developed.
I like the mountain scenes, and the far less urbanized Tokyo on view in the second half is fascinating, but the last half seems (in long retrospect) to be sketching for Shimura’s central role in “Ikiru” (though what was immediately ahead was “Rashômon,” an international sensation that put Kurosawa on the map of world cinema).
“Scandal” is not so simplistic a denunciation of the tabloid press and the corruption of the court system as I have made it sound like. The questions about different conceptions and representations of elusive “reality” that made “Rashômon” a term in English for multiple perspectives is at least embryonic in “Scandal.” And I think that Shimura here takes on some of the guilt of his generation that along with the conventionality (in Hollywood Production Code terms) of the conclusion makes the movie readily accessible to American audiences eager for contrition and representations of the American occupation’s reforms promoting Truth and Justice as well as the (fantasy of) the American Way.
Some see “Scandal” as a Dosteoveskyan turn for Kurosawa, though I think that the earlier “Drunken Angel” in which Shimura played a slum physician and Mifune a tubercular gangster is more Dosteoveskyan. (Kurosawa’s 1951 adaptation of The Idiot had 99 minutes lopped off his cut.) I’d say that “Scandal” is Kurosawa’s most Capraesque redemption movie (although the 1947 “One Wonderful Sunday” is plenty Capracorny, too). The portrait of scandal-inventing celebrity journalism has not lost its relevance.
©2016, Stephen O. Murray
The movie is available on he Criterion Postwar Kurosawa set.