“I Live in Fear” (Ikimono no kiroku, 1955, also released as “Record of a Living Being”) provided a chance for Mifune Toshiro to go mad onscreen, less picturesquely than the woods advancing on his castle as the Japanese Macbeth at the end of “Throne of Blood” (Kumonosu jô, 1957). Before being haunted about the need to remove his family to Brazil, Mifune(‘s character Kiichi Nakajima) was a conventional businessman (as in the later “High and Low” and, seemingly, in “The Bad Sleep Well”).
Control of the assets an imperious patriarch has accumulated. Well, I don’t know how much he inherited, but he has come through the destruction of productive capacity by US bombings with a foundry staffed by loyal workers, and supporting not only his children by his wife but also two concubines. He wants to take all three women and all his children to what his research has told him is the place most likely to continue to support human life after an all-out nuclear war.
His legitimate children (all of whom strike me as slackers) seek to have their father ruled legally incompetent and to prevent his selling the factory which they intend to have support them in their lives of idleness. (There is something Tennessee Williams about those vying for inheritances in this in my view.)
Kurosawa regular Shimura Takashi plays a dentist who is a part-time Domestic Court Counselor and who takes the case very seriously, although his son tells him he shouldn’t, because whatever his decision is, it will be appealed. That is, another son not appreciating his father’s fervent attempt to do the right thing. (Wasn’t this the generation that supported the imperial expansion? Well, guilt might be mixed into Kiichi’s concern about saving his family from the thermonuclear disaster he anticipates obliterating them all.)
Kiichi seems paranoid, but the danger of H-bombs wreaking damage far greater than the A-bombs that only the Japanese had experienced was significantly non-nil, and the greedy, selfish children’s dismissal of danger was not entirely rational (and the complacency about securing the nuclear weapons of the former Soviet Union and the trustworthiness of those now holding them of recent years is far from being unassailable, IMHO). Dr. Harada is unable to judge Kiichi insane to be worried about the nuclear threat that hung particularly heavy on Japan on the tenth anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (and following upon Japanese fishermen dying from US nuclear testing on the island of Bikini in 1954 and a concern about radioactive contamination of tuna in 1955).
Kurosawa intended to make a satire, but instead made a family melodrama with something of foretaste of the tragedy of Lear, in what was his culminating masterpiece, “Ran” (1985). “I Live in Fear” lost money Iin its Japanese release and was not exported until 1961. It has some astonishing visual compositions (is there a Kurosawa film that doesn’t?) and a bravura portrayal of the bent-over old capitalist twice his age at the time. There are flashes of humor, but I could not claim that the film is entertaining. What it is is a great master grappling with grim subject matter.
©2016, Stephen O. Murray
The movie is available on he Criterion Postwar Kurosawa set.