When you’re frightened of the end of the world, when you’re absolutely convinced of its impending arrival, you look at others with shock that they aren’t as concerned as you are. You live with this anxiety, why don’t they? How can they be so calm when their end is speedily approaching? Unfortunately, humanity has created machines with the potential for its own destruction to justify some of these anxieties, perhaps even ennoble them, but this fear is really the abhorrence of things you can’t control and there’s no profit in that. That is the central subject of Akira Kurosawa’s I Live in Fear, about a man who can see every angle until he can suddenly see nothing but one and it destroys him. It is a movie of a specific time that can stand, as long as men discover ways of annulling other men, for all times.
Dr. Harada (Takashi Shimura) is a Tokyo dentist who volunteers as a Domestic Court counselor, and he begrudgingly is called into service to help arbitrate a family dispute. Upon arriving at the courthouse, he discovers Kiichi Nakajima (Toshirô Mifune) and his family in a furious debate about something. Nakajima’s children and wife have brought before the court a petition to deem Nakajima incompetent to handle the family’s money. Nakajima, while angry, seems deliberate and thoughtful. Harada and the other counselors send the squabbling family out of the room, then they read the petition, which reveals Nakajima’s erratic behavior due to his anxiety about nuclear fallout, the financial lengths he has gone to to provide fallout shelters, and his conclusion that the only safe place in the world is in South America and he desires to relocate his family to Brazil. At first blush, the counselors think this is a fairly open and shut case. Nakajima’s behavior is far too extreme; he had built his fortune running a foundry on the outskirts of town and to move his family would mean the abandonment of his life’s work and their livelihood. Yet, at home, Harada can’t seem to shake the logic of Nakajima’s request, perhaps even the enviable responsibility of taking those he loves out of harm’s way. Harada asks his son if he worries about the bomb. Of course, the son replies and shrugs his shoulders and smiles, but there’s nothing we can do about it. This is not a comforting thought for those in fear.
The counselors rule in favor of the family but the case stays with Harada. Nakajima appeals and tries using all of his business savvy to organize his plan despite being undercut by his family. Eventually he is far too sabotaged and goes mad, setting fire to his foundry, believing it to be the anchor that keeps his family in Japan. He is resigned to a home where he believes he has escaped the Earth and cowers at what he believes to be the scorching power of the sun.
Kurosawa is often playing on a complex moral landscape and here he traverses what could be a minefield. He’s clearly sympathetic to Nakajima, whose concerns are real and who refuses to put his head in the ground<<SAND? like those around him. “Everyone dies,” Nakajima says, “but I won’t be murdered.” Kurosawa also doesn’t damn Harada and the other counselors, who must find that it isn’t reasonable for the executive of a company to abandon that company and take its brain trust with him to live on a farm in Brazil.I Live in Fear doesn’t supply an answer simply because there isn’t one. Is it right to abjectly ignore the danger of global catastrophe? Is a life spent in worry and emotional disorder a worthwhile use of the time you have? Harada stands in as Kurosawa’s proxy, as Shimura often does, who is more even-headed than Nakajima but more concerned than his callous family. He watches a man, in worry of his own destruction, destroy himself. Living in fear is no life at all.
Kurosawa is in clear visual control here and he composes some of his finest shots. There’s a reaction shot of the three counselors and their stenographer during a hearing that displays his command of space and placement. Notice in the first 10 minutes during an argument among Nakajima’s family when one of the sons dismisses one of his father’s illegitimate daughter’s right to be at the court hearing. The daughter turns away from the family but toward the camera, exposing her pained expression at being belittled. In contrast, near the end of the film, Nakajima and Harada share a scene where Nakajima expresses his disappointment with the ruling. Nakajima goes on a rant, blaming the court for his myriad of problems, circling around Harada whose back remains always to the camera. We are denied the privilege of his reaction. Kurosawa is less in control of the narrative, which has some superfluous aspects (the scope of Nakajima’s extramarital siring is unnecessary), and the final third gets away from him from time to time, but he’s still able to develop powerful moments when the movie requires it.
When Nakajima burns down the foundry, his hair is stark white and he’s dressed in a ragged kimono. He looks like something out of a medieval ghost story such as Shindo’s Kuroneko (1968), Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu (1953), or Kurosawa’s next movie, in which Mifune would star, Throne of Blood (1957). Look at the sadness in which he desperately tries to justify his actions when his employees inform him that while he and his family are off in São Paulo, they are now out of jobs. “I’ll take you as well!” he screams from his knees. “I’ll find a way to get you all there.” Faced with the unyielding truth that the world is an unsafe place and no amount of money or cunning offers protection against it, his mind simply breaks.
The movie gives us Kurosawa’s two great stars, Mifune and Shimura, who made enough great movies with the director to justify Kurosawa’s place on a list of the finest of directors, just on their collaborations alone. They are incredible performers, ageless in appearance. Both portray middle-age men here, just a year removed from being strapping action stars in Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. Mifune, whose greatest strength is his ability to have a distinctive look while remaining unrecognizable from role to role, looks older in I Live in Fear than he would a full decade later as the wise physician in his last role for Kurosawa in Red Beard. Look at Mifune’s remarkable face in I Live in Fear as he spends most the film in a heightened state of fear, frustration, or anger. His mouth is almost plastic, contorting into extreme positions to best portray his feeling. It’s not subtle but it never feels overdone. Some critics dismissed Mifune as miscast; a thought that is so wrong it makes me wonder if they saw the same movie. He’s a force of nature, in control enough to make believable his stature as a respected and successful industrialist but intense enough to know how serious he is in his conviction. In an early moment in the home of his daughter and grandchild, Nakajima is having a pleasant conversation when the sound of jets overhead immediately reminds him and us of the horrible power that can come from above. Suddenly there’s a flash of light and Nakajima runs out of frame as a powerful boom is heard. His daughter finds him protecting the child in the fetal position in the next room, lying in anticipation of a reckoning that will not come. He relents and rests on his knees as rain starts to fall. It’s one of the saddest moments in all of Kurosawa, aided in no small part by the physical gifts of Toshirô Mifune.
The movie was made 10 years after the bombs had been dropped on Japan and was at the forefront of the widespread paranoia about the Cold War. Today, when science can’t clearly explain why or exactly how quickly our sea level seems to be rising, it remains relevant. One hundred and fifty thousand people left New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Why did they leave? And why did 1.15 million choose to stay?