Akira Kurosawa’s 15th film doesn’t enjoy the continued popularity of the works that bookcase it, Seven Samurai and Throne of Blood. Nor is it as widely available. I saw it for the first time only a few years ago at the Castro. My second viewing happened on DVD Sunday night, as part of my current project to watch all of Kurosawa’s films (at least, all that are available) in chronological order.
Record of a Living Being (also known as I Live in Fear) deserves its obscurity to some extent. While it’s a good film, it’s hardly a great one. It’s easily the worst work from Kurosawa’s best period. (On the other hand, it’s obscurity can be partially blamed on its being a small, contemporary family drama made in between two ambitious and action-packed period pieces.)
The story concerns an aging industrialist (Toshiro Mifune, made up to look twice his 35 years) driven insane, or at least irrational, by his fear of the the atom bomb. Convinced that only people in South America will survive World War III, he wants to move his entire family to Brazil. That includes his wife, mistress, ex-mistress, assorted children–legitimate and illegitimate–and children’s spouses. His family is trying to declare him mentally incompetent before he wastes all of his money on this endeavor.
Kurosawa probably intended I Live in Fear as a comment on the impossibility of living a normal life in the nuclear age. Such feelings were far more common in the 1950s than they are today, and more so in Japan than in any other country (the original Godzilla, a more commercial riff on those fears, came out the year before Kurosawa’s film). People were still getting used to the very idea of nuclear disaster, and open air, radiation-spewing weapon tests were common. Japan, of course, was (and still is) the only country ever attacked by atom bombs.
Mifune’s character was probably meant to be prophetic, as if we would all feel that way if we saw clearly. But today, he comes off as simply mentally unstable, turning the movie into a family drama about a patriarch losing his mind. Some relatives are concerned about his well-being and happiness, but others care only for their threatened inheritance. These conflicts make for good drama, but I Live in Fear is no longer the big message picture Kurosawa intended.
When I first read about Record of a Living Being, decades before I saw it, I wondered why Kurosawa cast Mifune in the lead, rather than the older Takashi Shimura. When I saw the movie, I understood. The character has an intensity that the low-key Shimura lacked. And even with aging make-up, Mifune seems far more likely to have fathered multiple illegitimate children. There are reasons some actors become movie stars and others don’t.
Shimura has a good role, however. He plays a dentist who volunteers for the special family court that hears the suit over mental competence. We see much of the story through his eyes, as he becomes fascinated with this man and his family.
It’s a step down from the lead roles he played in Ikiru and Seven Samurai, but still better than the parts Kurosawa would give him in the future.