Tuesday, February 5, 2008

I Live in Fear: Kurosawa's underrated portrait of a country with better reason to worry than most

Another forgotten work by one of the great
auteurs is Akira Kurosawa’s 1955 troubled social portrait I Live in Fear, now available in Eclipse’s Postwar Kurosawa box. As is often the case with Kurosawa, the film has been grossly underrated over the years on account of its didacticism –as though earnestness alone can kill a movie with otherwise compelling, dynamic, chilling and even touching qualities. I propose that I Live in Fear is actually something quite special, rich in atmosphere and in certain regards as revealing of the mood of the mid-50s as, say, Nicholas Ray’s Bigger Than Life or Rebel Without a Cause, films that also feature familial disintegration in a milieu of modernity and progress, as well as Cold War apocalyptic paranoia.

Elderly patriarch Kiichi Nakajima, portrayed by a heavily made-up, yet surprisingly effective Toshiro Mifune, is so consumed with anxiety over the seemingly inevitable nuclear holocaust that he’s resolved to move his entire clan –mistresses and illegitimate kids included– to a farm in Brazil, which he considers to be the safest possible locale to avoid fallout or direct attack. More concerned with the destiny of Kiichi’s finances than with the mortal destiny of Japan, the majority of his kin attempt to have a local court deem Kiichi incompetent and thus unfit to invest the family’s collective wealth in this venture that almost none want part of. As it becomes uncomfortably obvious that those pursuing the claim are chiefly concerned with their inheritance, the explosive Kiichi, whose convictions are as well-intentioned as they are impractical, wins the sympathies of one of his jurors, a dentist portrayed by Takashi Shimura, once again playing the reasonable counterpart to Mifune’s unruly protagonist. (The more I watch Shimura in these roles, the more he comes to resemble a Japanese Morgan Freeman. He’s got that aura of wisdom and kindness, yet can readily possess a daunting edge.)

Though sections are admittedly excessively talky, there are numerous scenes in I Live in Fear that, in their blend of sinuous camerawork, striking composition and percolating tension, deserve alignment with Kurosawa’s finest moments. In one, hot wind blows the pages of a book, while streetcars boom along the avenue outside: this “spooky weather,” attributed to H-bomb testing at sea, creates an unnerving air around Kiinchi as he cradles an infant grandchild while a son-in-law, drink in hand, casually goes on about the effects of radiation and the latest research into the ongoing trauma in Hiroshima.

The transfer on Eclipse’s no-frills disc is very good, and I’m grateful to finally have the film available on DVD. My only regret is that Criterion didn’t hold out for a more prestige-packaged release, because Japanese cinema expert Donald Ritchie would likely have provided a stellar commentary track.

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