Sunday, February 12, 2012
I Live in Fear
Akira Kurosawa's I Live in Fear (1955) is one of five films in Criterion's Eclipse Series 7: Postwar Kurosawa DVD set, which was part of my Kurosawa binge from a few years back. I've never watched this one before tonight.
I'm starting to like watching films for the first time as part of this project. I get to log my first impressions, which isn't something I often do when I watch most films at home (especially rentals), aside from the occasional snide remark or glowing review on Facebook or Twitter.
With foreign films, writing as they play is especially tough. A few seconds of staring at the monitor or into space, searching for a word or phrase or new direction for the next paragraph, can mean missing crucial plot and character development in subtitles I miss. Then I have to back up, start again, etc.
With I Live in Fear, I found myself watching about the first 30 minutes before typing a word. The premise of the film is simple: the elderly patriarch of a Japanese family becomes obsessed with the idea that his entire family will be killed when another atomic bomb falls on Japan. Mind you, the film is set in 1955, ten years after V-J Day.
I Live in Fear is one of the first films I've seen that tackles Japanese emotions about the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. What's interesting to me is how the patriarch's paranoia puts him firmly in the minority, while his family somehow remains aloof. Wouldn't one suspect the fear to be a bit more prevalent in this family? I mean, this is a country that was hit with atomic power, not one that just dealt with Russian and/or Cuban bluster. Yet most of the characters appear ready to live rather than watch the skies all day.
This sort of reminds me of growing up during the latter portion of the Cold War — in the Reagan '80s in America, you still had your kooky bomb shelter people, sure, and they stored food and other provisions underground or elsewhere. You also had your strangely aloof people — the ones who either didn't believe there was any imminent danger, or ones who did believe in a real threat, but somehow achieved a strange zen state of acceptance. "You have to die someday," they appeared to assure themselves. And then they watched Rocky IV or something and felt fine.
Lack of control seems to lead some people to paranoia, anger, and other irrational behavior, whereas many other people — often the majority — view a lack of control with resignation and calm. "Keep Calm and Carry On" comes to mind. Of course, under all that, the anxiety brews.
In the case of I Live in Fear, the patriarch wants to take his family away from Japan to the only place on the planet where he feels everyone will be safe — South America. He's even got a scheme worked out where he'll barter with someone living in Brazil — a person who wants to "return to Japan." As bartering is not a major financial transaction (in his head, anyway), the idea seems simple and easy, but convincing his family is another idea entirely. They want him declared incompetent so they can protect what money they have left. The patriarch is slowly spending them into oblivion after trying to build a bomb shelter and arrange for transport to another continent.
Their case comes before a court, wherein representatives must deliberate whether to declare the patriarch incompetent. One of them says, "his anxiety about the bomb is something we all share. [...] We just don't feel it quite as strongly. We don't build underground shelters or plan to move to Brazil. But can we claim that the feeling is beyond comprehension?"
What we do with our anxiety in times of great stress is what often sets us apart.
Kurosawa films are always satisfying, even when they tackle heavy content. Toshiro Mifune is in proper form here — not surprisingly, he simply owns the lead role. The supporting cast is capable, even the extras who play in the spraying water of the garden hose outside the foundry seem to capture a kind of carefree resignation toward it all. You cannot live in fear, even if you have every reason to be afraid.
With this film, Kurosawa seems to be saying that living in fear is not living at all. In that way, one could argue that postwar Japan was very much like Cold War America. Sure, the threat of annihilation was there, but if that's all we thought about, nothing would get done, and all that constant worry would be our undoing.
People have to get up and live, not cower every time a plane flies overhead or tremble at the sound of approaching thunder. For two cultures that are so drastically different, at our core, we share very human ways of dealing with what we dread. I'm sure this isn't an earth-shattering revelation, but for Kurosawa to put this theme forth in postwar Japan is extraordinary.