It had been too long since a Kurosawa viewing, and certainly too long since a first-time viewing. Hadn’t seen the alternately titled I Live In Fear or Record of a Living Being on account of its exclusion from Criterion’s standard-disc collection and subsequent inclusion in the Eclipse set “Postwar Kurosawa.” Ultimately, this is probably more fitting, as the film is distinctly “postwar”; it’s not only situated in that era, but its narrative revolves around psychological fallout from wartime trauma. One forgets how tight, cohesive, and technically flawless are most of Kurosawa’s films, and this one is no exception. The director believed that a good film should be interesting and easy to understand. Kurosawa had a remarkable ability to make films that fit those terms without being simplistic. I Live In Fear is, in one sense, Kurosawa’s most Ozu-like film; the camera work is static and the spatial settings are contemporary and largely restricted to the domestic sphere. Unlike many Ozu films, however, the family patriarch is not well-respected, although here the question of whether he should be respected is central. (Ozu tends to take it more for granted that the older generation is getting the shaft from their kids.)
Other postwar Kurosawa films interact with similar themes as I Live In Fear, but they do so much less overtly. The threat of nuclear annihilation and its accompanying myopia is confronted head-on in this film. The question essentially is whether it’s insane to worry about it or insanely ignorant not to worry about it. The film begins and (basically) ends with the viewer sutured to Takashi Shimura’s character, an everyman, a dentist, a typical but upstanding citizen who does his community a service by working in a judicial role on a family court. In the film’s background is his son, a fellow dentist working at his father’s practice who embodies the film’s worry that the younger generation lives for the moment and doesn’t take responsibility beyond the individual level. This is a major Kurosawa theme, one that he visits directly in films like Stray Dog and High and Low. Individual moral responsibility is critical; however, part and parcel to it is collective, national responsibility, a characteristic that the Japanese people arguably neglected or lost following (and arguably as a result of) the postwar US occupation. At one point the son of Shimura’s character explicitly verbalizes his rejection of community responsibility. He stands opposed to his father, whose willing participation on a family council sets him apart as something of a quiet postwar hero of Japan. Kurosawa maintains a strikingly consistent balance in his films of this period (and perhaps beyond) between individual moral responsibility and greater social ethics.
There’s no heroic figure in this film, though, although Shimura’s character comes closest. His ultimate questioning as to what to do and how to live puts him in rather neutral territory. While we are witness to the family’s despicable treatment and disrespect of their father, he is certainly no saint. Aside from his obsession with the threat of the bomb, he openly has children with three mistresses, two of whom remain part of his life. He even insists on bringing his illegitimate families with him to Brazil, an arbitrary destination that, he is convinced, is safe from the bomb threat. While not a primary focus of the film, this aspect of the father’s life openly and clearly keeps the viewer from pitying him too much or viewing him as an essentially good person. The unwanted kindness that he forces upon his family seems ultimately self-centered. He is more concerned with how he is perceived and with maintaining his status as a successful patriarch than he is of what is reasonable or best for his family. This ranges from his marital infidelities to his refusal to listen to his sons and daughters. Moreover, the fact that most of his children do not respect him suggests that his parenting hasn’t commanded respect from them. Lest we get the wrong idea, Kurosawa doesn’t romanticize the past. It’s not as if prewar Japan is an Eden to regain. As for the future, it’s left open and uncertain. Concerns are raised, but no actions are taken. On the contrary, inaction itself seems to drive the family patriarch literally insane. Would they only have heeded his original fears, whether legitimate or not, the family may have retained its integrity. The role of well-meaning citizens acting as judges in family courts may be inept, as some of them are willing to admit. Still, this doesn’t answer the lingering question of what to do in response to this numinous threat. The film ends by turning the question toward the audience, and expanding it past the mere question of the bomb. Even more overarching questions of individual social and moral responsibility become central, in classic Kurosawa fashion.