Sunday, February 28, 2010

Film Review: I Live In Fear

"I Live In Fear" **** (out of ****)

Recently I've been going through a Jean-Pierre Melville/ Akira Kurosawa kick. And, as far as kicks go, few are better. My goal has been to see every Kurosawa film made from "Rashomon" (1950), his first international success, onwards. I am currently two films away from achieving that goal. Many of these films are lesser known titles such as this one. When we think of the great Japanese filmmaker our minds instantly recall "Rashomon", "Seven Samurai" (1954) and his countless other masterpieces from the 1950s. But these beginning films in Kurosawa's career are worth watching and no film lover should go without seeing them.

It sort of goes without saying, but, I'll say it anyway. First of all, I'm someone who believes in the "auteur theory", the idea that certain filmmakers have an immediate recognizable style which can be detected from their use of camera, lighting, or themes. As a result of this, I find the more films I see by a particular director, the more I understand their work. I believe if you watch most director's work, in chronological order, you will notice changes in their work. You will begin to notice a certain maturity and development of style. You will see them grow as artists. This has been my experience with filmmakers such as Bernardo Bertolucci and Bela Tarr, two directors whose films I have seen all of. And now I'm starting to understand Kurosawa better.

For years I have known that Kurosawa was not as respected in Japan as he was in America. His films were considered "too Western" as oppose to the work of Yasujiro Ozu. But I couldn't figure out why. Now I understand. After watching "Stray Dog" (1949) and "Drunken Angel" (1948), two of his better known early films, it all makes sense. While both of those movies are good, they are really "good American" noir films. They are very stylish and clearly show talent on Kurosawa's part, but, I can see why Japanese audiences couldn't relate. The films do in a small way address topical problems, well, "Stray Dog" does anyway, but the look and feel of the films stem from a typical American product. I would be very surprised if Kurosawa was not influenced by American films when he made those two. And that is what makes "I Live in Fear" (1955) so special. Here we have a distinctly "Japanese" film yet its theme is universal.

The title of the film pretty much gives everything away. We follow Kiichi Nakajima (Toshiro Mifune), a man who is afraid to live in Japan due to the threat of atomic warfare. He wants to move his family to Brazil. His children think he is crazy and unstable. They refuse to leave and take him to a domestic court to have him declared unfit, as a result he would no longer be in charge of finances.

Given the year the film was made we should be able to see how a film such as this would be able to resonate with a 50s audience. Of course Japan was the victim of the atomic bomb after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Combined, some reports have suggested, 140,000 deaths were the immediate results of the attack, not to mention deaths due to radiation, some reports suggest it is still in the air. And of course for an American audience the 50s represented the "Cold War" where the threat of war loomed daily. So the fears of the character were not unlike the fears of everyday people.

The movie has a message about society and man's inability to live in peace and desire to destroy. In some ways I thought of another master work by Kurosawa, "Dodes'ka-den" (1970), which I have also reviewed. Here though, Kurosawa, for what seems to be the first time, is making a "Japanese" film. He is addressing the concerns of the homeland.

What I also find interesting about the film is how a sort of generation gap is presented. The people representing the court are older men, and one in particular takes sympathy with Nakajima, a dentist, Dr. Harada (Takashi Shimura). He can understand these fears but the younger people do not. We are all going to die anyway they say. Why move. They are beginning to settle. They are starting their careers. But many have left and headed to South America.

If a viewer finds they are unable to relate to the fears of the main character, I would suggest thinking back to September 11th. After the attack there was a fear that it would happen again. The big question was when. Keep that in mind when watching the film.

And I have to say sometime about Toshiro Mifune, Kurosawa's most frequent collaborator, in total they worked on 15 films together. He was such a versatile actor. He is perfectly able to flesh out this character. It doesn't feel cliche. It could have been. But both he and Kurosawa make this man a human being. And it is amazing how Mifune transforms himself.

The film was nominated for the palme d'or at Cannes and too bad it didn't win or receive more award nominations. I think this is one of Kurosawa's great films.