Ed note: For the next several weeks, composer and film aficionado Lewis Saul has agreed to supply us with in-depth commentary about the films of Akira Kurosawa, now showing in an extended festival at the Film Forum. Even if you're unable to stop by the Forum, we think Lew's insights will deepen your appreciation of these important movies.Ikimono no kiroku (I Live in Fear/Record of a Living Being) 
PLAYING January 21st at The Film Forum
This is Kurosawa's 15th film.
Some background, courtesy of Galbraith:
"In the Japan of 1955, the specter of nuclear terror was ever-present. The Korean War renewed fears of nuclear attack, the Rosenbergs were in the news, and, just ten years after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki -- during which nearly 300,000 Japanese were killed -- the United States, the Soviet Union, and Great Britain were regularly conducting nuclear tests in the Pacific. These tests begat radioactive rainstorms in Japan and subtly affected weather conditions all over the Northern Hemisphere. The hydrogen bombs developed in 1952 were 750 times more powerful than those dropped in 1945, and one such test, dubbed "Operation Bravo," (LS: actually "Castle Bravo") would turn Japan upside down.
On March 1, 1954, a hydrogen bomb was exploded by the American military near the Bikini Atoll. The bomb's power was much greater than expected, sending radioactive clouds drifting over a 7,000-square-mile area of ocean. Wanderining into this deadly cloud was a Japanese fishing boat, the Lucky Dragon No. 5 (Dai-go fukuryu maru). The twenty-three men aboard were soon covered in radioactive ash and developed nausea, headaches, and discolored skin. Two weeks later, news reports of this disaster began to leak out, triggering a nationwide recall of tuna. Ironically, the day after the Lucky Dragon incident, the Japanese government approved funding for the development of its very first nuclear reactor, and the number of nuclear tests conducted by the United States tripled in 1955 to eighteen from the previous year's six. A grass-roots protest against nuclear testing began in Japan, and by the time Record of a Living Being was released in November 1955, more than 32 million signatures had been collected." [p. 215]
Nakajima (Mifune) is a moderately wealthy factory owner. His family has petitioned the court to have him declared mentally unsound, because the seventy-year-old man (Mifune was 35!) lives in fear of the bomb and is attempting to use his considerable assets to move the family to Brazil, where he believes air currents will protect him in the event of a nuclear war. (There was much emigration to Brazil at the time and, concurrently, the widely held misconception that South America would somehow be spared any deadly fallout from such a conflict.) Most of the family, including the families of his former and present mistress, will have none of it: they have no interest in leaving Japan and don't want to see the family fortune drained by this seemingly mad scheme.
In desperation the father burns down his own factory, trying to force the issue. He finally goes mad, believing himself to be on another planet, safe from the terror on Earth. A psychiatrist (Nobuo Nakamura) at the mental hospital contemplates the film's message: "Is [Nakajima] a lunatic, or am I a lunatic?" [p. 216]
- What's up with all the different English translations for the title?
- The literal translation is "Record of a Living Being." The prints of this film as of 1999 (where I saw the television debut on TCM) did not have a translation in the subtitles, and it took on the name "I Live in Fear." According to Galbraith, there was yet another alternate title translation: "What the Birds Knew" (see note below)...
- Right off the bat, Kurosawa uses his composer to express the weirdness: a theremin! (If anyone knows how to do edits on Wikipedia, it might be nice to add this film to the list) ...
- And who is this composer? Fumio Hayasaka died of tuberculosis on October 15, 1955 In 1955, only 41 years old. It is reported that he was "working on the score" to this film, and is credited as such; however, it seems that Masaru Satô (who would go on to do nine more scores for AK) "completed the score," although it is hard to say who contributed what.
- The depth of the friendship between Hayasaka and Kurosawa is shown in that this film was based on a conversation between the two friends. Hayasaka was very ill at the time, and pondering the fear of his own death. Kurosawa was deeply affected by his friend's passing and "fell into a deep depression."
- In addition to the theremin, Hayasaka/Satô add a mournful saxophone to the mix...
- As I discussed in One Wonderful Sunday, Kurosawa had a knack for making the first post-credit image memorable. He does so here as we see the people of Tokyo busily driving their cars and bicycles, pedestrians dashing through crosswalks, and folks catching the streetcar, or standing on the traffic island waiting for the next one ... all under the credits and the spooky music. Suddenly, a whip pan over a streetcar lands on the window (outside looking in) on the Harada Dental Clinic, as we see the dentist, Harada (Takashi Shimura) moving about. The camera pushes us inside (remarkable) and we see Harada and his son, Susumu (Kazuo Katô). Harada is working on a little boy, while Susumu works on older man -- perhaps the patients are father and son.
- Back to the credits ~ are you noticing how Kurosawa always puts a little fanfare into the music behind the final credit (his)?
- I have watched this film -- I don't know -- perhaps, 20 or 30 times by now. Every single time, I get the creeps when Harada starts fooling around with that horrible drill that dentists used to use and is still the cause of a major dentist phobia from your humble blogger...
- Before he actually gets to torture the poor kid with that darned drill, his daughter-in-law (Toyoko Okubo [no IMDb listing]) tells him he has a telephone call. (She is holding a baby. We will meet her again later, but will not see the baby again)...
- It is from the domestic relations court, where he volunteers as a mediator. Kurosawa and his writers are brilliant in having Harada seem utterly reluctant to leave his poor torture chamber for the drudgery of the judge's chambers. In fact, it is obvious that Harada loves this diversion from his regular work and takes it very seriously.
- It is admittedly difficult to keep track of this rather unusual family. Here is a quick chart:
- His wife, Toyo (Eiko Miyoshi, seven films with AK)
- Their eldest son, Ichiro (Yutaka Sada, seven films with AK)
- Jiro, second son (Minoru Chiaki; Jiro means "second son" as Ichi means "first")
- Yoshi, eldest daughter (Haruko Togo, four films with AK)
- Sue, second daughter (Kyokô Aoyama)
- Kimie, wife of Ichiro (Noriko Sengoku, six films with AK)
- Now for the mistresses: there are/were at least three, one is deceased:
- And we can't forget Asako's father (Kichijirô Ueda, seven films with AK -- a memorable character actor!)
- Now that you have the family straight, you can understand the dynamics of the first meeting at Judge Araki (Ken Mitsuda)'s chambers. Jiro is arguing with various members of the "mistress families" as Harada arrives. As he attempts to enter the room, Jiro mistakes him for some new member of this large contingent of mistress relations, and tries to refuse him admittance. When he discovers his mistake, he is extremely apologetic!
- Note the beautiful ECU on Nakajima as he spills the coffee and Toyo starts to cry.
- Besides Judge Araki and Harada, the other member of the court is Hori (Toranosuke Ogawa, four films with AK).
- As Araki reads the petition/complaint, the actual document is shown as a double-exposure over alternating shots of Araki, Harada and Hori and the family members waiting outside. (Note the beautiful ECU on Nakajima, playing with his fan.)
- Watch how Harada starts to light a cigarette and is stopped cold at just the precise moment when Araki describes Nakajima's fear of the bomb!
- A FADE TO BLACK and we see Nakajima on a bus. (Remember that Kurosawa loves parallel imagery and we will see Harada in this familiar position later in the film!)
- Nakajima is trying to convince his family on his logic re: moving to Brazil. He starts with Ryoichi, the son of his deceased mistress, who doesn't seem too interested. He finds the same reaction with the others.
- I'm going all over the place here -- but I feel it's important to mention that my dislike of Kurosawa's use of music (generally) does not apply to his genius with sound design. A good example is the beginning with that marvelous street car sound that opens the film. And here, after trying to get his family to take his fears seriously -- without much success -- Kurosawa shows us these fears, visually and auditorially; as Asako takes down the laundry (there is a storm brewing, you can almost feel the humidity [remember from above: " ... and subtly affected weather conditions all over the Northern Hemisphere"]), as her father teases Nakajima about his seemingly irrational fears. Suddenly a brilliant white light (is it just regular lightning, or are we seeing it as Nakajima saw it, in a state of terror?) and he pounces on Asako's baby as if to protect it. The sound design is awesome.
- As if to bring home the point about "weird weather," Harada can barely carry on a phone conversation with Judge Araki due to the noise from the storm! But the writers make the point ~ that an emergency session is warranted because the family is worried that Nakajima will ruin them financially. (He had previously spent over a million yen on a now unusable bomb shelter!)
- Continuity is restored as Nakajima arrives home from his mistress travels just as the mailman is there to deliver the notice to appear at court. Observing him reading the notice outside in the rain, Sue makes a funny remark: "Special bulletin -- thunderstorm arriving this way!"
- Back in court, the sons tell the arbitrators that they would "miss the foundry" if they had to move to Brazil. This infuriates Nakajima, who states the obvious, that he would miss it more than anyone -- he built it himself! Jiro and the others state that everyone has to die sometime, but Nakajima shocks everyone when he screams: " ... but I won't be killed!"
- Kurosawa pauses on a 4-shot of Hori, Araki, Harada and the secretary, Tamiya (Yoshiko Miyata, uncredited at IMDb for her sole Kurosawa role) as they stare dumbfounded into the camera. Gradually, the other characters are beginning to at least understand Nakajima's fears.
- Nakajima beats up on his son, Jiro. This action will be repeated later!
- Sitting outside the courtroom, Jiro is badmouthing his father in his absence. Nakajima returns with what looks like five Orange Crush sodas (in glass bottles, kids!) and hands them out. Jiro accepts his sheepishly.
- Susumu asks his father what he is reading (the book's title is translated as "Ashes of Death"). "If the birds and beasts could read it, they would all flee Japan." (see above re: alternate titles)...
- FADE TO BLACK. A car drives right up a steep bank and parks. Exit Nakajima, Okamoto, an old family friend (Kamatari Fujiwara) a landowner (Bokuzen Hidari, eight films with AK; many memorable roles) and the man from Brazil (Eijirô Tôno, seven films with AK; 195 total acting credits on IMDb!!) who make a deal to swap land, enabling Nakajima to circumvent the currency laws then in effect in Japan.
- Ichiro returns to the factory in a rainstorm and tells his siblings that father is withdrawing money. Watch how Sue immediately grabs her abacus and has a grand total the second after Ichiro announces the last figure! (I think it's ¥1,200,000) ...
- Nakajima tries to get Ryoichi to give him a certificate of deposit he left with his late mother. He refuses and puts on a record and turns the volume up to max. Man, the younger generation can be so rude! (If Tachikawa is still alive, he would be in his 70's or 80's by now!)
- He has no more success with Asako and her father. However, notice how much influence Asako seems to have with her man. She bluntly suggests that he just go to the Brazilian man and explain to him about the money situation. He takes her seriously and does so.
- The Brazilian man is amenable. Listen (or rather, watch) carefully as it is this nice man who actually puts a dangerous thought into Nakajima's head!
- Jiro is beaten again by his father...
- Nakajima and Okamoto watch as the Brazilian's plane takes off. The airport announcements are in English.
- FADE TO BLACK. Lots of echoes here: Harada is now on the bus, and he spots Nakajima sitting opposite. He tries to strike up a conversation, but Nakajima ignores him. Harada follows him off the bus, where Nakajima tells him: "[because of you and your court's decision], I live in fear!"
- One of his cellmates tells him, "why not move to another planet?" Nakajima takes him seriously and in his mind, he has done just that...
- "The earth is burning!"
- Notice the going ups and going downs in the final section. As Asako and her baby are going up to visit the insane man, Harada is descending. When both figures are out of the frame and their footsteps die away
- FADE TO BLACK. The End.
- I have no idea if there is some strange reason for this, but on the current DVD the music plays on over a black screen for quite some time.
- A special mention about Mifune's makeup. I don't believe I've ever seen a 35-year-old actor portray a man twice his age with such realism. Naturally, it's not just the makeup!
- Unfortunately, subtract 10 points for Tono (the Brazilian man)'s makeup. It's terrible! Even at a distance, he looks like an old racist Hollywood blackface type; at close-up it's much, much worse!
- There are 26 horizontal wipes in this film; 16 left and 10 right.