April 15, 2010

I Live in Fear (1955)
Grade: 66/100

Director: Akira Kurosawa
Stars: Toshirô Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Minoru Chiaki

What it's about. An unheralded entry in the longtime collaboration between legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa and his favorite leading man, Toshirô Mifune. The latter, aided by extensive make-up, plays Kiichi, the elderly patriarch of the Nakajima family. They are modestly wealthy courtesy of a successful ironworks that Kiichi founded and has built up over the years.

Lately, however, Kiichi has become obsessed with the danger posed by nuclear bombs. He believes that a nuclear holocaust is imminent, and has decided to buy a farm in Brazil to avoid the mushroom clouds. His dislikable sons, Jiro (Minoru Chiaki) and Ichiro (Yutaka Sada), are dead set against Kiichi's scheme, which they consider ruinous.

The sons take Kiichi to family court, a panel of three laymen that includes dentist Harada (Takashi Shimura). The court rules against Kiichi, and freezes his assets. Harada is burdened by guilt afterward, which increases over time as the frustrated Kiichi's faculties deteriorate.

The only family members sympathetic to Kiichi are the women; his wife Toyo (Eiko Miyoshi), his mistress Asako (Akemi Negishi), and his spirited daughter Yoshi (Haruko Togo). The women recognize that Kiichi has been the provider, and deserves their respect and gratitude. But they will take no action without the support of the two sons, even though Jiro and Ichiro have not inherited the business sense of their father.

How others will see it. Kurosawa fans tend to favor the Samurai epics, but the relatively obscure I Live in Fear nonetheless merits an imdb.com user rating of 7.4/10, which is consistent across all demographics. Most viewers feel sorry for Kiichi, who may be misguided and ornery but has the best intentions of protecting his family.

How I felt about it. I Live in Fear had the bad luck of following Kurosawa's most famous movie, The Seven Samurai. It is neither as great nor as entertaining as that classic, and it also compares unfavorably with Kurosawa's next film, Throne of Blood.

But taken on its own merits, I Live in Fear is an interesting character study. The regular appearance of Harada, who doubts his own court decision, compels the viewer to question whether the court, or the sons, acted properly.

Technically, the sons are correct. No hydrogen bombs were about to fall on Japan. The family was safe in Japan. But suppose that Jiro and Ichiro went along with the old man's scheme of moving to Brazil. Would the farm there be financially successful? Would the family be happy there? Probably not.

Was the family wealth, which came from Kiichi's efforts, his alone to spent as he pleased, even if his plans were unsound? No, the sons were correct to question Kiichi's decisions, especially following his costly and abandoned construction of a bomb shelter.

The one thing that we do know is that for Kiichi himself, the court's decision was disastrous. He undergoes a rapid physical, mental, and spiritual decline once he has lost control over his own family. But perhaps he would have gone mad in any event. If so, it is best that he was kept from bringing down the rest of Nakajima clan, at least to a degree more than he already had.