#22 in my ranking of Akira Kurosawa’s filmography.
The reverse of Drunken Angel where Toshiro Mifune walked in and stole Takashi Shimura’s movie, Shimura walks in and steals Mifune’s movie in Scandal. Inspired by a real life event dealing with a Japanese singer and the aggressively predatory press, Akira Kurosawa wrote a story that starts out as a look at the amoral efforts of the press to sell copies of their magazine and becomes a look at the morality of a weak lawyer in a difficult situation. Much like the earlier film, I feel like the split keeps the film from attaining greatness, but the combination of cinematic elements under Kurosawa’s control are just so good that the film remains effective.
The painter Ichiro Aoe (Mifune) is in the southern part of rural Japan painting a mountain, surrounded by three local men who watch him work, when the singer Miyako Saijo (Yoshiko Yamaguchi) walks by, asking for directions to the next town. Aoe ends up giving her a ride on his motorcycle, and two photographers for the magazine Amour, who had been tailing her on a bus, see the pair together and assume that they are a romantic couple. Getting a picture of them on the balcony of her room for the five minutes they spent together, they take it back to their publisher Asai (Shinichi Himori) who runs with it, forcing the head writer to make up an article about their romance, and prints it. Aoe finds out when he gets back to Tokyo and the magazine has sold like hotcakes. Arriving at the Amour offices, we get a scene to demonstrate Mifune’s status as a very good actor. He walks in calmly, takes a copy from a desk, reads intently for a minute while the publisher hovers over him, slowly becoming more confident that Aoe will simply accept the situation, and then Aoe punches him in the face and leaves. It’s a strangely compelling moment.
Aoe, after speaking with his model Sumie (Noriko Sengoku), decides to sue Amour for defamation, even after he speaks with Saijo who supports him but won’t join the suit. At his studio arrives the attorney Hiruta (Shimura), begging to take the job of representing Aoe in the suit. These early scenes with Hiruta are surprisingly entertaining as Shimura delivers a wonderfully comic physical performance while he navigates his boots and socks (after having stepped in some open sewage on his way there), explaining his theory on the law to the slightly flabbergasted Aoe and Sumie. The way he bends over, carries his socks, and just keeps going reminded me of Giulietta Masina’s performance in Nights of Cabiria. It’s a very effective way to introduce a character and endear an audience to him at the same time, and that endearing outlook is key to the rest of the film.
Hiruta is not a particularly strong man. Aoe decides to hire him as his attorney in the case because he visits Hiruta’s home and discovers his teenage daughter Masako (Yoko Katsugari) who is bedridden with tuberculosis and has the most uplifting opinion of her father. His office is a shack on the roof of a four-story building with a central picture of Masako, and Aoe sees Hiruta as a good man. Hiruta jumps into the work with gusto, but one meeting with Asai and Hiruta breaks him. Asai drops the name of the most prominent lawyer in the city, Kataoka (Sugisaku Aoyama), implying that he represents the magazine, and Hiruta suddenly sees the situation as hopeless. He takes a bribe to throw the case, and he becomes consumed by his own guilt.
There’s a wonderful sequence set on Christmas night where Aoe and Saijo go to Hiruta’s house and sing Christmas carols (in Japanese) to Masako. It’s a tender moment undercut by Hiruta’s inability to get into it because he knows he has a 100,000 yen check in his pocket. He and Aoe go out to a bar that evening, and while they get drunk a man stands up and declares that with only one week left to go in 1949, he is making a promise to himself to make 1950 better. Hiruta joins him with the promise, calling himself a worm before Aoe drags him back home.
The trial begins, and Hiruta obviously and intentionally throws the case. His opening statement is incoherent. He fails to call the three men who watched Aoe paint at the beginning of the film as witnesses. When called out for his procedural lapses by the opposing lawyer (Kataoka whom Asai had managed to hire in a panic), Hiruta just climbs into himself, curling up into a ball while remaining seated. It’s pathetic, and Aoe knows what Hiruta is doing. He’s just confident that deep down Hiruta is a good man and will do the right thing, but it takes the death of Masako to shake him out. The resolution is the sort of movie trial ending where I would assume everything would just dissolve into a mistrial and Hiruta getting disbarred for life, but because it’s a movie that simplifies everything into a kind of morality tale, it mostly works.
If this were Hiruta’s story from the beginning and the movie ended on a more believable note, bridging the gap between morality tale and hard-edged look at tabloid culture, I think this could have been great. The focus on Aoe in the beginning and the unbelievable ending undermine the film as a whole, I think. Still, it’s an effective morality tale that gets to its subject in time. It’s got its heart in the right place and a pair of very nice central performances. It may not be one of Kurosawa’s great films, but it’s a quality addition to his filmography.