#13 in my ranking of Akira Kurosawa’s filmography.
Kurosawa followed up one of his greatest commercial and critical successes with a small movie about fears of nuclear weaponry that lost money at the box office where his star, Toshiro Mifune, played a 70-year-old man at 35. This is about as far from populist, humanist fare that Kurosawa was becoming known for. I think it has some niggling issues that hold it back from greatness, but this is a really mature character portrait of a man consumed by fear.
The immediate concern of the film is concern of nuclear war in Japan postwar, but I think the ideas can be generalized to simply fear. The story is centered around Kiichi Nakajima (Mifune), an elderly man of industry who owns a foundry that has stood in Tokyo for decades, allowing him to amass a certain degree of wealth as well as family, both legitimate and illegitimate. All seemed to be well with the family until the fear of another nuclear bomb hitting the island of Japan seeped so deeply into Nakajima’s brain that he started spending millions of yen on a fallout shelter in the north part of the country. He abandoned the project when he read something in a paper that told him that that area would not be as safe from fallout as he had thought, and he’s now trying to purchase a farm in Brazil to move his entire family. The family is not taking this well for a few different reasons, and they’ve brought a complaint to the family court to mediate a solution that includes declaring Nakajima incompetent. For a man who otherwise seems to be in complete control of his faculties, this is an embarrassment and an attack on him, but he’s consumed by a fear that no one else shares at that level.
One of the three mediators is Dr. Harada (Takashi Shimura), a dentist. He hears Nakajima and feels sympathy for his fear. Perhaps, he wonders, his own fear of nuclear war is too subdued. Who is to say that Nakajima is actually crazy? He doesn’t act crazy, it’s just that he’s using his own money to try and protect his family from something quite real that, perhaps, the rest of the world has chosen to ignore. It’s not like he’s spending all of his money on booze, women, and gambling, or even inventing a terrible threat. A-bombs and H-bombs are real things that have scarred Japan terribly in the previous decade. This central idea is really strong and what carries the film. However, the mechanics of it all are overstuffed and clunky, I think.
The family is large. Nakajima has four legitimate children, two illegitimate children, a current mistress, a former mistress, and his wife, along with assorted hangers on like a son-in-law. It’s too many characters to keep track of, and it makes me wonder if this was originally conceived of as a longer film by at least half-an-hour. The mechanics of the actual complaint against Nakajima feels overstuffed as well, overburdening the audience with details of the process that I don’t think add much to the narrative. It’s all over by about the halfway point, though, when the mediation board rules in favor of the family over Nakajima, and Nakajima appeals the decision to a higher court, taking it out of Dr. Harada’s hands completely. The issue with the large family doesn’t go away (I really had trouble keeping everyone straight, and cutting down the family by half would have been in the movie’s favor), but the clarity around the overall moral situation increases.
Nakajima, after his second eldest son, Jiro (Minoru Chiaki) gets an injunction on Nakajima or anyone else in the family accessing the family’s money from the company, runs around to his clients and gets 1.2 million yen they owed his company, three-hundred-thousand fewer yen than necessary to buy a plot of land in rural Japan that he will trade with the man who owns a farm outside of Sao Paulo, Brazil, his way of getting around postwar limits on dollar conversion for Japanese nationals. He has just a few more to gather, and he goes to the house of his current mistress, Asako (Akemi Negishi), where her father, who lives with her, had spent a good bit of some money Nakajima had lent her. Nakajima cannot raise the rest. He’s left gripping his youngest child, a toddler born by Asako, and completely powerless to do anything to prevent nuclear war from hitting not only himself but the powerless toddler in his arms.
Dr. Harada runs into Nakajima on a bus, and Nakajima rails into him about how he’s terrified now because he’s powerless. He had been able to do something to fight nuclear war in his own small way, and that had been taken from him. Powerless, he brings all of his family, legitimate and illegitimate, to his home at the foundry, and he begs them to go with him to Sao Paulo. When they reject him other than a couple of the women, he goes a bit mad, put under by a doctor, and the uncomfortable night stretches out with him waking up to overhear a conversation between his sons about how the foundry is the main thing keeping them in Japan.
The action of Nakajima that forms the finale of the film is the work of a madman, and it has an interesting parallel to the final act of the main character in Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice. He burns down his own foundry, and his madness becomes apparent to everyone around him who had doubts, including himself. Something broke him. He had been going down a dangerous path, consumed by fear. His first large effort to protect his family from nuclear war he simply abandoned without a second thought, spending over seven million yen. Would he have simply abandoned the Sao Paolo project if he read one article in a newspaper that told him Brazil wasn’t safe? Can a man so consumed by fear be helped? Should he have been simply made powerless over his own assets? The movie offers no answers, and this is meaty thematic material that Kurosawa treats gingerly, intelligently, and subtly. It makes nothing obvious, providing no easy interpretation, leaving it up to the audience to figure it out.
The whole film is anchored by Mifune, and he’s surprisingly good. His performances up to this point in his career with Kurosawa have been dominated by explosive physicality. He can’t quite tamp down on that completely while wearing pretty decent old age makeup, but he channels it well. The early and near constant flap of his hand fan feels a little young, but a vigorous old man could pull it off, I suppose. The bulk of the age is felt in how Mifune holds himself as Nakajima. He’s bent over constantly, and his physical condition degrades over time including his wardrobe until the ending where his kimono is open and he has what looks like a sunken chest (accomplished with makeup). He steadily loses what’s left of his mind, ending the film a husk of a man, and Mifune sells it well.
Kurosawa also brings his well-practiced eye to the proceedings, framing things handsomely throughout from tight spaces in offices to wonderful landscape shots as Nakajima looks for land to purchase. This is a much smaller film than his previous outing, and he shows that he hasn’t forgotten how to make smaller films like David Lean eventually did. He did overstuff the earlier parts of the film, but he knew how to focus on what really mattered in the end while providing the kind of compelling opaqueness that one can find in serious drama. This feels like Kurosawa using a smaller scale to stretch himself in a different direction. It’s largely successful with a great ending.