Posted by Richard Harland Smith on August 3, 2012
One of the features of Turner Classic Movies’ annual “Summer Under the Stars” event is an associated blog-a-thon here, which unites the far-flung Movie Morlocks in common cause for one week. We’ve covered Gloria Grahame and Robert Ryan in the past and this year the dice have rolled onto Toshiro Mifune (1920-1997). The iconic star of many films by Akira Kurosawa, Mifune is an instantly recognizable actor, right up there with John Wayne and Marilyn Monroe, Elvis and James Dean, but his popularity in the States remains limited. (Trivia: know that “M” on Speed Racer’s race car? Yep. Mifune!) Throughout the next seven days, we Morlocks will talk a lot about the actor’s abilities and charms and hopefully we’ll generate a renewed interest in and enthusiasm for the former Toho Studios leading man. I inaugurate this year’s blog-a-thon with some thoughts on one of Mifune’s more obscure collaborations with Akira Kurosawa: the post-atomic drama IKIMONO NO KIROKU(1955), which translates as RECORD OF A LIVING BEING, which was exhibited in America as I LIVE IN FEAR.
RECORD OF A LIVING BEING was made a full ten years out from the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and in the wake of atomic testing at Bikini Atoll in February 1954. The 15 megaton Bravo test, the most powerful atomic device exploded by the United States up to that time, vaporized three islands and dusted 50,000 square miles of Southeast Asia with radioactive debris. A subsequent test, Castle Bravo, only three weeks later ensnared a Japanese fishing boat in its fallout, sending 23 fishermen to hospitals with acute radiation poisoning and a load of irradiated tuna to market. The United States’ disregard for the safety of peacetime Japan and its neighbors sparked international outrage and inspired a number of motion pictures over the next few years. Widely divergent in tone, Toho’s offerings included GOJIRA(1954), which came to American shores as GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS, and Kurosawa’s RECORD OF A LIVING BEING. Only 35 years old at the time of filming, in the blistering Tokyo summer of 1955, Toshiro Mifune was cast as a 70 year old man — Kiichi Nakajima — an industrialist whose life becomes slowly but irrevocably overtaken by the fear of death by atomic radiation.
RECORD OF A LIVING BEING was made while Kurosawa’s friend and frequent collaborator, composer Fumio Hayasaka, was dying of tuberculosis. Hayasaka had not only created the musical scores for such seminal Kurosawa films as STRAY DOG (1948), RASHOMON (1950), IKIRU (1952), and SEVEN SAMURAI (1954), but he served as something of a muse for Kurosawa, taking an active part in dreaming up the stories that became the screenplays. The pair had intended on treating the subject of global radiation poisoning as a satire but as Hayasaka’s health deteriorated through the late summer of 1955, Kurosawa and screenwriters Hideo Oguni and Shinobu Hashimoto, found considerably less humor in the subject of imminent death. Though RECORD OF A LIVING BEING was given a more thoughtful and dramatic spin than originally intended, the finished film is not without a satiric edge, holding as it does Japanese society under the magnifying glass to expose a surprisingly fatalistic attitude about life in the shadow of The Bomb.
When we first meet Kiichi Nakajima, he has been brought to Tokyo Family Court by his extended family — which encompasses three sets of mistresses, their families, and his children with them — who are petitioning to have the old man declared mentally incompetent. Why? Because he wants them all to move to Brazil, where he believes the air currents are favorable to surviving the atomic winds. Nakajima has already squandered 7,000,000 yen on a fallout shelter in the Akita Prefecture, whose construction he abandoned when he learned that atomic particles were now coming not just from the south but from the north as well. Fearing their father will spend all of his personal assets on his vision quest to relocate them all to a presumed safe place, the family comes together as one, hoping sanity will prevail. But is Nakajima insane? Or is the refusal to acknowledge the very real threat of atomic and nuclear proliferation the true sign of madness? Kurosawa et al do not answer this question definitively — nearly 60 years later and we still wrestle with these questions.
Toshiro Mifune was midway through a run of roles for Kurosawa and other directors at Toho that emphasized his startling good looks, his atavistic muscularity, and an almost feral insouciance. As the wounded gangster of DRUNKEN ANGEL (1948), the young cop emasculated by the theft of his sidearm in STRAY DOG, the rapist of RASHOMON, and the farmer’s son turned swordsman in SEVEN SAMURAI, Mifune was always proactive and cruel. Years later, he would perfect his portrait of world weariness and matchless cool with the double shot of YOJIMBO (1961)and SANJURO (1962), which had an incalculable effect on the redefinition of movie heroism in the second half of the 20th Century. But here Mifune dials down the machismo, hiding his cat-like physique under padding and baggy clothes that make him look like Boris Karloff or Lionel Barrymore, and hiding his magnetic eyes behind a pair of Coke bottle spectacles. Mifune etches Kiichi Nakajima as a bit of an enigma; eloquent on the subject of atomic Armageddon, he is otherwise terse and bullish, spitting out interjections as if he were weighing the cost of syllables. Elsewhere, however, he is disarmingly doting, bringing the very family members who are plotting to institutionalize him cooling soft drinks. (During the extended rehearsal process, Mifune stayed in character, calling his fellow actors by their character names and serving them cold buckwheat noodles in the Toho commissary.) Various commentaries on the film have cited King Lear as an obvious inspiration but RECORD OF A LIVING BEING is as much a page torn out of Genesis as from Shakespeare, with Nakajima a modern day Noah, heeding the word of a seemingly absent God, and building an ark out of cash in the hope of floating his family out of harm’s way. As the story progresses, as the Family Court’s decision looms, and he struggles to gather as much money as possible, Nakajima degrades. Denied the option of direct action, the foundry owner falls apart, growing increasingly more fearful in inverse proportion to his sense of helplessness. It’s a bold move for the Kurosawa-Mifune axis, rendering their man of action as a feeble old coot. Whether it was this stylistic choice that turned audiences away (IKIRU star Takashi Shimura, who appears here as a Family Court adjudicator, seems in retrospect to have been the logical choice to play Nakajima, having been 50 at the time of filming) or the grim topicality of the subject matter, RECORD OF A LIVING BEING was box office poison and Kurosawa’s first film to lose money for Toho.
Word of Fumio Hayasaka’s death at age 41 reached the Toho backlot in October 1955, as Kurosawa filmed a key setpiece in which Nakajima sets fire to his own foundry to loosen the acquisitive grasp of his family on their homeland. In later years, Kurosawa counted his direction of the film’s final third as a failure, so grief-stricken was he by the death of his friend that he could not focus on the job at hand. It’s doubtful anyone taking a fresh look at RECORD OF A LIVING BEING will share that extremely self-punishing view, as the film and the scene pack a powerhouse punch. Prior knowledge of the young Toshiro Mifune is essential for a full appreciation of the actor’s performance here; one has to see the young man buried beneath the white hair and dark shadows to appreciate how fallen Nakajima is, how broken. For the scene in which the paterfamilias prostrates himself in front of his entire family and begs them to follow him to South America, a cursory understanding of Japanese custom and culture is also helpful to understanding the full gravity of Nakajima’s plight and the low place to which fear has taken him. Anyone moved or disturbed by Jeff Nichols’ recent TAKE SHELTER (2011) would do well to see how Kurosawa and Mifune broached similar subject matter half a century earlier — and, to my mind, better. (Having said that, though, bear in mind that the film never attempts to put the viewer in Najakima’s shoes – we don’t see what he sees or feel what he feels. We just listen to him and decide for ourselves whether or not his fears are well-grounded or, as his family believes, he is insane.) RECORD OF A LIVING BEING isn’t one of Mifune’s cool performances — it’s not one, like YOJIMBO or THE BAD SLEEP WELL (1960) or RED SUN (1971) or even THE LOST WORLD OF SINBAD (1963) that the fan-geeks gas on and on about — nor should it be anyone’s first brush with the actor. If this assessment has piqued your curiosity, hold the recommendation in abeyance until after you’ve worked your way through the 2012 Movie Morlocks Toshiro Mifune Blog-a-thon and work it into your To Watch list. But watch at your own peril… your life may never be the same!
The Films of Akira Kurosawa by Donald Richie (University of California Press, revised edition 1984)
The Emperor and the Wolf: The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune(Faber & Faber, 2002)
The Warrior’s Cameraby Stephen Prince (Princeton University Press, revised edition 1999)
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