I Live in Fear (1955)
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Writers: Shinobu Hashimoto, Fumio Hayasaka, Akira Kurosawa, Hideo Oguni
Starring: Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura and Minoru Chiaki

The Plot: Dr. Harada (Takashi Shimura) is a dentist who volunteers for the local courts as a mediator on small matters between families. Although he seems to be inconvenienced by the position, he really enjoys being in the midst of the legal system. When he is called to another family-court dispute, he is introduced to Kiichi Nakajima (Toshiro Mifune), who is a very peculiar man. He has been called forward by his family who intend to prove him incompetent due to the outrageous ways that he intends to spend his fortune. He has developed an extreme case of anxiety due to a fear of pending nuclear war. He has built a nuclear bunker at this point, but his family is pushed to the point of outrage when they hear his latest plan: Nakajima fully intends to purchase a farm in Brazil, and then move his entire family onto the property. Knowing nothing of farming nor Brazil, his family is naturally hesitant. However, they also fear that their father will leave and take with him his fortune that they feel should be a part of their inheritance. Faced with this bizarre family crisis, Dr. Harada must deal with his own fear of nuclear destruction and toy with the idea that while maybe Nakajima is taking things to an extreme, perhaps he is also taking things to their next logical step.

The Review
Akira Kurosawa has finally popped up here on Varied Celluloid! Who knew that it would take nine years for one of his films to finally show up on the site? To be honest, he’s a filmmaker who continually intimidates me when it comes to writing about his work. Far better writers than myself have covered his films with much greater detail, so what can a simple peon like myself bring to the table? Well, if nothing else, perhaps I can persuade film fans to delve further into his back-catalog to pursue some of his films that aren’t as often-discussed as Seven Samurai or Rashomon. A filmmaker who quite literally helped to develop the language of cinema, his work continues to astound even sixty years later. When I first started my foray into Asian cinema, he was one of the first filmmakers who I felt myself drawn to. As a fan of strong “story” focused films, Kurosawa is obviously the go-to filmmaker within this department. His work has a very universal appeal to it, which is something that average film fans might not expect from post-war Japanese cinema. His work was able to speak volumes to any person on earth, due mainly to the very human depiction of his characters and his simplistic narrative devices. Although I Live in Fear may be one of the lesser known titles from his catalog, it perfectly encapsulates the “less is more” appeal that he usually brings to the table. His work is best described as simple stories that are usually told with a gravity that creates an earnest sense of importance that can be felt by all viewers, no matter what their backgrounds might be. Although few would consider it his very best film, it still remains cinema at its highest quality.

Kurosawa, despite being well known as a narrative director, was also a very visual filmmaker. If audiences take just one look at the character of Kiichi Nakajima in this film, they will realize how visual this filmmaker was. In films such as Ran, he would go much further and show off a knack for the visual that could never be suppressed or denied, but some people tend to forget this in light of his brilliantly scripted stories. Although he may not have taken his camera on a Olympic sprint quite as often as Orson Welles or Hitchcock did, he was a filmmaker who understood all facets of filmmaking and he remained creatively minded when it came to all of these aspects. I Live in Fear may not have much in the way of sprawling cinematography, but it certainly does a great job in terms of producing a very visually compelling film. At times Kurosawa walks with the camera, makes excellent use of dolly shots and at all times keeps his focus directed precisely at what he wants the audience to keep their eye upon. I brought up the character of Nakajima at the beginning of this paragraph because he stands out as a larger than life character who shows the collaborative nature of Kurosawa and his cast/crew, as they develop a character that immediately grabs the audience by their collar. During the very first scene that Nakajima pops up, Mifune immediately takes command of the screen. His mannerisms, the makeup he wears, his way of speaking and the outlandish clothing are all part of what makes this performance so great; everything about this character makes him instantaneously memorable. Although it may seem silly to see Toshiro Mifune, who was only around 35 at this point, dressed up as if he were an old man… the effects are surprisingly well done.

There’s something about the performances found in Kurosawa’s work that is both quaint and profound. It seems as if his actors all became masters of their mannerisms. I Live in Fear is a great example of this. Mifune is ideal in his role, but it is the small tiny movements and expressions that give his character the life that it does. In the mind’s eye of any potential viewer, I will guarantee that they will always picture Nakajima fanning himself off fervently with his tiny paper fan. The grimace that always seems to paint his demeanor, as well as the hunched over walk that he limps along with, are certainly every bit a part of what defines this character. While watching the movie I became infatuated with his expressions, as well as those coming from the rest of the cast. Sometimes the performances are made by the hand gestures and emoting within their scenes. Only two decades away from the introduction of sound in cinema, there was certainly a flair for the theatrical within Kurosawa’s work at this point. However, these performances aren’t hokey or over-the-top, instead they seem real. The way characters are blocked within shots and the investment that the actors have with their surroundings, these all become very obvious to the viewer. When it comes to performances, however, few could possibly think to overcome the delightfully brilliant (as well as outrageous) Toshiro Mifune. Kurosawa regular Takashi Shimura is the more reigned-in of our lead characters, but he still manages to get a very convicted performance out of his character.

Although this is a film that was made in a time that was preparing for the Cold War, and had only recently seen the massive destruction that atomic power could unleash upon humanity, it still speaks volumes within modern society. Although there are very real threats that purvey our reality, the human experience is much more than just dealing with these issues that lay outside of our own grasp. With the advent of 24 hour news channels, and the growing popularity of conspiracy theories that tell us shadowy cabals of bankers are seeking to unleash a torrent of hellfire upon the earth, the importance of dealing with this intense sense of fear seems just as important within the modern context as it did during the fifties. Throughout the course of this film, Kurosawa introduces us to a number of characters, but none shine through as the example for which others should follow. Although this isn’t a movie that looks to create heroes or villains, there’s definitely no way anyone can be seen as being “right” within this situation. Mifune’s character is dominated by a irrational fear (in the sense that he worries over something that he cannot control), and his family are all looking at his money in fear that they won’t be able to take the inheritance. The character played by Takashi Shimura is perhaps the easiest to identify with, however. His character remains in the background throughout most of the film, but he is a honest man who understands where Nakajima is coming from. He realizes the threat of nuclear war, but throughout the movie he finds himself wrestling with his own lacking sense of urgency. These are not simple issues, but Kurosawa handles them deftly and plays his cards like a brilliant poker player. There are no simply answers given, but the audience is left to ponder many questions that they may not have had in the front of their mind.

I Live in Fear is a shining example of what made Kurosawa the filmmaker that he was. All of the positive things that I have said so far are all entirely true, but it is the very simple drama that continues to leave me fulfilled after the movie has run its course. Although it is apparent, right from the start, that this won’t end with a happy conclusion, Kurosawa still manages to craft a very detailed and touching story within the confines of this rather simple family drama. Yet, that was his gift. To take incredibly small stories, and continue to develop them throughout the course of a film until the point where they no longer speak of any one single issue. Instead, the conclusion is a moral that reaches out to all audiences. I Live in Fear can be seen in any number of ways, but it seems that it was ultimately a cathartic exercise in dealing with the cold war threat of nuclear devastation. When all of society seems to be humming along at a fever pitch, it seems like madness not to stop and wonder about man’s potential self-extinction. Although we as viewers have hindsight in our corner, and can correctly assume that Mifune’s character would never see a nuclear devastation, if we place our minds into 1955 it becomes easier to understand where the Nakajima character is coming from. Yet, I also think it is safe to say that if we follow the plight of Nakajima, where we fill ourselves with such worry, it can and will inevitably drive us to madness.

The Conclusion
A touching and powerful piece of cinema, I Live in Fear is a understated and underrated title from one of the maestros of cinema. Featuring dynamic performances, a brilliant visual composition and enough subtext to keep the audience chewing on it for days to come, there is no doubt that this is a considerably strong film. From a normal filmmaker, this would likely be a five out of five. However, knowing Kurosawa’s filmography, I am going to list it as a four out of five. Although it is fantastic, this comes from a filmmaker who has actually managed to make even better films.