Many of Akira Kurosawa’s films which saw the light of day in the late 1940s until the mid 1950s dealt with the cultural, economic and social challenges facing Japan in the aftermath of WWII. In I Live in Fear, Kurosawa investigates an issue that was on the minds of many since their country’s crushing defeat only years earlier: the reality of the nuclear age. The proof, sadly, was in the pudding. Atomic bombs existed and could wreak unspeakable havoc on whatever areas they were targeted towards. Entire cities could be laid to waste, turned into nothing more but dust and rubble without the single hint of any life forms remaining. To make matters worse, the longevity of atomic energy and its many ill effects on the human body could be felt for years following the initial attack. These dark and evil thoughts are what plague Kiichi Nakajima (Toshirô Mifune, wearing plenty of makeup and prosthetic material), an elderly factory owner, who can’t help but fear about the possibility of a nuclear attack that would instantly wipe out himself and his family. It would be quite apt in fact to conclude that Kiichi is obsessed with this notion, almost crazed by the fearful potential of the bomb’s destructiveness.
Kiichi, who has owned the factory for several years already and whose sons have also entered the family business, is so appalled by what might happen were there to be a nuclear attack that he is perfectly willing to uproot his extensive family from Japan to Brazil which, as far as he understands, is one of the most secure locations on the globe in regards to protection from atomic energy carried over from ocean winds. It goes without saying that his family, in particular the grownup sons and daughter who work at the factory, do not see eye to eye with their increasingly paranoid father and do not wish to relocate and begin the entire lives anew in a foreign country. They have begun to take some dramatic measures in insuring that Kiichi does not waste the family’s funds on such a preposterous project why trying to have the elderly man declared incapable of making such an important decision. Senile, to a degree, if you will. Kiichi is infuriated by his own family’s attempts at shunning his honest efforts in protecting the ones he loves at all costs. Their relationship was never grand and beautiful to begin with, but this episode in their lives will test whatever connection they may have left.
I, like many people, tend to agree that Kurosawa’s more interesting and hence more memorable efforts are those that followed the exploits, whether dramatic or comedic, of samurai. There is some true zeal to many of those pictures that captivate the viewer and send them off to another time and another place that sometimes do not want to even leave once the films are over. His projects that attempt at social commentary in post-WWII Japan, in my humble opinion, do not tend to possess the same level of exquisite craftsmanship. They are obviously smaller pictures with perhaps simpler plots even and dealing with issues that are more topical (one could even go so far as to say that these topicality of these films make them ‘dated’). Still, there are always some fascinating character explorations in them. What I applaud Kurosawa for in particular his willingness to give all sorts of characters screen time, be they young up and coming cops, a young and reckless gang member, or fearful old folk. He is a writer and director who was interested in all sorts of people and what made them tick during one of Japan’s most important periods of the twentieth century, one during which the country was at its weakest most point in centuries. The characters we see in films such as Stray Dog, Drunken Angel and I Live in Fear are representations of those who experienced a determinant transitional phase in modern Japanese history, and therefore these films hold a particular value for not only for cinema buffs but also for those seeking for answers in the past. The character of Kiichi, as played by the famous Kurosawa collaborator Tohirô Mifune, earns a special place in the director’s long list of memorable creations. The man is old, living the last few years of a life filled with hard work and strict parenting. He has seen his country suffer a blow at war so unforgettable and catastrophic that there fact that instrument which delivered the blow exists is sufficient for his mind to fear for the worst. Whether any country, the United States or otherwise, would ever think of utilizing the A-bomb once again isn’t even part of the equation for Kiichi. The weapon’s potential was there for all to see not so long ago, and that is more than reason enough for the business man to pack up his belongings, abandon his home and native land and settle in a corner of the globe that he believes, rightly or wrongly, will offer more adequate shelter from any future nuclear attacks.
There are numerous qualities that make the character interesting, but the two that stand out are the setting that drives the characters fear and the stark opposition he is facing from his family. By setting, I am referring to period in Japanese history and the weapon Kiichi fears so much, elements we have already discussed briefly. The other aspect about the character is how noble intentions differ from what the rest of his family believes to be best for them. One simply cannot deny that the man’s intentions are honourable and good natured. Essentially, he doesn’t want to see his loved ones annihilated by the A-bomb. In principle, there is nothing wrong with that. But his paranoia about a potential nuclear attack appears to be clouding his judgement and behaviour, significantly so at that. The family has had their factory for many years. They are well established and reasonably prosper. The war has long been over and Japan is in a (forced) re-structuring phase. Why in heaven’s name would anyone attack them again, least of all with another nuclear bomb? What the films delivers therefore is a conflict of two opposing forces, both of which have interesting points of view. Kiichi, however honourable his intentions, does come across as the one with the opinion one might find more difficult to support. At first he comes across as ruthlessly dogmatic in his vision of things to come and, while he still comes across as pretty dogmatic by the end, we have seen throughout the movie that he genuinely fears for the safety of his sons and daughters, both the legitimate and illegitimate ones. It is a sad situation in which the one who wants nothing more than to do well is the kooky. A claim can be made about the irrationality guiding the man’s train of thought, but how much so? Back then, was it really so implausible that anyone else might try to use the A-bomb? What about tests which incurred the risk of spreading atomic energy procedures were to go awry? The rest of the family might be saner, but the lengths to which many of them are willing to go in order to muzzle the old patriarch are disheartening. They might be evaluating Japan’s chances of survival more aptly, but their behaviour towards Kiichi is far from amiable.
I Live in Fear is small, intimate movie, but one that concentrates on what were huge issues at the time in Japan. The importance of family, its dynamics, what connects members together and the psychological aftermath of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki attacks one takes lightly. Either side of the conflict in I Live in Fear deserves the time to be heard, but through everyone’s behaviour and irrational decisions, nobody will earn the viewer’s utmost respect. Kurasawa understood the duality and complexity that will forever live inside of Man. This is another entry in the long standing tradition of Kurosawa films in which characters are never entirely good nor entirely bad. There is always a way for honourable intentions to go sour, it’s just up to each and every one of us to discover that murky delimitation.