1 April 2008 | MisterWhiplash
what is an existential threat in a post-nuclear age? Kurosawa asks this in near-excellent film
In any other hands the weight of the subject matter of I Live in Fear (or Record of a Living Being, which may or may not be the more accurate title) would be handled with the ham-fisted pounding-over-the-head drive of a Paul Haggis. Under Akira Kurosawa's direction, however, there's somehow subtlety, or at least ambiguity, in how the characters are depicted in the scope of the message.
It might have even seemed a little more dated- total blind fear and paranoia about the possibility of *the* bomb falling down and wiping out civilization- if not for the current state of affairs, in some parts of the world, regarding terrorism. What is it to be loaded up, whether it's from seeing it first hand (which isn't to downplay the tragedy of that experience) or being affected by media hype or propaganda, and made to believe that getting murdered in such a way to consider it an existential threat? How does one contemplate something, like nuclear threats or terrorism? Mifune's character, in a sense, might not be totally wrong. It's nothing to be ashamed of to take precautions to protect your family (in ten years Kiichi Nakajima has had the H-Bomb threat on his mind). It's the extreme nature that throws his big family for a loop - taking everyone off to Brazil (you know, like the song, as well as South America) - to avoid the nuclear fallout from the presumed bomb drop. This includes a bitter family battle over his right to do this, or to sell the factory he owns and his family and others work at, and just how much to take him seriously.
What ends up happening in Kurosawa's treatment of Nakajima isn't hitting you over the head with its message, be it that there is a big danger of the bomb or that you need to take care of the mentally ill no matter if they're right or wrong. It's about Nakajima in the scope of his family. The H-bomb fear is real for him, but it's seen by the family in a split vision- some will go wherever he wants to, and some want him committed and look to pilfer his will- that brings the drama. In fact, as one of Kurosawa's lessor seen works (i.e. not as well-known as his classics from the 50s Seven Samurai, Ikiru), it's one of his most compelling.
And Kurosawa has two gambles that he takes with the film, the kind that if they go wrong will affect the film in a negative way. The first is Mifune's performance. At first one might think he's playing it without much dimension, but there's something about his physical transformation that makes it a unique performance- almost an embodiment, to say it pretentious-like- one that makes Nakajima a purely neurotic character, with his big round glasses, buzz-cut hair, and grizzled, old look. We've never seen Mifune like this, and he adds great little note to a career that seems to be filled with mostly BIG performances (i.e. Throne of Blood) or star vehicles. There's that extra bit of effort, as Kurosawa does in the writing and spare direction, to add some humanity to a part that should be cut and dry. Anyone who wants to see Mifune the 'actor', should check out this or Samurai Rebellion for sure, as opposed to the 'bad-ass' of Yojimbo.
The second thing is the music, or what appears to be a lack thereof. The original composer apparently died midway through and was replaced, but it's ironic since I don't notice much of a music score at all during the film. There's the opening theme, which is quite extraordinary, but a lot of times we're just left in these awkward, tense dramatic scenes (like the Office, only not funny). Unlike other Kurosawa small-scale dramas where the music is piled on a bit (Scandal comes to mind), this is just very bare-bones in relation to the material. It's a little startling after a while, but it works. A-