I Live in Fear (Ikimono no kiroku, 1955)

Director: Akira Kurosawa

By Marilyn Ferdinand

When is a fear irrational? Is there something wrong with the irrational? Two interests collided recently when I saw Akira Kurosawa’s snapshot of Japan in the atomic age, I Live in Fear, and started reading Carl Jung’s Man and His Symbols. In both works, the irrational, or unconscious, are given legitimacy in the face of an overwhelming reality that ignites a fear that cannot be rationalized away.

The film opens in a dental office, where Dr. Harada (Takashi Shimura) complains about how busy he is with work and with his duties as a court mediator. Just then, he receives a call asking him to report to the court in the afternoon. The case he will help mediate is of a family trying to have their patriarch, Kiichi Nakajima (Toshiro Mifune), declared incompetent. When he arrives at the courthouse, the large family is jostling in and out of a small courtroom, and they initially push him out of the way. When they learn who he is, much bowing and many apologies come his way.

The case, reluctantly brought by Nakajima’s wife Sue (Kyoko Aoyama) at the urging of her children, concerns her husband’s plan to sell his factory and home and move the entire family—including the son of a dead mistress and a second mistress, their grown daughter, and her son—to Brazil. None of them want to leave their homes and lives in Japan, nor do they wish to lose their inheritance, which Nakajima is going through rapidly to realize his plan. A declaration of incompetence is their only option.

When Harada and his legal colleagues hear evidence from Nakajima, it’s hard to consider him incompetent. He has found a longtime Japanese émigré (Eijiro Tono) in Brazil who wishes to return to Japan, shown a film of the farm he will exchange for the factory to his family, and given a reason for his urgency that is hard for anyone to dispute at a basic level—aboveground testing of the hydrogen bomb is to commence at Bikini Atoll. Nakajima asks the court and his family whether they are afraid of the bomb. No one can deny that they are, but not enough to run for their lives. Besides, says Nakajima’s son Jiro (Mironu Kiaki), there is really no place to hide from the bomb since fallout is carried around the world on the wind. But when the elderly émigré farmer tells Nakajima he’d rather have a large parcel of land facing Mt. Fuji than a factory, Nakajima tries to gather money quickly anywhere he can to buy the land, forcing the court to declare him incompetent, an action that haunts Harada. Catastrophe is just around the corner for Mr. Nakajima and his well-meaning family.

Jung has several things to say about the obsessive condition Nakajima found himself in and the results of that obsession:

I recall a professor of philosophy who once consulted me about his cancer phobia. He suffered from a compulsive conviction that he had a malignant tumor, although nothing of the kind was ever found in dozens of X-ray pictures. ‘Oh, I know there is nothing,’ he would say, ‘but there might be something.’ What was it that produced this idea? It obviously came from a fear that was not instilled by conscious deliberation. The morbid thought suddenly overcame him, and it had a power of its own that he could not control.

Nakajima’s fear, though based upon a real, imminent event, intensified because of posttraumatic stress brought on by the atomic bombs dropped on Japan during World War II. In a very affecting scene, Nakajima is visiting his mistress and infant grandson. Lightning from a storm sends bright flashes through the house. Nakajima, disoriented and acutely anxious, runs to the child and covers him with his body. The uncomfortable reactions of his family to his panic only add to his torment. Says Jung of his cancer-obsessed patient:

It was far more difficult for this educated man to make an admission of this kind than it would have been for a primitive to say that he was plagued by a ghost. The malign influence of evil spirits is at least an admissible hypothesis in a primitive culture, but it is a shattering experience for a civilized person to admit that his troubles are nothing more than a foolish prank of the imagination. The primitive phenomenon of obsession has not vanished; it is the same as ever. It is only interpreted in a different and more obnoxious way.

Indeed, the people in Nakajima’s life live in a kind of mass denial. Coming from an island nation with a growing population, the Japanese’s well-known xenophobia makes them resist accepting immigrants and fear aggressors who could cut off the means of their existence. This particular point is brought home subtly when the Nakajimas view the film from Brazil, seeing a parched land populated by blacks—a graphic depiction of Jung’s often-feared and misunderstood shadow.

The Japanese also live on volcanic islands subject to eruptions and earthquakes. Again, the shrewd scene of Nakajima and the elderly émigré standing on verdant land, with a beautiful view of Mt. Fuji in the background, offers the double-edged sword of denial—a denial, for example, anyone who lives on the fire-prone, mudslide-ridden, earthquake-threatened California coast can understand. Such denial is crazy-making for Nakajima, who knows his fear is not irrational. Jung cautions, “If the warnings of the dream are disregarded, real accidents may take their place.” Indeed, Kurosawa could be said to have issued a warning to the people of the earth through his cinematic dream.

Says Jung:

In our conscious life, we are exposed to all kinds of influences. Other people stimulate or depress us, events at the office or in our social life distract us. Such things seduce us into following ways that are unsuitable to our individuality. Whether or not we are aware of the effect they have on our consciousness, it is disturbed by and exposed to them almost without defense.

Alas, Nakajima’s inability to reconcile his fear with a rational calculation of the risks of remaining in Japan, or to convince his loved ones to share his fear, lead to a psychotic break. Desperation causes him to burn down his factory, hoping that if his family has no means of support, they will be forced to leave with him. In the end, he destroys himself, retreating into the delusion that he has been safely transported off the earth when he witnesses a rising sun from his cell in a mental hospital.

It is not possible to praise Mifune highly enough for the performance he gives. At first, he imbues Nakajima with the strong will and certainty of a traditional Asian patriarch, fanning himself obsessively in the heat of the courthouse, increasing the beats of his fan at a furious pace when his family challenges his decisions. His arguments in favor of his position are sound and his actions logically considered for the desired outcome. Yet, we are in the same difficult position the judges are—is it really likely that his family faces annihilation from the H-bomb testing and should he be allowed to uproot them and compromise their legacy and ability to earn a living based on fear of a remote outcome?

Nonetheless, our logic is forced to the back as Mifune pleads with the great love he bears his family to let him save them, to spare “that innocent life,” as he points to his infant grandson. His conviction is heart-rending, as is his genuine sorrow at the plight of his factory workers—when they ask him what will become of them now that the factory has been destroyed, he despairs only that he hadn’t planned a way to take them all to Brazil.

The great Takashi Shimura serves as the Doubting Thomas to our rational outlook. He digs below the surface into the irrational and wonders who is more sane—Nakajima or the rest of the world. The mushroom cloud, the newest symbol to enter our unconscious, exerts a potent force on him, as he finds he cannot dismiss Nakajima from his mind. In this sense, he, too, enters into this obsession sent from the irrational.

The film seems as though it should end when Harada and Nakajima view the rising sun, but it doesn’t. Kurosawa brings us back into the real world to consider the problem he has presented to us. As Harada slowly descends the stairs of the mental hospital after his visit, Nakajima’s illegitimate daughter, bearing her little boy, climbs up. They pass each other without recognition, as the implicit question about the future is left hanging in the stairway between sanity and madness.

  • Greg F spoke:
    8th/07/2010 to 11:21 am

    This is a Kurosawa I wasn’t even familiar with, sad to say. Of course, the subject matter grabbed my attention, as did the fact that it doesn’t take place in feudal Japan. Kurosawa did so many present day films but it seems like, outside of IKIRU, all I’ve seen are the period pieces.

    I like the two tags you gave the post, “Insanity” and “Nuclear War.” I’ve never been able to separate the two in my mind.

  • Rod spoke:
    8th/07/2010 to 11:40 am

    As for other excellent contemporary-themed Kurosawas, Greg, I don’t hesitate to recommend High and Low and The Bad Sleep Well. I even love his oddly modernised adaptation of The Idiot….

  • Marilyn spoke:
    8th/07/2010 to 11:41 am

    Greg – Kurosawa doesn’t either. This was the last film in a Kurosawa retro the Siskel Center held, and I was very struck by the subject matter. It’s very depressing to watch, but a real masterpiece, in my opinion.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    8th/07/2010 to 4:49 pm

    I am not a fan of this particular film from a director I largely adore, and found it the least of the otherwise excellent Eclipse set recently released that includes NO REGRETS FOR OUR YOUTH, SCANDAL and THE IDIOT, all stronger films. There was an uncharacteristic lack of subtlety and the film was talky. I’ll agree the subject is important, and this is a very great review (complete with the Jungian subtext) and Shimura is a treasure, but it left me cold. But I would never question a deep feeling for the film, nor with any love for Kurosawa’s work in general.

    My very favorite Kurosawas are: IKIRU, SEVEN SAMURAI, HIGH AND LOW, THRONE OF BLOOD, THE BAD SLEEP WELL, RAN, KAGUMUSHA and in a minority stance, DERSU UZALA.

  • Brian spoke:
    8th/07/2010 to 5:46 pm

    Terrific review. I recently saw this film for the first time, as part of the Pacific Film Archive’s complete A.K. retrospective, and I really love how you’ve deepened its meaning for me with all of the Jung quotes.

    I must confess that, like Sam, I didn’t find this to be among Kurosawa’s very best works (my very favorites include Stray Dog, Rashomon, Yojimbo, Sanjuro, and Dersu Uzala- the latter perhaps not such a minority stance as Sam might think), but I do think it’s a crucial film for the filmmaker personally. In the interview he does with Nagisa Oshima, found on the latest Criterion DVD edition of Seven Samurai, he says that I Live In Fear was the only one of his films to be a financial failure. Yet it’s clear that this film meant a great deal to him up to the last years of his life. It was inspired by his favorite composer Fumio Hayasaka, who died during production, just before the shooting of the fire scene. Commentators often divide Kurosawa’s career into three phases, but I’m thinking it might be useful to divide what is generally considered his middle phase, his 15-year collaboration with Toshiro Mifune, into two segments, with I Live in Fear the dividing line between them. Somehow Kurosawa’s outlook seems to change at around this time; it’s also the moment when Stephen Prince identifies Mifune’s characters as the moral center of the films rather than Shimura’s. In this film, I think it can be argued that either could be considered such.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    9th/07/2010 to 8:55 am

    I can see how Kurosawa’s towering epics can make this seem like a minor-key effort, but I honestly didn’t see it that way. There are so many threads that connect it to his entire corpus, and I think, Brian, your point is well taken that this is a middle phase work. We can see Kurosawa’s patriarch from Ran in Nakajima, but at a very human level, and this film connects him with the other greats of Japanese cinema in depicting a family in conflict. I agree that either Mifune or Shimura can be considered the moral center, though I rather think Kurosawa means for us to identify with Shirmura’s character, to consider the insanity of nuclear war.

    Sam, I can’t deny that the film lacks a certain subtlety, but I think the urgency of the issue for Kurosawa pushed him to create a work no one could misunderstand. And I do think the ending is sublime, not obvious in the use of the fireball image in the penultimate scene, but lodged squarely in the real world of people connected to one another.

  • Greg F spoke:
    9th/07/2010 to 5:09 pm

    There was an uncharacteristic lack of subtlety and the film was talky.

    While we probably all agree that subtlety is a better approach in art, I must say I’ve never found any Kurosawa subtle but I also don’t think that makes it bad.

    For instance, with Ikiru, it’s hard to label that film subtle while many still believe it great. I mean, the wake scene has the attendees spell out the movie and character motivations as if the viewer hasn’t been paying attention for the rest of the movie. And they keep doing it over and over and over. The only thing missing from the wake scene is a placard saying, “THIS IS WHAT THE MOVIE MEANS:” followed by further placards detailing it. Kurosawa and subtlety were never good friends but I’ll be curious if this plays as LESS subtle than other works of his, given what Sam pointed out.

  • Peter Nellhaus spoke:
    10th/07/2010 to 9:17 am

    Interesting combination of Jung to interpret Kurosawa.

    As for myself, I saw this film theatrically about thirty-five years ago. What first struck me was that I was unable to recognize Mifune because he seems so much smaller than in other Kurosawa films.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    10th/07/2010 to 4:03 pm

    Greg, I understand what you are saying, and certainly the Westernized Kurosawa is far less “subtle” as a rule that his great contemoraries Ozu, Mizoguchi and Naruse, but I found the central issue rather bombastically trascribed here even for his rules. Still, I respect Marilyn’s deep feelings for the film, and woe be me to take serious issues with any film by this titan of the cinema.

  • Doug Bonner spoke:
    10th/07/2010 to 10:12 pm

    Marilyn, your analysis is as unsettling as the film itself. Tackling a film that shakes our foundations is (ironically, considering the title) a fearless act. Your piece makes me realize that I can’t watch this film unless I’m in a very stable mood. Thanks for reminding me of this film’s existence.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    11th/07/2010 to 12:41 am

    Peter – I know what you mean. Mifune seemed overwhelmed by his burden in this movie, much less grand than we’re used to seeing him. I quite liked that.

    Doug – I think I understand what you mean about the analysis being unsettling. The unconscious can be a very unsettling place to be, but it seemed a better way to locate this film in terms of its meaning for viewers than to just say Nakajima was suffering from PTSD. This is what artists like Kurosawa and his cast can do that a documentary like Prisoner of Her Past doesn’t quite get at.

  • Helena spoke:
    11th/07/2010 to 1:28 pm

    Thank you Marilyn for your review of this difficult, painful film. On Kurosawa’s lack of subtlety … this judgement has increasingly become a stick to beat this director and compare him unfavourably with his more or less contemporaries from Japan. But I don’t know one director should be obliged to be subtle just because other directors with whom one shares nationality are deemed to be so. Why should they share the same traits? And on this particular topic of all topics couldn’t one forgive a certain lack of subtlety? In this film, lack of subtlety is part and parcel of the central conflict, inasmuch as Nakajima is talking explicitly about the unmentionable. I came away from the film having been beaten over the head, but not with a polemic. What enthralled me about the film is the way arguments and emotions are presented in the form of an intractable, doomed, ding-dong family battle . And thanks for drawing the comparisons with Ran, I’ve put that on my list of must-see-soon.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    11th/07/2010 to 11:23 pm

    Doug and Helena: I completely agree with both of you on the deep feeling, superlative tie-in with Jungian thought, and the typically fecund writing on display here. This is after all the bottom line, and one would be hard-pressed to find a more informed and passionate defense anywhere on any film.

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