I Live in Fear (review)

re-blogged from Japancinema.net


Akira Kurosawa’s 1955 meditation on the fear of imminent nuclear war flopped at the box office, was released internationally only years later, and remains one of his least-known films. It was sandwiched chronologically between Seven Samurai and Throne of Blood, both great triumphs. I Live in Fear also stars Toshiro Mifune, but this time as an aging industrialist (Kiichi Nakajima) rather than as a jidaigeki samurai. Still, Mifune remains Mifune: intense, emotional, and constantly in motion. We never see Nakajima looking at the camera. His restlessness is a physical analog to his psychic turmoil.

Nakajima’s turmoil comes from two sources, and there are really two films in one here. The overt subject of the film and source of anxiety is the threat of nuclear war. A decade before 1955, of course, the United States had dropped nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the fear of nuclear war was more real and its potential consequences more tangible in Japan than anywhere else. The film begins just after Nakajima’s wife has petitioned to have him declared mentally incompetent because he “harbored delusional fears about atomic and hydrogen bombs and subsequent radioactivity” and put in motion plans to move his entire family to Brazil, which he believed to be the only safe refuge from fallout in the event of nuclear war. Everyone is afraid of nuclear war, it turns out, but remain calm because they can’t do anything about it. In between domestic scenes Kurosawa shows us takes of normal urban life, of people going about their lives as if there is no looming threat. The question of who is being irrational, Nakajima or everyone else, is something Kurosawa never really answers. We watch through the eyes of Dr. Harada, a court-appointed mediator played by another Kurosawa favorite, Takashi Shimura. Nakajima’s “family” turns out to be complicated – he wants his illegitimate son from a woman who has passed away, two current mistresses and illegitimate child by each of them, as well as his legal wife and their three children and spouses all to come to Brazil. Ultimately the court declares him incompetent not because they think his anxiety irrational, but because he proposes to sell his property and force his family to move to Brazil or be left destitute.


The second film in I Live in Fear that Kurosawa gives us is about the fate of patriarchy in modern Japanese society. Nakajima’s seething anger comes from the unprecedented challenge to his authority by his children. It becomes clear that what he fears most is powerlessness, whether from the court’s actions or from his inability to do anything to assuage his fear of H-bombs. The disintegration of Nakajima’s authority over his family is parallel to the potential destruction of the world. In one scene the sounds of fighter jets screeching overhead induce an imagined nuclear flash and a panic attack. He believes that distant bomb tests even control the weather. Nakajima collapses from exhaustion, but recovers enough to deliberately burn down his foundry to force his family to move to Brazil. He is arrested for arson, has a total mental breakdown from his double emasculation, and ends the film insane and institutionalized.

Beyond the twin plots, I Live in Fear is most enjoyable because of the acting. Kurosawa gives his veteran cast time and freedom to communicate internal feelings with facial expressions and body language rather than dialogue. The film is about gestures, about how people communicate wordlessly. There are long takes with no dialogue or music. Kurosawa heightens this in key scenes by placing the camera low and directly behind the main speaker, so that we look at his audience watching him. It creates a suspense and tension more tangible for an audience today than the more extreme fear of nuclear war or social collapse that haunts Nakajima.


The Year of Living Dangerously (review)

Re-blogged from JapanCinema


Peter Weir’s film about a reporter caught up in the social unrest and violence of Indonesia in the fall of 1965 was released 30 years ago. With all eyes turned to this period by Joshua Oppenheimer’s remarkable documentary The Act of Killing, watching The Year of Living Dangerously makes a fine counterpoint. Through the eyes of Billy Kwan (played by the remarkable Linda Hunt), who is both the film’s narrator and chief supporting actor, we follow a young and naïve Mel Gibson playing a young and naïve Australian reporter, Guy Hamilton, dropped into his first overseas posting. He becomes involved with a British attaché (Sigourney Weaver), stumbles around being manipulated by Kwan, and eventually gets caught in a riot and almost killed as the violence began to erupt.

Weir’s Indonesia is suitably dark, mysterious, and troubled. If his goal was to capture the mood of a place and time that was difficult to grasp, Weir did superbly. By 1965 President Sukarno – hero of the national revolution for independence – had parlayed his remarkable charisma and dynamism into a position of international leadership. But Indonesia was a society riven by faltering efforts to democratize, develop economically, fight poverty, and contain radically different solutions to the nation’s many problems. Sukarno tried to balance and play off against each other the powerful Indonesian army, large Islamic groups, and the communists. The Indonesian Communist Party, or PKI, was the 3rd largest communist party in the world, and the most impatient at the pace of social change. Hamilton’s break in the film is an exclusive interview with Aidit, the leader of the PKI, courtesy of Kwan’s communist contacts. Hamilton is witness to the collapse of this fragile balancing act, though he understands none of it. An attempted coup on September 30th coup blaming the communists led to the orgy of murder which Oppenheimer exposes and which claimed over 500,000 lives and eradicated communism in Indonesia. None of it made much sense to observers at the time, and it took years to unravel the trail of events – from this perspective Hamilton is a perfect surrogate for our ignorance.


Beyond the political drama, however, Weir offers us an interesting tale about the photographic gaze. The film is filled with references to the act of seeing: rear-view mirrors, reflective sunglasses, cameras. The camera frequently gazes up from Kwan’s point of view, and in fact Hamilton – not much more than a country bumpkin – is just a foil for the culturally sophisticated and intellectually refined Kwan. Photographer, keeper of dossiers, secret caretaker of the poor, communist sympathizer, Kwan views himself as the one who is able to see all. He is the puppetmaster who uses what he sees to manipulate and maneuver others. But in the end his gaze fails, just as cameras cannot truly capture realty. Kwan gazes and records, but ultimately is impotent, a prisoner of his own fantasy world of secret photographs, hidden files, mistaken characterizations. The ability to see, and to think that by seeing we can control, or even learn, is revealed as powerlessness in the face of terrible poverty, ignorant violence, and corrupted revolution.

Lest we miss the point, Kwan is killed for revealing an anti-Sukarno banner for others to see and Hamilton is clubbed by a soldier and nearly loses his sight. Fleeing one-eyed to the airport, Hamilton makes it to the plane and his lover’s arms as martial law is declared. But there is no happy ending here. For a melodrama, The Year of Living Dangerously becomes a meditation on the death of romance, 1965 followed by the Army’s counter idealism, youth, and hope. Words and eyes fail. It is an engaging if despairing film about a country that is all too often off our global radar, and one which sets the stage for the bloodshed to come in The Act of Killing.