I Live in Fear Review
I Live in Fear went into production almost immediately after Akira Kurosawa had completed Seven Samurai. Yet there’s little sense of the director attempting any form of continuation, rather he appears to be reacting against his 16th century epic. The opening credits proclaim the film’s modern urbanity: shots of the populace as they go about their business are tightly edited to a snappy, jazzy score. But there’s also an underlying element to this theme, one that’s signalled by the presence of what appears to be a theremin. Is Kurosawa about to take us into science fiction territory?
Strictly speaking the answer is no as I Live in Fear is strictly within the limits of realism, yet in many ways the film represents the flipside to the nuclear age potboilers produced by the west (released the same year, for example, was Roger Corman’s Day the World Ended). For Kurosawa’s picture the paranoia isn’t about “reds under the bad”, but imminent death; the events of Nagasaki and Hiroshima still fresh in everyone’s minds. The elderly foundry owner at I Live in Fear’s centre more than most. His impending fear - though he initially denies that it is such - has led to the drastic action of wishing to leave Japan for the safer haven of a Brazilian farm. That he also wishes to take his family - including two mistresses and their offspring - along with him has resulted in the situation upon which we first meet the character, at a family court hearing which will hopefully settle the dispute.
Playing the ageing patriarch is Toshiro Mifune, a casting decision that has been a point of contention for many. The complaint is that the Kurosawa regular was considerably younger than the character he portraying - a fact that is not always easily disguised - yet its hard to imagine an I Live With Fear which doesn’t have the actor at its centre. Indeed, rather than damage the picture, he proves integral to its success. There has always been an element of stylisation to Mifune’s performances (his next collaboration with Kurosawa, Throne of Blood, would famously draw on the techniques of noh theatre) and here is no different. He brings an immense physicality to the role, but also - and this is not a word which we would readily associate with the actor - a great deal of control. His frame, fidgety nature and forceful gestures make him the believable patriarch who holds sway over his family, yet he’s also able to transform himself into the frailest of creatures. It’s as though he can turn the elements with which we have associated Mifune on and off at will; the expected strength and sense of danger within seconds able to switch to a deeply believable weakness.
It’s interesting to note Kurosawa’s previous picture with an elderly gent at its centre, Ikiru when considering Mifune’s performance. That 1952 lead role was occupied by the director’s other favourite actor, Takeshi Shimura, resulting in a moving portrayal of life just before death. As such it is tempting to consider him at I Live in Fear’s centre rather than Mifune, but also impossible. Had such a decision been made the film would almost certainly lose much of its energy, one which originates in Mifune’s distinctive rhythms. His tetchy and increasingly maniacal nature seems to have influenced not only the on-screen weather (intense heats followed by equally intense thunderstorms), but also infused the picture as a whole with a paranoid edge.
However, Shimura does make an appearance and it many ways he is the heart of I Live in Fear if not the engine. The first and last person we see on screen, Shimura is the audience’s way in to the picture. Playing the court mediator assigned the family’s case, he provides with an objective view whilst embodying his typical genial, deliberate manner. As had happened in the past (see Stray Dog or Seven Samurai, it is he who provides the balance for Mifune’s more grandstanding performance meaning that it is never able to completely overawe the picture. Moreover, as an observer he is able to keep a distance from the family dynamics, though highly believable and with a sour undercurrent of violence, thereby shifting the film away from the overtly melodramatic.
Yet his presence is also important in one final regard. Kurosawa would often use his modern day pictures to engage in important themes and issues (most notably with Rhapsody in August and Dreams though the trend goes back to Stray Dog and its gauging of the post-World War II male population), an aspect that has seen some of his works, particularly the later ones, indulge in hard to stomach sentimentality. Obviously, the nuclear threat is seen by the director as one such important issue and at times the message is conveyed a little too obviously. Yet with Shimura acting at one remove throughout (and whenever he tries to closer Mifune pushes him away), any attempt to lecture the audience is never able to infuse I Live in Fear as a whole, whilst his everyman presence keeps the film grounded in reality.
Though at times speckled with dirt and the occasional scratch, I Live in Fear’s picture quality is largely agreeable. Any such damage is minimal and what remains important is the crispness of the image which remains sharp throughout. Note, however, that the aspect ratio is not 1.66:1 as the disc’s sleeve proclaims, but 1.33:1 as should be the case. The soundtrack, in the original Japanese mono, is equally sharp with only the reel changes prompting the slight crackle, though these are easily ignored. The English subtitles are electronically generated, but unfortunately non-optional. As for the extras, the BFI have rooted through the archives of the Monthly Film Bulletin and Sight and Sound to uncover a pair of old articles, one written by Kurosawa himself, which are contained in a booklet alongside a newer piece by Phillip Kemp. The disc itself is sorely lacking, however, and contains only biographies for the director and his two leading men.