One of Akira Kurosawa’s early films, made before he came to international prominence, Scandal was made the same year as the director’s international breakthrough film Rashomon. Rarely seen and rather more straightforward in terms of plotting as most of the director’s early films are, Scandal has languished in the shadow of its more illustrious follow-up, but nevertheless features two of Kurosawa’s greatest actors – Toshiro Mifune and Takeshi Shimura – and shows undeniable signs of the director’s great artistry.
While working on a painting of mountains from a remote hilltop, the artist Aoye Ichiro (Toshiro Mifune) meets a young woman (Shirley Yamaguchi) looking for directions to a village. As Aoye is staying at the same inn he gives her a lift on his motorbike, but they are spotted by a couple of journalists who recognise that the woman is the famous singer, Saijo Miyako. The reporters, who work for a celebrity gossip magazine Amour, manage to get a picture of them together at the inn and the next day the papers are filled with lurid headlines about their affair. Aoye threatens to sue and retains the services of Hiruta Otokichi (Takashi Shimura), a shabby lawyer who will put the case at risk in order to look after his sick daughter.
Inspired by a real-life incident where Akira Kurosawa was linked in the press to actress Hideko Takamine, Scandal is very much a polemic against the abuses of the press and the freedoms they had suddenly been granted in post-war Japan. And it’s a none-too-subtle one. In most respects, particularly as a court case libel drama, it is a straightforward film, with no great complications in the plot, moving along like clockwork, and no great ambiguity in the characters. The injured parties and the villains of the piece are clearly evident, but there are little touches of the artistry and humanism in Kurosawa’s work here that would come to fruition in his next film, the breakthrough masterpiece, Rashomon and it’s what makes this film much better than it might otherwise have been.
The whole look of Scandal is typically Kurosawa. With beautifully composed and edited scenes, the director lays down the premise of the film with effortless efficiency and artistry, with his trademark wipes capturing the cut and thrust of the complaints and counter-complaints between Aoye and the publisher of Amour played out to the hungry packs of press reporters who gather around the incident like sharks in a feeding frenzy. Elsewhere Kurosawa’s hand can be seen in the great use of sets, props and locations – the shabby office of lawyer Hiruta a hut on the roof of a building, the cycling race track where Hiruta gambles with the case he has been entrusted with.
The other element that raises the profile of this otherwise straightforward film is the performance of a great cast. First of all we have Toshiro Mifune – not the greatest actor in the world ever, but one of the most charismatic, and it is that unique presence that he brings to Scandal. Already we can see his rather limited yet all-purpose range of head-scratching and nose-wiping used to express anger, frustration, confusion and deep thought – a characteristic that he would use throughout Seven Samurai and Yojimbo - yet these mannerisms are sufficiently unusual to set him apart from anyone else and give him a wonderful laid-back manner that is oozing with charisma. The main acting duties however fall to Kurosawa’s other regular performer, Takashi Shimura, a much more versatile actor, who provides the real dynamic touch that the film desperately needs. Much of his superb performance revolves around his relationship with his sick daughter which, as the film’s main hook, looks like a typical display of Kurosawa over-sentimentality to elicit audience sympathy. But it is a lot more complicated than that, as it always is when Kurosawa (as in Ikiru for example) uses such melodramatic devices. Here it adds a more dynamic element to the film, both as a plot device and as a way of delving deeper and drawing more out of each of the characters than the simplistic good-guys/bad-guys situation of the film’s plot would allow. Even Aoye is deeply affected by his visits to the young girl and Mifune likewise benefits from the otherwise one-note flatness of his role.
The film is consequently transformed in the third act, Shimura showing just what he can do with such a part (and he would be allowed to delve further into this in Ikiru two years later), agonising profoundly over conflicting senses of duty as a father and a lawyer, weighing the human cost of his actions and responding accordingly. It lifts the film to another level entirely.
Both Scandal and The Idiot, predating his more famous films, are two less well-known Kurosawa films in the West. The quality of the prints available may have had something to do with their general unavailability, so while there are some problems with the source materials used for their release as part of Eureka’s Masters of Cinema range, it is delightful to see them in fairly good condition. Scandal is encoded for Region 2 and, rather than performing a pointless conversion and degrading the image further in the process, the DVD is presented in NTSC format.
The accompanying booklet explains the difficulties of obtaining pristine source materials for this quite old film, but most of the problems – scratches, jumps, marks and other larger damage – are principally in the first few reels of the film. Thereafter the picture quality is much better, with less obvious marks and damage. Contrast and greyscale tones are variable, the image mostly showing excellent balance and clarity of detail in its monochrome tones. The blacks are a little dull and greyish on occasion but this is certainly preferable to the print being contrast boosted. There is a little bit of wavering in brightness levels, but the print itself is stable throughout. Presented on a dual-layer disc, there are no real problems with artefacting issues. Combing is an issue, but this was only evident in examining the transfer in freeze frame on my PC display – it caused no problems in normal playback and was not visible at all on my TV display. There is one instance of pixilation – a problem inherent in the transfer supplied from Shochiku - which occurs over a couple of frames during a scene transition around the 48:36 minute mark. It’s a minor issue which in no way affects viewing or takes you out of the film. Overall, there are certainly issues which are down to the age and use made of the original negative in striking prints, but quality of the film does not suffer in any way because of them, and is actually very impressive in places.
The audio, presented in Dolby Digital 1.0, suffers from the same source problems as the picture quality. There are syncing problems here and there, a fair amount of crackle and low hiss in the background and sound levels rise sharply on a few occasions. Undoubtedly, this is down to the state of the source materials but, again, it has minimal affect on the film and in the main, the sound quality is quite adequate.
English subtitles are provided and are optional. The font is white and can be clearly read at all times.
Alex Cox provides a nice overview of the film, but there is not much new here as it draws on many of the same points and issues that Donald Ritchie made about the film in his fine book ‘The Films of Akira Kurosawa’ – seeing it as a “protest” film, tackling contemporary social issues such as the liberalism of the press in the US influenced post-war Japanese society.
Joan Mellen examines the film in depth in a very fine essay included in the accompanying booklet. Her views are rather more speculative in her appraisal of the film as an allegory for “post-war moral disintegration” and consequently this is more interesting as a unique perspective on the film, allowing it to be seen in its historical context.
The only other extra feature is a collection of 26 fabulous promotional stills for the film.
In the various examinations of the film on the extra features included with this edition, the commentators see Akira Kurosawa’s Scandal as a “protest film”, a condemnation of the Americanisation of traditional Japanese society and a battle between integrity and corruption - but I can’t help feeling they are largely missing the point. If it were to be judged in those terms, the film would have to be considered a failure - a heavy-handed melodrama that tackles the issues without any subtlety or finesse, particularly when compared to Mizoguchi’s 1951 film The Lady Of Musashino, or indeed any of Ozu’s immediate post-war films. The film certainly started out to tackle a social issue that the director was concerned about, but with the introduction of the lawyer into the film, the protests about the lying duplicity of the press and their intrusion into the lives of innocent people is almost forgotten about and Scandal turns into something else entirely – a human drama of the dilemma faced by Takashi Shimura’s lawyer - and this, as the director would go on to prove in the subsequent years with Rashomon, Ikiru and of course Seven Samurai, is an area where Kurosawa proves himself to be a master.