Friday, April 1, 2011

Akira Kurosawa's Nightmares

Significantly, it was mostly through period films that Akira Kurosawa chose to examine people and the problems of life. But with a few exceptions, every one of his films set in contemporary Japan directly confronts some moral problem besetting society.

Stray Dog (1949) looks at the rise of violent crime in the years immediately following the war. Scandal (1950) examines the effects of tabloid journalism on people's lives. Ikiru (1952) looks at the quagmire of government bureaucracy. High and Low (1963) ponders the meaning of the gap between the rich and the poor.

Two of Kurosawa's films in particular, Record of a Living Being (1955) and an episode in Dreams (1990), are dramatizations of a nightmare that comes tellingly, frighteningly close to the reality in Japan over the past few weeks.

Record of a Living Being, also known as I Live in Fear, concerns a family patriarch, Kiichi Nakajima (played by Toshiro Mifune), who wants to move his entire family to Brazil to escape what he sees is an impending nuclear war. His family believes he is insane and wants to have him committed to a nursing home. The sixth segment in the film Dreams, called Mount Fuji in Red, is a nightmare in which the dormant volcano Mount Fuji erupts and causes six nuclear power reactors to meltdown. Survivors wander a devastated countryside, with clouds of colored mist floating by - each radioactive isotope given a different color. Like all the other episodes in the film, Kurosawa doesn't editorialize this strangely premonitory dream.

Kurosawa's point, I think, is that while Kiichi's fear is a decidedly modern problem that we all must face, and while nuclear meltdowns have occurred before, how can we really function rationally with the fear of such disasters? How can we possibly live normal lives with the threat of our imminent annihilation hanging over our heads? In Mount Fuji in Red, Kurosawa asks how we can possibly allow the threat from radiation leaks and contamination of our air, water, and food to continue? How can we live with the potential for this kind of "accident" being ever present? Are we to simply accept these perpetual and inescapable threats to our existence as necessary consequences of our mistakes and a condition of our living in a new age? Of course, Kurosawa's is an emotional, non-rational response. It must be emotional, he insists, since we now clearly see where all our rationalism has landed us. To act rationally in an age like ours, in the face of such danger, is truly insane.

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