Thursday, May 31, 2018

Nuclear Danger: Three Ways of Talking About the Unmentionable

Unable to get nuclear weapons out of his mind: unreasonable?
(from I Live in Fear by Akira Kurosawa)


How do we talk about something that has been branded "impossible to talk about"?

After profiling a list of films about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, I've begun to think this is the fundamental problem of nuclear danger. Akira Kurosawa tackled the problem in his film, I Live in Fear (1955).


Courtroom drama

People love crime shows, police procedurals, and courtroom dramas. Wouldn't it be great if we could put nuclear weapons on trial?

Kurosawa does the next best thing in I Live in Fear: he sets up a court case pitting a family against a father, Nakajima, who is so terrified of the possibility of another nuclear blast that he is acting in ways they fear will tear the family apart. They bring a case in family court to have him declared incompetent so they can get control of the family finances.

The court is thus required to answer the question: Is the man's fear of nuclear weapons rational or irrational?

Nested within the court proceedings -- i.e. the activities of the three people acting as family court mediators and the family members who are parties to the suit -- we see several (ultimately unsuccessful) attempts to talk about nuclear danger, the failure of diverse forms of discourse.

The first form of discourse to crumble before nuclear danger is family deliberation. After decades of looking to the ever-practical father -- factory owner, business man, always planning, always weighing the risks, literally wearing belt and suspenders -- the family members become unable to understand what he is thinking. They singly and collectively just can't wrap their heads around his concern about the risk stemming from nuclear weapons, fallout, and radiation.


Family council in I Live in Fear.


And so the matter goes to court. As the court mediators carry out their careful, logical deliberations, it's clear they all consider Nakajima's concerns valid . . . up to a point. But ultimately they conclude "he's grappling with a problem far too big for any individual," and rule against him.

One of the mediators, the dentist, remains troubled, and goes in search of facts. (He is, after all, a scientist.) He reads the book, Ashes of Death, about nuclear weapons and radioactive fallout, and is so stunned by what he learns that he tells his son, "If the birds and beasts could read it, they'd all flee Japan." And yet . . . he goes along with the decision to declare Nakajima incompetent.

Conflict escalates and Najakima collapses. Near the end of the film, a doctor in a psychiatric hospital reviews the records of the case and the condition of the patient and muses, "I feel anxious. Is he crazy? Or are we, who can remain unperturbed in an insane world, the crazy ones?" Significantly, it is Nakajima who ends up locked in a cell.


Religion ("Hell")

Kurosawa offers an alternate tool for communication in I Live in Fear. At many junctures he reminds us that we have in "hell" a ready metaphor for what nuclear weapons threaten.

As you watch I Live in Fear, you can practically feel the heat as everyone in the film wipes the perspiration induced by the summer weather from their brows, and Nakajima frenetically rattles his fan. Nakajima's complexion is oddly dark, as if his skin has ashes rubbed into it. The family business is, it turns out, a foundry -- a scorching site of molten metal and noxious fumes -- and one that, in fact, finally goes up in flames near the end of the film. In a confrontation with the dentist in the street, Nakajima says, "I'm out of my mind with fear. I keep thinking about the H-bomb, but there's nothing I can do. It's a living hell." Nakajima describes the man who offers to provide land in Brazil as a safe haven for the family as "a Buddha come to save us from hell." In the film's penultimate scene, a now maniacal Nakajima cringes before a blazing summer sun and warns, "The Earth is burning!"


"The Earth is burning!"
(from I Live in Fear)


Suggestions of fire and heat aside, I wonder if the real hell Kurosawa wants us to remember from  I Live in Fear is Nakajima's inability to communicate with his family about nuclear danger. His frustration is palpable as he calls a family meeting and throws himself on the floor, begging that they join him in leaving Japan.

The film ends with the dentist descending a ramp towards indistinct lower levels of the psychiatric hospital . . . while Nakajima's mistress walks up the opposite ramp, cradling their infant child in her arms, toward the light-filled upper stories.

It is perhaps a sign of the authenticity of this film that it doesn't suggest the solution is easy. As reported by Donald Richie,

Kurosawa himself finds confusion in the film. "When we made it, the entire staff sensed our confusion. No one said very much and everyone worked hard and it was very hard work indeed." He kept remembering, he says, [collaborator Fumio Hayasaka's] words: "The world has come to such a state that we don't really know what is in store for us tomorrow. I wouldn't even know how to go on living -- I'm that uncertain. Uncertainties, nothing but uncertainties. Every day there are fewer and fewer places that are safe. Soon there will be no place at all." (Donald Richie, The Films of Akira Kurosawa, p. 112)

Which brings us to Fumio Hayasaka . . . .


Friend-to-friend

The part of the story of I Live in Fear that I find most interesting is the way it came to be made, and the interaction of the actual people involved.

The idea for the film came out of conversation between Kurosawa and his long-time collaborator, the composer Fumio Hayasaka. Kurosawa describes a visit to Hayasaka:

[Hayasaka] was quite ill . . . and just before we had had word of the Bikini [H-bomb] experiments. When he said to me that a dying person could not work, I thought he meant himself. But he didn't, it turned out. He meant everyone. All of us. The next time I went to see him, he suggested we do a film on just this subject. He was quite taken with the idea and that is how the film began. (Richie, p. 109)

In other words, I Live in Fear was the result of two close friends who asked the question, "How can we create something that really matters, considering the danger nuclear weapons pose to the world?"


Hayasaka and Kurosawa


The film's lead is the frequent star of Kurosawa films, Toshiro Mifune. When I see him in this film playing against type -- i.e. not playing a strutting samurai as in Yojimbo or Seven Samurai, but a stooped and scared old man -- I imagine him putting everything he has into the mission set forth by Hayasaka, and taken up by Kurosawa.

Similarly, every time I see the film's dentist character, played by Takashi Shimura, I can't help thinking of the role played by Shimura in Ikiru [To Live] -- an ordinary bureaucrat who learns he will soon die and so determines to do one small thing to make a difference.

And so, one by one, a wider and wider circle of friends and colleagues took up the problem. After production, another cast member said: "Well we worked hard, didn't we? But from now on living our parts will be the more difficult." (as reported by Kurosawa Richie, p. 112)

And so here, as in my previous post, I propose that "We need powerful stories . . . and conversations!"


Which way?
(from I Live in Fear)


See also: more films and resources about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.


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