Next on our list of Akira Kurosawa Film Club titles is Kurosawa’s own Record of a Living Being (生きものの記録 / Ikimono no kiroku), which in the English speaking world has also been titled I Live in Fear.
Filmed over six weeks in 1955 and released between Seven Samurai and Throne of Blood on November 22 1955, Record of a Living Being is possibly the worst known of Kurosawa’s works from the 1950s. Reasons for the film’s relative obscurity have arguably more to do with its subject matter than quality.
Record of a Living Being was released at a time when the issues raised by the film — the fear of nuclear annihilation — remained extremely topical for Japanese audiences. It had been only ten years since the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the just-finished Korean war (June 1950 – July 1953) had reminded people of the delicate balance that existed between the world’s two new nuclear superpowers, the US and the USSR. Even more close to home, the first hydrogen bombs had been tested at the Pacific and Japan was now limiting its fish consumption due to the increasing number of nuclear bomb tests being carried out in the Pacific. Japanese anti-nuclear sentiment sentiment had also been hugely influenced by the so-called Lucky Dragon 5 incident, when a Japanese tuna fishing boat and its crew had been exposed to nuclear fallout following an American hydrogen bomb test in March 1954, with at least the boat’s radioman ultimately dying as a direct result of the incident.
With this background in mind, one would have expected Record of a Living Being to continue Kurosawa’s success at the box office. Yet, despite positive reviews, the film became the first of Kurosawa’s works to lose money, with Stuart Galbraith suggesting that audiences were ultimately uninterested in tackling the film’s heavy subject matter quite as directly as Kurosawa encouraged them to, movie goers instead preferring more metaphorical and fantasy-filled ways of approaching the topic, such as Ishiro Honda’s earlier 1954 film Godzilla (Galbraith 223), which we will be watching next month in our film club. Perhaps because of its poor box office performance in Japan, western film fans in turn had to wait until the 1960s to see the film. Record of a Living Being was first shown in Europe in 1961, while the US got it two years later. Once screened to western audiences, the film garnered predominantly positive reviews (Galbraith 221-222), although the limited releases – possibly again the result of the film’s topic – did little to establish it a place next to Seven Samurai, Ikiru and Throne of Blood in the Kurosawa canon.
The film’s seriousness then appears to have worked against its chances to connect with contemporary audiences. Interestingly, Record of a Living Being was in fact originally intended to be a little lighter, having been conceived as a satire on a serious topic (Richie 109), something quite similar, although perhaps not quite as out there as what Stanley Kubrick would accomplish ten years later with Dr. Strangelove. However, these plans changed during the production and the finished film became a far more serious look at one man’s paralysing fear of the atomic bomb. In its treatment of the subject, the film, like its protagonist, is fairly uncompromising, and its rough edges are left somewhat unpolished. Kurosawa himself later expressed the concern that Record of a Living Being perhaps came out a little incoherent, even chaotic at times. (Richie 109)
While the film is strongly anchored on its protagonist and the brilliant performance of Toshiro Mifune, as always with Kurosawa, Record of a Living Being is more than simply a story about a man terrified about the bomb, indeed more even than a straightforward exploration of the fears, uncertainties and anxieties surrounding a global catastrophe. Into its narrative is embroidered a range of other themes such as family dynamics, the subjectivity and (ir)rationality of sanity and madness, and the question what, if anything, an individual can do for his survival in the face of a global catastrophe in a world where the fear of death has become a natural part of one’s everyday life. All these topics are handled with Kurosawa’s typical directorial style in an attempt at concretising an abstract, yet ultimately very real and present concern. Both Richie and Prince have made the point that, as Prince puts it, the “film is split between its two voices, the social and the psychological, and while wishing to speak in the former, it never fully relinquishes the latter.” (Prince 160)
Record of a Living Being exhibits many of Kurosawa’s typical film making conventions, including the use of weather to emphasise characters’ internal struggles. Thematically, the film is perhaps most similar to Kurosawa’s later films such as Rhapsody in August (1991) which also deals with the nuclear threat and Ran (1985), whose protagonist has been compared to that of Record of a Living being. Thematic similarities can be observed also with Throne of Blood, the film that followed Record of a Living Being, with both works seemingly exploring the question of inevitabilities and our chances of taking control of our own lives.
In technical terms, Record of a Living Being is most strongly characterised by its documentary style, most similar to Kurosawa’s earlier The Most Beautiful and his later High and Low. The film also marked the first time that the director systematically employed his later trademark multi-camera approach to shooting, something that he had experimented with for the battle scenes in Seven Samurai. (Yoshimoto 246) Yet despite (or perhaps because of) this, the film is a step backwards from the dynamism of Seven Samurai, as not much movement is present, with the sparsity of music only to amplify this feeling.
As for music, a personal and professional tragedy struck Kurosawa only three days before the filming of Record of a Living Being was to be wrapped. The film’s composer, Kurosawa’s long-term friend and close collaborator Fumio Hayasaka passed away after a long battle with tuberculosis. News of Hayasaka’s death had a big impact on Kurosawa, and he later admitted that the scenes which remained to be filmed – those after the fire in the foundry, as well as the ending – were negatively affected by his grief and lack of proper strength to carry on with filming. (Richie 112) Hayasaka’s death at the end of Record of a Living Being was especially poignant, considering that the composer himself had suggested the film’s topic to Kurosawa. (Galbraith 220)
After Hayasaka’s passing, the film’s score was finished by Hayasaka’s assistant Masaru Sato, who would go on to score all of Kurosawa’s subsequent films up until Red Beard, as well as providing the score for the 1999 homage film Ame Agaru. Sato in fact also scored three Kurosawa remakes in his career: the 1965 Sanshiro Sugata, 1973 Stray Dog, and a 1964 version of the Kurosawa penned film Jakoman and Tetsu (originally directed by Senkichi Taniguchi).
The last time we touched on Record of a Living Being, the film generated plenty of discussion. Here are the threads:
For information about the home video availability of Record of a Living Being, see the Akira Kurosawa DVD guide. As for the full schedule of our film club, take a look at the film club page. As mentioned earlier, our next month’s film will be Ishiro Honda’s Godzilla, a companion to Record of a Living being.
But for now, September belongs to Record of a Living Being. How do you see the film? Is it part of Kurosawa’s major films, one of his minor ones, or somewhere in between? Are the topics tackled by the film still relevant in the post cold war era? And does the film ultimately succeed in what it is doing?
What about that absolutely brilliant (or is it?) performance by Mifune?