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Record of a Living Being: Family

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    Vili Maunula

    As I mentioned earlier in another thread, one aspect of Record of a Living Being that I think hasn’t received as much attention from film critics as it perhaps should have, is the family at the centre of the story. Personally, I think that it is the most interesting and dynamic group setup in any Kurosawa film.

    One thing that particularly amazes me is how well drawn and fully realised these characters seem, even if we don’t really get to know any of them, apart from the father. I find the family very interesting, with each family member an individual character with individual traits and agendas, and yet clearly belonging to the same family group. Little things like the uneasiness of the mother (Toyo), the apparent insecurity of Ichiro (the oldest son), or the sometimes violent bickering between Jiro (the younger son) and Sue (the younger daughter) – the violence probably having something to do with how the father in turn seems to beat Jiro – give quite a bit of depth to the story with very little overt storytelling.

    It actually makes me crave for more, and wish that the film would spend more time with these individuals. But maybe the effect of the family is so vivid in my mind precisely because these things are shown so little, and I need to fill in the gaps. Were these characters more fully realised, they might turn out less interesting.

    On the other hand, I suppose that there is now the danger that the film may, because of the way the family is portrayed, seem chaotic on the first watching. Could it in fact be this that Kurosawa was referring to, when he suggested that the film came out a little incoherent?

    I feel that most of the characters in the film would deserve some analysis, but I will for now single out just one. Yoshimoto writes that “Kurosawa admits that among the film’s characters, he is closest to the snobbish instructor of French literature Yamazaki (Shimizu Masao), whose rational approach to the threat of nuclear warfare seems motivated less by his realistic assessment of the contemporary political situation than by his desire to get his share of Nakajima’s money.” (248)

    I am usually not very interested in trying to read too much of artists’ biographies into their works, but perhaps something could be said about this apparent connection between Kurosawa and the Yamazaki character. Instead of concentrating on the issues referred to by Yoshimoto, I find it interesting that Yamazaki should be the character perhaps least integrated into the core family – seemingly even less so than the illegitimate children. He is throughout the film portrayed in one way or another as isolated from the group – think of the way he is denied entrance to the court room early on in the film, or the way he is detached from the rest of the family at the end, when they descend the stairs from the mental ward. Even in the scenes taking place at the Nakajima house, Yamazaki comes across as an outsider, not fully part of the action, and uncomfortable because of it.

    There has been a fair amount of speculation about Kurosawa’s family life, with some suggestions that he felt far less comfortable at home than out there shooting his films. Now, I don’t think that we should read too much into the apparent Kurosawa-Yamazaki connection on this level, but it’s a possibility that I wanted to point out. Kurosawa or not, I think that the way Yamazaki is an outsider to the family is a good example of the complexity of the family, which is never really brought forward but nevertheless always present in the movie.

    Finally, speaking of the family, do you think that the family court is a realistic part of the film? Could the court indeed at the time have declared the father incompetent, and taken away his rights to handle his own property? If I understand the situation correctly, it is officially the mother who has brought the matter to the court, although clearly it is (some of) the children who are really behind the motion. I therefore suppose that in terms of contemporary law, the wife would have some say over how the family spends its money?

    I find it interesting that, as the judge at one point remarks, they usually consider incompetence in cases like where a man has spent too much money drinking. I guess it is a way to protect the wife at a time when wives rarely had any personal income. But it still seems to me like a very strange way to handle the problem. Is anyone able to explore this aspect further? Is the way Japanese families and their finances were/are set up in some way fundamentally different from the standard western model (whatever that is)?



    I can’t really add much to this except to agree – I think the film is a terrific and very realistic portrayal of a real extended family dynamic. I found all the characters very real, with none of the stereotypes you usually find used for minor family characters. I liked the way that the family seemed to consist of an onion-layer of relatives, with the ‘legitimate’ children at the core, around Nakajima, and his mistresses, illegitimate children, in-laws, employees, etc., in distinct layers around them, many fighting to be closer to the core of the family. Or maybe a better metaphor is a solar system, with everyone trying to be an inner planet, closer to the sun?

    Your ideas about Yamazaki are very interesting – I must re-watch some of those scenes you mention. I thought he was an interesting character, and I was half expecting him to have a bigger role based on his earlier appearances. I thought he was a typical ‘in-law’ of a wealthy family – trying to assert his influence (and getting a share of the inheritance) by indirect methods, as he is not part of the inner sanctum.

    I can only assume the law scenes were realistic, although I know nothing about the Japanese system at the time. I’d be surprised if Kurosawa just made something like that up, presumably most of his audience would have been aware of how these things worked.



    Just to add to the issue of the law scenes, interesting blog post here about changes to the Japanese court system – they are increasing the use of lay judges in criminal cases. There is a link in the blog to some research on the useful role lay judges have played in the judicial system.


    Vili Maunula

    Thanks, Ugetsu!

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