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Record of a Living Being: Final Scene

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    Vili Maunula

    Record of a Living Being has a fairly memorable last scene, with Dr. Harada descending down from Nakajima’s mental ward, while Nakajima’s young mistress Asako moves up. The two, not knowing each other, walk past each other and there are a few pauses in their movements, both appearing to be deep in thought. The lense used flattens the image, making it look a little like the characters would be hovering up and down.

    Both Richie and Prince discuss this scene, and it is interesting to see how differently they interpret it.

    Richie considers the scene in terms of an up/down metaphor, and suggests that the upward movement of the young child carried by the mistress means that “there is always room for hope. Perhaps the elders will not be saved, but perhaps the young will be; the experienced are doomed, but the innocent may yet escape.” (112) Richie draws a parallel with the endings of Rashomon, Drunken Angel and Red Beard, which Richie notes all have fairly similar endings. Yet, says Richie, this message contradicts the overall sentiment of the film, and is therefore somewhat misplaced.

    Prince, meanwhile, concentrates on the nature of the movement. He begins his discussion of the scene linking it to the scene in Ikiru where Watanabe descends the stairs of the cafe, while a chorus of young students sings “Happy Birthday” to a young girl climbing up. He goes on to write:

    The corresponding sequence in Ikiru promised liberation, unleashed energy, and movement, but this sequence embodies stasis, confinement, and hallucinations of oblivion. In this final image, the narrative itself freezes, irresolutely, unable to find a way of linking Nakajima’s failed protest with alternate political strategies that may promise greater success. Nakajima’s immobilization infects the narrative itself, the movement of which is finally arrested, as the political and social dilemmas that motivated the film ultimately elude it. By inflecting the social rebel with the stigma of psychosis, the logic of the text, founded upon a general denial of politics, must end by imprisoning him and thereby circumventing its own inquiry. Nakajima has been cannibalized by the very forms of the film. (169-170)

    What do you think is the significance of the final scene?

    And what, by the way, do you make of the fact that the music continues fairly long after the end title card has disappeared? I think that this is somewhat untypical of Kurosawa.

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    Ugetsu

    I’m more impressed by Prince’s view, right up to his very last line, which I must admit I don’t understand.

    I still confess to not really understanding the ending, but there are I think two key elements:

    1. The choice of characters. Harada as we expect is leaving – but crucially it is the Mistress and her child who is arriving, not a direct family member. In some respects this is suggesting that Nakajima has lost his family – his determination to protect them has resulted in the severance of all ties with them. We don’t know this for certain of course, but it is strongly suggested. Perhaps there is a suggestion here that the only tie that really binds is love – the Mistresses obvious genuine love for Nakajima, rather than the conventional ties of family.

    2. The choice of image. It really is striking how flattened the final scene is. I can only assume Prince is correct that this represents stasis – the opposite of the dynamism in the Ikiru scene he refers to. It represents a frozen, one dimensional society, unable to comprehend Nakajima and unable to move from the paralysis of inaction it has inflicted upon itself. For someone of Kurosawa’s passionate involvement, the deliberate choice of Japan to passively exclude itself from world affairs (formalised in the Yoshida Doctrine must have been very frustrating. While Japan was seen by the West as ‘pacifist’ in that period, more cynical domestic commentators saw it as a form of passive aggressiveness at an international scale.

    As for the music – I’m stretching things a little here, but perhaps the continuation of the music into the end title card was intended as a counter to the stasis of the final scene. The final scene says ‘everything is frozen, nothing changes’. But the extension of the music is saying ‘but life goes on, its up to you to change it’.

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    Ryan

    Well first off, I don’t like it when film theorists use pompous and unnecessary words constantly in a sentence. It doesn’t make them appear more intelligent, it just makes them appear both arrogant and condescending. It also makes for more difficult reading. I’m not sure about everyone else, but I had to keep re-reading the second half of that statement from Stephen Prince and it frustrates me seeing such writing in the works of other film theorists. If they wrote in a more straightforward way, right to the point, I would have few qualms with it. It would save me the time and effort to keep re-reading what they have said, not to mention pages of the book (every little helps towards the environment). I think they use a range of sophisticated babble in order to give the illusion that what they are saying is extremely introspective and intelligent. It also makes us have to interpret what they are saying which can be difficult. This is because the film theorist is interprets the film, then states his interpretation to which we have to then interpret! The overall message conveyed, or the author’s intention, can be lost which is a danger for any author. I can’t imagine how difficult it would be for those with dyslexia!

    Anyway, sorry for the rant but it does bother me (as if you couldn’t tell) 😛

    When I saw the ending, I felt similar to Richie, as obvious an interpretation it is. The composition of the shot, in my eyes, looked set accordingly so as to say “the person ascending has a positive future ahead of them whereas the person descending does not”. To use a title of another of Kurosawa’s films; Tengoku to Jigoku; High and Low (Heaven and Hell).

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    Ugetsu

    I’m inclined to agree with you Ryan! Of course, every specialism is inclined to develop its own vocabulary, intelligible to insiders, but not to others – but I certainly think that some film academic film critics (and Prince is nowhere near the worst) deliberately use obscure language in order to differentiate themselves from mere ‘reviewers’. There are examples (Joan Mellon and Richie among them) who can communicate complex ideas in more accessible language for us non-academics.

    I can’t find the link at the moment, but a few weeks ago there was a very interesting article in the Guardian about DVD voiceovers. It suggested that the demands of speaking over a film was actually a very good discipline for film academics, and some proved to be much better at it than in writing about the same films. I was thinking about this when listening to Prince’s commentary on Kagemusha. I found his commentary fascinating, and much more informative than his book (which is still very good, despite the jargon).

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    Ryan

    Yeah. I think such use of language is rather essential and can be used to great effect in novels and such. The possibilities of language are limitless. But when it comes to pure analysis, it’s just not necessary. Like you say, it is also of vital importance with DVD commentary considering that if one talks about a short scene for too long, the details of subsequent scenes will go amiss. There is a runtime after all.

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    Vili Maunula

    I agree that unnecessary academic jargon is… well, unnecessary. Yet, I can see the reason for what I think is more focused use of language in academic discourse. Sometimes reading a paragraph twice is both faster and easier than reading two pages of less condenced language.

    I don’t personally have a problem with this particular quote from Prince (I think), although I admit that there are parts in that book that I have to struggle with. For me, Richie is somewhat too conversational, and his thoughts rarely come across as crystal clear. For me, the ideal writer would be somewhere in between (Mellen is pretty good).

    But I’m sure that this is at least partly a matter of taste and reading habits.

    Anyway. As for the scene, I would lean towards Prince’s interpretation, rather than Richie’s. In my view, if you want to interpret the upward movement in the scene as positive, you need to completely ignore the actual setting and what really is up there — a mental ward, and the depressing sight of Nakajima. Having said that, like Ryan says there is something in the mistress’s movements that, despite the hesitation and perhaps also fear that I see in her, she also exhibits a hint of hope.

    But I think that Ugetsu mentions a very important point overlooked by both academics — family relations. I wouldn’t go as far as to claim that the mistress was the only one to love Nakajima, though. In some ways, it must have been easier for her to love him, because it didn’t come with the package that the rest of the family had to endure. Of course, this doesn’t mean that it was easy for her, as evidenced also by the hesitation and loneliness displayed in the final scene — she is left with a son she has to raise alone now that Nakajima is as good as dead and unable to support them.

    All this points to an aspect of the film that has so completely been overlooked by most commentators — that Record of a Living Being is very much about family. This is a topic that I would definitely like to explore further, although maybe later in a separate thread, as I still need to put my thoughts together, and the subject is certainly larger than the final scene alone.

    Ugetsu’s second point is also fascinating. Indeed, by flattening Nakajima’s worries onto a sane/insane axis — everything taking place in the family court is, after all, about the question where in that axis Nakajima is placed — they miss the point, or are at least forced to miss the point because they need to reach a conclusion. Yet, like Harada feels, the issue is far more far-reaching and complicated than that.

    Perhaps, then, Prince is mistaken in thinking that the film lacks proper socio-political commentary. And, like Ugetsu suggests, Nakajima is in fact not cannibalised by the forms of the film, but by the forms of the society.

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    Ugetsu

    Vili:

    In some ways, it must have been easier for her to love him, because it didn’t come with the package that the rest of the family had to endure.

    Good point – thats one of the paradoxes of love isn’t it? Its so much easier to feel passionately and romantically about someone if you don’t have to actually live with them. 🙄

    All this points to an aspect of the film that has so completely been overlooked by most commentators — that Record of a Living Being is very much about family. This is a topic that I would definitely like to explore further, although maybe later in a separate thread, as I still need to put my thoughts together, and the subject is certainly larger than the final scene alone.

    You are absolutely right about this. Thinking about it, the film really is an extraordinary portrayal of a non-conventional family. Mum, Dad, kids, mistresses, step-kids…. it makes most families seem a bit dull! I found the dynamics of the family actually very convincing – the way the in-laws hovered at the edges – one of the mistresses father clumsily trying to interfere – the older son going in over his head in trying to take on responsibility – it has a real ring of truth to it.

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