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Record of a Living Being: 'Its the Prime Ministers job to worry about that'

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    Ugetsu

    One of the striking things for me about Record of a Living Being is the complete absence of overt politics within the film. The only reference to the world of elections and government is that by the prisoner in the cell with Nakajima near the end, when he dismissively says words to the effect that ‘Its the Prime Ministers job to worry about that’ when Nakajima’s obsession with nuclear war is mentioned. At first, this seemed to me to be just a dismissive comment, illustrating the attitude of a particular type of citizen (and since the character is very unsympathetic, clearly a criminal, its clearly not a view endorsed by Kurosawa), but I think now it is significant in highlighting the absence of politics within the film – this line is a clear signal by Kurosawa that he is deliberately turning his back on the role of politics in solving the problems of humanity.

    The film is generally held to be an examination of the conflicting ways of dealing with an overwhelming threat such as nuclear war – i.e. become obsessed with it, like Nakajima, or try to ignore its existence, like nearly everyone else. But clearly there is a third way – to engage in politics to try to do something about it. I’m not referring here to the practicalities of lobbying, marching, or otherwise trying to influence government – I’m thinking of the psychological comfort many people feel from feeling they have ‘done something’. I remember hearing a conversation where someone mentioned that she’d been on a march against the Iraq War and someone dismissively said ‘marching will never make a difference’, and she replied ‘Probably not, but at least I can tell my children I tried to do something.’

    In Record of a Living Being, Nakajima’s actions are in one way clearly entirely selfish. His only thought is to rescue himself and his family. At no stage do we get the slightest indication that it occurs to him, or anyone else, that maybe instead of trying to save his family he would instead use his money and influence to lobby the government, start a petition, or whatever. The only reference to politics or politicians implies (from the quote above), is that their role is to worry about things so nobody else has to worry about them.

    This is in striking contrast to earlier Kurosawa films, where the option of engaging with politics is central to the story. In No Regrets for our Youth we are explicitly shown the various paths (including radical political action) available to the citizen faced with evil. In Ikiru we see on the one hand the impossibility for even an insider to change ‘the system’, but we simultaneously see that an individual can rescue his own dignity and self respect by at least trying. Nakajima, as a character, is given neither option by the scriptwriters, and neither is anyone else in the film.

    A number of writers (most notably Prince I think) when analysing High and Low comment that despite the centrality of the contrast between rich and poor depicted in the film, nobody, including the characters in the film, are permitted to question this divide – it is a ‘given’. Much the same seems to apply to Record of a Living Being – nobody is allowed to question or challenge nuclear weapons, they are depicted as almost a force of nature which cannot be opposed any more than you can oppose cyclones or earthquakes.

    This film therefore seems to represent a crucial turning point in Kurosawa’s films. All the narratives whereby people are permitted to challenge the system in some way belong before this film, after it, active politics seems to be not just rejected, but it doesn’t seem like Kurosawa has any interest any more – it is simply a backdrop for the characters to operate within, either to destroy in anarchically (Yojimbo), undermine by stealth (The Bad Sleep Well), or just ignore (most other films).

    Its probably a topic or another day to discuss how and why Kurosawa become so disillusioned with the Japanese political system, but I find it striking in this film that he so unambiguously rejects its very existence. It may well be an accurate reflection of the way in which the Japanese govenment, in line with the Yoshida Doctrine, essentially abandoned its international role and became increasingly corrupt. But I can’t help thinking that the prisoners comment on the role of the Prime Minister is intended as a direct signal that it was an entirely conscious decision by Kurosawa to say that the only options available to Japanese were to flee or to ignore reality. As such it seems to me to be a very deeply pessimistic, even nihilistic film.

    Thoughts?

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    Vili Maunula

    A wonderful observation, Ugetsu!

    It seems to me though that even in Kurosawa’s earlier films, those who try to go against the system ultimately achieve very little outside of the scope of their immediate social circle. And those who don’t really try, like the couple in One Wonderful Sunday, are left dreaming.

    Perhaps Kurosawa wasn’t politically minded enough to actually tackle political problems. He only pointed them out. His focus rather appeared to be one step lower on the chain: before we can build a decent society we must learn how to be decent human beings.

    But you may still be onto something, identifying Record of a Living Being as a kind of a turning point towards more pessimistic or fatalistic worlds in Kurosawa’s works. It’s also interesting that the film was immediately followed by Throne of Blood which very much seems to present a world where you really can’t fight the system at all.

    And you are right, Record of a Living Being indeed seems to give no option of government involvement, apart from that one line which you pointed out. I wonder though, given Japan’s relationship with the US, how realistic that path would have been, not only in terms of the world presented in the film, but also in terms of the film making policies of mid-50s Japan. Could Kurosawa even have made such a film? And if he could have, could Japan actually realistically have had any say over the global nuclear situation?

    Which is worse, worrying about things that you can’t really do anything about, or stopping worrying because you have done something which, ultimately, really doesn’t change anything?

    Often when I think about the film, I approach the conclusion that Nakajima’s tragic flaw was his inability to deceive himself.

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    Ugetsu

    Vili

    Which is worse, worrying about things that you can’t really do anything about, or stopping worrying because you have done something which, ultimately, really doesn’t change anything?

    That is a very good point – something marketeers have known for a long time – they know that they can ease peoples consciences by putting on ‘recyclable packaging’ or ‘made from sustainable forests’ or whatever on useless consumer products, knowing that people are more likely to buy something if it involves a token ‘doing the right thing’. I suspect that one turning point in Kurosawa’s thinking was the view that his involvement in politics in the 1930’s was not about changing things, it was making him feel better about the situation. Perhaps he felt that protesters and agitators were not deep down interested in changing things, just in making token opposition to ease their own entry into the establishment at a later time. Its almost as if he saw the 1960’s protest generation coming. Perhaps this is also a reason why Kurosawa was specifically hated so much by the later more radical generation of Japanese film makers – they knew that he saw through the shallowness of their rebellion.

    And you are right, Record of a Living Being indeed seems to give no option of government involvement, apart from that one line which you pointed out. I wonder though, given Japan’s relationship with the US, how realistic that path would have been, not only in terms of the world presented in the film, but also in terms of the film making policies of mid-50s Japan. Could Kurosawa even have made such a film? And if he could have, could Japan actually realistically have had any say over the global nuclear situation?

    I think this is a crucial point. As I’ve posted links to it a number of times, you’ll know I have a bit of a minor obsession with the Yoshida Doctrine, with was the immediate post war policy of Japanese governments. The Doctrine said, in effect, that Japan would simply cease to operate as a ‘normal’ country in its external dealings. It would cede military and most diplomatic matters to the US or UN, while focusing singlemindedly on economic development. Many in the West saw this as an admirable display of neutrality, a welcome contrast from Cold War politics. Others, more cynically saw it as a continuation of the Pacific War, using economics rather than the military to gain pre-eminence in the east Asian and Pacific region. In the latter interpretation, Japan simply hid under the US nuclear umbrella while developing its economic might. Others have argued that the development of nuclear energy (including fast breeder plutonium reactors) was a way for Japan to implicitly threaten neighbours (and the US) while maintaining clean hands – i.e. by saying ‘we don’t have nukes, but we could build them in 6 months if you mess us around’.

    So I think its true to say that official Japanese policy to nuclear weaponry and militarism during the 1950’s was simultaneously pacifist and militarist, full of pious statements and soft talk, while keeping a big (and growing) stick well hidden. As such it was very difficult for protesters, even given the notorious opacity of the Japanese political system. I think that anti-nuclear protesters at the time (and I don’t know to what extent this was overt, but certainly in the 1960’s and later there were many violent protests against both nuclear weapons and nuclear energy, especially in Okinawa) were aware of the difficulty in finding who to protest against. Obviously they knew marching against American and Soviet nuclear weapons was a bit pointless. And probably many were aware of the double standards of the Japanese government – officially ‘anti-nuclear’, but also operating under the US nuclear umbrella, while also rapidly developing civilian nuclear knowhow.

    So perhaps looking at this context its quite understandable that Kurosawa deliberately decided against allowing political activism to be brought into the film as a way out of the characters quandary. He meant what the prisoner said – the role of the Prime Minister was to act as a psychological shield for the rest of the population.

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    Vili Maunula

    Ugetsu, that’s a very good point about the apparent contrast between Japan’s anti nuclear weapon stance and its civilian nuclear plant program.

    According to Wikipedia, Japan began its nuclear energy program in 1954, which was also the year of the Lucky Dragon 5 incident. While many commentators writing on Record of a Living Being (and our next month’s film, Godzilla) have made note of the film’s relationship with that incident, I wonder how much should actually be read into the fact that the time coincides also with the beginning of the country’s own civilian nuclear program.

    If we consider Record of a Living Being only within the context of the Pacific nuclear bomb tests, Japan is seen as a victim. But if we also acknowledge the possibility that the film was influenced by Japan’s own decision to pursue nuclear energy, an interpretation emerges where Japan herself (and especially its policy makers) also function as one source of the potential problem. And this brings us straight back to the line from the film which inspired you to start this discussion.

    You also go on to raise the point that through its civilian nuclear power program, Japan could in practice form something of a threat on its neighbours, effectively signalling that “we don’t have nukes, but we could build them in 6 months if you mess us around”, as you write. I was wondering if this indeed would have been true? My knowledge of nuclear weapon making is quite limited, so I don’t really know whether Japan could, in reality, have made use of its nuclear programme in this way. Have you read into this? It would be interesting to hear more!

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    Fred

    Although I will have to watch the film again before I can make a definitive statement, I would like to share my first thoughts on hearing “It’s the prime minister’s job...” in Record of a Living Being: Although not meant by the speaker to be ironical, it still struck me as such, as it depicts a position completely ignoring the impact nuclear war would have on each individual, i.e. a position completely contrary to Nakajima’s worries about nuclear annihilation. After having watched Nakajima, we are at least to a certain extent primed to sympathize with his concerns, no matter how irrational he seems to act. The speaker is in some sort of denial, possibly due to ignorance, possibly to protect himself from being overwhelmed by fear. We do not learn anything about the person’s personality, so we cannot decide what made him utter this statement, which is in stark contrast with Nakajima obsession. AK excludes politics, he shows us what war — in this case just the potentiality of war — can do to individuals. This reminds me of the experience Kane conveys in Rhapsody in August, again completely removed from politics, only telling the story of a person who suffered through the horror of the bomb.

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    Ugetsu

    Vili

    But if we also acknowledge the possibility that the film was influenced by Japan’s own decision to pursue nuclear energy, an interpretation emerges where Japan herself (and especially its policy makers) also function as one source of the potential problem. And this brings us straight back to the line from the film which inspired you to start this discussion.

    Its an interesting point (I hadn’t realised Japans nuclear program had started so early). It may have been one reason Kurosawa chose to make only the most tangental reference to the Japanese government in the film.

    My knowledge of nuclear weapon making is quite limited, so I don’t really know whether Japan could, in reality, have made use of its nuclear programme in this way. Have you read into this? It would be interesting to hear more!

    As always, wikipedia comes to the rescue. Its a frequently discussed point in international relations (and I have a slightly nerdish interest in the topic) that for many countries having a latent nuclear weapons program (i.e. develop the know-how, but not actually build the weapons) can be more useful than actually having the bomb – it can act both as a long term deterrent without having the costs and difficulties and responsibilities involved in having the weapons. Japan has certainly uses it as a bargaining chip several times in the past – floating the notion of it developing its own nuclear deterrent to remind the US that they are not wholly militarily dependent on them, while still maintaining ‘clean hands’ as a non-nuclear state.

    From what I know, its generally been accepted that Japan has had the technology and materials since the 1960’s at least. They’ve had a long fast breeder program (which produces weapons grade plutonium) as well as civilian uranium processing facilities, both of which can produce the materials needed in large quantities. It was rumoured in the 1980’s that Japan had a hand in the Taiwanese attempt to develop a bomb – they are known to have designed a working weapon and to have made enough uranium, but the US effectively quashed the program (although again, they have also kept the threat alive for their own reasons).

    There is no doubt that the Japanese government have played a double game for decades, officially anti-nuclear while always keeping the option open. Obviously the film was made before Japan went nuclear, but I would assume Kurosawa at this stage was well aware that the Japanese government would not hesitate to maintain a hypocritical stance on the issue.

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    Vili Maunula

    Thanks, Ugetsu! Interesting reading. I was not aware of this.

    Fred, I pretty much fully agree with your assessment of what is implied with the “prime minister’s job” line. I think it illustrates the core problem of the film very well and we can ask which of the two characters is less mad, Nakajima or his cell mate.

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