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Record of a Living Being: The madness of Nakajima

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    Ugetsu

    I haven’t covered all the reading I should on Kurosawa, but from the sources I have read that there seems to be a nagging feeling among most reviewers (and I think Kurosawa himself) that the film is something of an honorable failure. Both Richie and Prince seem strangely tentative in discussing the film, as if they both struggled to come to any firm conclusions about it. I found it gripping and powerful and nowhere near as ‘dated’ as I expected, although it is obviously a film very much of its time – although I couldn’t help feel that the ‘burning earth’ scene was strikingly contemporary in its concern.

    My own concern with the story, and where (for me) it loses some of its power, is the final madness of Nakajima. If nearly all Kurosawa films are dialectical as Prince claims – i.e. in a constant tension between different viewpoints, it seems that in opting to unambiguously depict Nakajima as having gone finally insane it undermines the nagging feeling Harada had (and we the audience) that it was Nakajima who was sane, its the rest of society that was mad for ignoring the threat.

    Its not the first time I think that a Kurosawa film that depends on a dialectical balance between characters flirted with siding too much with one or the other, so turning the film into a more straightforward narrative – but it does seem to me the only one where this went too far. I would have liked more ambiguity at the end – to leave Harada and us with the feeling that just maybe an injustice was done, that Nakajima is sane after all.

    So, was this a narrative error? Did Kurosawa indicate why he thought the film went wrong?

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    Ryan

    To be honest, as soon as I saw Mifune in the role of an old man, it already felt like a parody. In other words, I felt as though I couldn’t take it seriously as soon as Mifune graced the screen. A film with intentions to be dramatic and involving shouldn’t have a comedic central character. Comedic idiosyncrasies are fine, but being funny just to look at kind of defeats the purpose.

    Even without that, the film lacks punch. Not only is it uninvolving, it’s passive. It feels distant and therefore, I think, fails to grab the viewer. In this sense, it is unlike Kurosawa’s most successful works; Seven Samurai, Ikiru, Yojimbo, Sanjuro etc.

    I can’t say I’m surprised critics, along with Kurosawa himself, considers it a failure. Though I don’t believe I’ve read or seen Kurosawa mention that he considers it a failure. It would be great if someone could provide a reference.

    It’ll be interesting to see the discussion of this film in the film club as I personally don’t think it’s a film that promotes much discussion, nor analysis. Furthermore, I don’t think it’s a film quite worthy of discussion. As much as I love Kurosawa, I do find Record of a Living Being (or as its known here in the UK, I Live in Fear) an utter bore and one of the director’s worst films, along with The Lower Depths, Ran (controversial, I know) and Dodesukaden.

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    Ugetsu

    Ryan, its in Richies ‘The Films of Akira Kurosawa’,under ‘production’ he says:

    perhaps because he became so personally involved in the film, perhaps because he felt it (therefore-maybe) to be a partial failure, he has spoken more about its production than he has about many of his other films.

    I’m not clear from this statement whether Kurosawa told Richie he considered it a partial failure, or this is Richies guess.

    Interestingly, Richie also says that while it was poorly received initially in Japan, it got a very warm welcome when it was first properly shown in the West, at a festival in 1961.

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    Vili Maunula

    Ugetsu: I’m not clear from this statement whether Kurosawa told Richie he considered it a partial failure, or this is Richies guess.

    We come back to the good old problem of uncertainty regarding Richie’s quotes and interpretations, which he rarely footnotes or attributes to anything.

    I must say that based on what I have read, I don’t feel that Kurosawa thought of Record of a Living Being as a failure, just somewhat less focused than what he had originally been aiming at. But I am, of course, much further removed from Kurosawa than is Richie, so I’m an even less reliable source on saying what went on in Kurosawa’s mind.

    Ugetsu: My own concern with the story, and where (for me) it loses some of its power, is the final madness of Nakajima. If nearly all Kurosawa films are dialectical as Prince claims – i.e. in a constant tension between different viewpoints, it seems that in opting to unambiguously depict Nakajima as having gone finally insane it undermines the nagging feeling Harada had (and we the audience) that it was Nakajima who was sane, its the rest of society that was mad for ignoring the threat.

    I don’t really see it that way. A mad society drives a sane person insane.

    I’m not saying that Nakajima was definitely the sane one here (I think it’s far more complex than that), but for me the ending is powerful, and does not undermine the possibility that Nakajima’s concerns were valid. In fact, I feel that Nakajima’s final madness emphasises the possibility that he was, for the most part, very sane indeed.

    Ugetsu: So, was this a narrative error? Did Kurosawa indicate why he thought the film went wrong?

    I think that Kurosawa’s concern was more about the incoherence brought about by the film having changed from a satire into a drama. See for instance Richie, page 109 (quoting Kurosawa):

    “And this [turning a satire into a tragedy] would be the reason why the film might be thought incoherent — even chaotic. Still it was good we made it. Anyway, the way we felt — how could we have made a satire?”

    Ryan: To be honest, as soon as I saw Mifune in the role of an old man, it already felt like a parody. In other words, I felt as though I couldn’t take it seriously as soon as Mifune graced the screen. A film with intentions to be dramatic and involving shouldn’t have a comedic central character. Comedic idiosyncrasies are fine, but being funny just to look at kind of defeats the purpose.

    That’s really interesting to hear. Personally, I have never had that problem with the film. In fact, it’s my favourite performance from Mifune. There are a few scenes where his true age shines through — mainly when his hands are in full view, or when he smiles — but other than that I absolutely buy him as an older man, and it never even crossed my mind to think of his performance as funny.

    But then again, I think that this is one of Kurosawa’s most interesting films, right up there with works like Stray Dog, Red Beard and Ran. Which also means that you may be seeing somewhat more of discussion here this month than you anticipated — at the very least between me, myself and I! 😉

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    Ugetsu

    Its interesting that Kurosawa thought the film was incoherent – I think its very tight and focused, admirably so. I think its actually a little ‘tighter’ than most of his contemporary dramas.

    Vili:

    I’m not saying that Nakajima was definitely the sane one here (I think it’s far more complex than that), but for me the ending is powerful, and does not undermine the possibility that Nakajima’s concerns were valid. In fact, I feel that Nakajima’s final madness emphasises the possibility that he was, for the most part, very sane indeed.

    Thats a good point, and I’m sure it is what Kurosawa was aiming for, but I do feel that the ending is loose enough for the interpretation that ‘its all ok, the guy was just mad in the end, the family were right to have him put away’. I guess a lot depends on the contemporary approach to mental illness and how the audience would see things.

    Ryan:

    To be honest, as soon as I saw Mifune in the role of an old man, it already felt like a parody. In other words, I felt as though I couldn’t take it seriously as soon as Mifune graced the screen. A film with intentions to be dramatic and involving shouldn’t have a comedic central character. Comedic idiosyncrasies are fine, but being funny just to look at kind of defeats the purpose.

    I didn’t see it that way at all! I thought Mifune was very good, although he suffered from the usual problem of young actors playing ‘old’ that they can’t quite get the body movements right. I thought of him as an angry and dynamic young man trapped in an old mans body. I actually thought the character was very interesting – a Howard Hughes type – someone who was fundamentally unstable, but could direct that neurosis towards productive ends when younger (not to mention building up a stable of women), but who, on finding he’s achieved all he can reasonably achieve, loses control mentally.

    Vili:

    But then again, I think that this is one of Kurosawa’s most interesting films, right up there with works like Stray Dog, Red Beard and Ran. Which also means that you may be seeing somewhat more of discussion here this month than you anticipated — at the very least between me, myself and I! 😉

    Very glad to hear that you are back! I’m looking forward to reading what you have to say about the film.

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    Vili Maunula

    Ugetsu: I do feel that the ending is loose enough for the interpretation that ‘its all ok, the guy was just mad in the end, the family were right to have him put away’.

    I agree that the interpretation is certainly available to us, but I’m not sure if it is given any precedence over the alternative one.

    Like so often with Kurosawa, Record of a Living Being ends with two contradictory statements. Nakajima’s son-in-law (the French teacher, I think his name is Yamazaki) remarks that this is for the best, as Nakajima was insane. Meanwhile, the person working at the mental institution confesses that his patient makes him not only depressed but also to question his sanity and Nakajima’s insanity. Personally, I feel that this latter statement is a little bit too strong, and the film could have benefitted from a more subtle advancement of the same sentiment. But nevertheless both interpretations are explicitly voiced, much like in Stray Dog, and no conclusion reached.

    Ugetsu: Very glad to hear that you are back!

    Well, I never really went anywhere, but to be honest there were some major technical issues that prevented me from reacting to discussion here. Those are now solved, or so I hope. 🙂

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    Ugetsu

    Like so often with Kurosawa, Record of a Living Being ends with two contradictory statements. Nakajima’s son-in-law (the French teacher, I think his name is Yamazaki) remarks that this is for the best, as Nakajima was insane. Meanwhile, the person working at the mental institution confesses that his patient makes him not only depressed but also to question his sanity and Nakajima’s insanity. Personally, I feel that this latter statement is a little bit too strong, and the film could have benefitted from a more subtle advancement of the same sentiment. But nevertheless both interpretations are explicitly voiced, much like in Stray Dog, and no conclusion reached.

    Very good point – I think the final imagery of the burning earth was so strong, it made me forget about the psychiatrists comment. I think it probably was the intention to show both interpretations – perhaps it would have been better structurally (at least for someone like me, not paying enough attention) for the conflicting comments on Nakajima to come after the ‘burning earth’ scene.

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    Vili Maunula

    Ugetsu: I think the final imagery of the burning earth was so strong, it made me forget about the psychiatrists comment. I think it probably was the intention to show both interpretations – perhaps it would have been better structurally (at least for someone like me, not paying enough attention) for the conflicting comments on Nakajima to come after the ‘burning earth’ scene.

    That is true. I have actually always felt that the scenes in the hospital are too long and somewhat unfocused. I didn’t remember that whole business about Hayasaka’s passing away affecting these scenes before I read about it again when preparing this month’s intro post, but perhaps that’s an explanation.

    Also, maybe the reason why the pschiatrist’s comments are so strong is because they are in the danger of being buried under all the other information given to us at the end — as still happened with your viewing of the film.

    But it’s a bit uneven there. Elsewhere, the film seems very tight and focused. Like you, I cannot fully understand Kurosawa’s comments about “incoherence”. But maybe there was something in the overall work that he felt didn’t quite come across as he had intended.

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    Vili Maunula

    Ugetsu: I actually thought the character was very interesting – a Howard Hughes type – someone who was fundamentally unstable, but could direct that neurosis towards productive ends when younger (not to mention building up a stable of women), but who, on finding he’s achieved all he can reasonably achieve, loses control mentally.

    I have been thinking about this, and I think that I would like to go a bit further than simply declaring Nakajima prone to insanity. Also, I don’t think that his losing his mind has much to do with him achieving everything that he can achieve (clearly he already has new goals, and those revolve around South America). I think that his insanity stems from elsewhere.

    I wonder, would you agree with the following chain of events?

    1. At some point before the film begins, Nakajima learns about nuclear weapons and perceives them as a threat. In terms of the “fight or flight” response, Nakajima realises that since he cannot fight the threat (a shelter would not be able to protect him and his family long enough), the only option left for him is fleeing. He perceives Brazil as a safe place, probably because it is more or less exactly on the opposite side of the globe from the place that he considers the epicentre of the problem, Japan. It is the furthest he can get to, and therefore the best that he can do.

    2. Nakajima is declared financially incompetent. Suddenly, he is no longer in control of his own fate, as he cannot escape Japan. This makes him more afraid of the nuclear threat than he had been before. After all, with the option to flee also now denied for him, he sees no way of solving the problem that he is facing. Hence his fear, and the stress caused by it.

    3. Nakajima has heard from the Brazilian man that the only reason why he agreed to originally move to Brazil with his father was that their business burnt down, leaving them with nothing. Without properly thinking through the situation, most probably because of the fear and stress, Nakajima burns down the foundry, hoping that this would convince the family, and therefore make it possible for him to flee from the perceived threat and save his loved ones.

    4. What he hasn’t taken into account is that this also affects his employees, who are now out of work. Instead of solving a problem, he has created a new one. He feels that he has been to selfish in only trying to save himself and his family. This perhaps makes Nakajima at least on some level realise that he has not considered the situation thoroughly enough. He needs to reconsider.

    5. While held for arson, two low-lives sharing the cell with him plant him with the idea that no place on Earth is safe from H-bombs. This, he realises, is most probably true.

    6. Confronted with the new facts, and his mind now weak from all the stress and everything that has happened, the only way for Nakajima’s brain to escape the threat and end the fear and stress caused by it, is to assume that he has been taken onto another planet. Once there, he is able to relax. The mind tricks itself into believing that the problem is solved.

    You suggest that Nakajima is fundamentally unstable and neurotic. I’m not sure if I fully agree. I rather think that he has two fundamental flaws. One is his rationalism, the other his humanism.

    There is nothing inherently wrong with his assessment of the situation – the nuclear threat is real. But while other people’s minds solve this problem by pretty much ignoring it, Nakajima is too rational to do that. He cannot simply let it go and accept it, not as long as there is a solution that he can perceive. This seems to have something to do with his fear of being killed, which he notes is not the same as being afraid of simply dying.

    In the reality that he initially perceives, South America is safe. All he needs to do is move there. Unfortunately, his humanism – or at least his care for those he loves – then becomes the problem. He doesn’t want to help himself without helping others. But the others don’t want to be helped, as they are perfectly capable of ignoring the threat.

    There is no solution to this, and that is what sends Nakajima to the mental ward. He ultimately finds closure by creating a reality in which he has escaped the Earth. We perceive this as insanity. But really, the question is how much more insane Nakajima’s reality is than the reality of those who escape the problem by ignoring it?

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    Ugetsu

    Interesting sequence, Vili. I was wondering how much Nakajima’s behaviour was intended by Kurosawa to be psychologically credible.

    I can’t find the link to it, but a while back I was reading about some recent research on risk perception. It seems that scientists are now convinced that we are pretty much hard wired to over react to certain ‘immediate’ risks, while our brains are poor at dealing with risks that are more complex and longer term.

    From memory, one researcher wired up students to monitor brain reaction to certain types of risk scenarios. They were told, in detail, about the science of global warming, with all the scarier scenarios for humanity set out in full detail. The students would express concern, say how worrying they found it – but the brain scans would only reveal a few small sparks in the right area – they weren’t really, deep down, scared. Then, they would be told something like ‘see that box beside you? There is a snake in it!’. Their brains would go haywire!. And the thing is, the same would happen even if they were told calmly and specifically that the snake was a completely harmless, small, non-poisonous species.

    I was thinking of this research watching the film – that Nakajima is someone who is miss-wired to react on a ‘fight of flight’ basis to the sort of long term amorphous threat that most of us (irrationally) dismiss. Of course, the fact that his brain is wrongly wired doesn’t mean he is wrong – in fact, in the situation of the time, to be terrified of nuclear war was entirely rational and sensible. But if everyone had reacted rationally, as the film shows, society would probably have melted down.

    On the other side of things, I do think that there are lots of hints provided that Nakajima is more than just a regular man. He was hugely driven – someone with boundless energy. He must have been to create his business and have so many mistresses! I think Kurosawa was painting a picture of a very restless man, someone who is always striving for something, never content with what he has. Maybe there is something a little autobiographical there? I do think that there is a type of driven personality who can only stay ‘sane’ when they have fixed goals and can devote all their surplus energy to those goals. Once they are taken away, there is the danger of depression, neurosis, etc., to take over. My reading of the film is that Nakajima is such a character.

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    Vili Maunula

    Ugetsu: I can’t find the link to it, but a while back I was reading about some recent research on risk perception. It seems that scientists are now convinced that we are pretty much hard wired to over react to certain ‘immediate’ risks, while our brains are poor at dealing with risks that are more complex and longer term.

    That’s an excellent point, we indeed appear to be hard-wired in a way that makes is difficult for us to deal with probabilities, whether in risk perception or elsewhere. We are terrified about nuclear accidents and airplane disasters, yet the probability of us being killed by them is far smaller than, say, coal power related pollution or car traffic.

    Considering the time when the film came out, when western powers were testing nuclear weapons in the pacific and the Cold War making nuclear war a real threat, I suppose people were far more worried about these things than we are these days. Yet, most people approached the problem like everyone but Nakajima does in the film — not really wanting to think about it. In that context, I suppose we could say that the film brings forward the probability and the reality of nuclear annihilation, making audiences question their approach to the problem.

    After all, there is a third possible solution to Nakajima’s problem. If enough people come together and realise the madness of nuclear war, it should be possible to prevent it. And that, I suppose, is what the film is doing, at least on some level.

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