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Film Club: Scandal (1950)

ScandalOur Akira Kurosawa film club‘s film of the month this November is Scandal (Sukyandaru or Shubun), Kurosawa’s 1950 film about the destructive powers of the tabloid press and the moral limits of free speech. It continues Kurosawa’s exploration of social challenges faced by post-war Japan, a topic he had already looked at in One Wonderful Sunday, Drunken Angel, The Quiet Duel and Stray Dog.

Scandal was released on 30 April 1950, with work on it having begun soon after the release of Stray Dog in October 1949. The exact timeline for its half-a-year gestation is however a little difficult to pinpoint from available sources. According to Galbraith, the film was “shot in late 1949 and completed in January 1950” (120), but in his discussion of the film Sorensen notes that a final draft was submitted to the occupation censors for pre-censorship as late as February 13, 1950. (205-206) Here, I would lean towards the timeline suggested by Sorensen’s remark, as the time between supposedly finishing the shoot in January and releasing the film in April would seem rather untypical of the way Kurosawa’s films were released at the time, with the films often being screened only days (or in the case of Rashomon, hours) after the work in the editing room had finished. In any case, unlike with his four previous post-war films, Kurosawa was able to make Scandal without much actual interference from censorship (Sorensen, 206).

The initial driving force behind Scandal was Kurosawa’s worry about the new freedoms of speech given to newspapers, which had increasingly begun to manifest in tabloid papers publishing scandalous articles in order to boost their sales. One such article titled “Who Stole X’s Virginity?” is in particular referred to in Kurosawa’s autobiography as an impetus for the development of Scandal. (177) And while Kurosawa does not mention it, Richie also adds that Kurosawa himself had personal experience of the tabloid treatment, having earlier been romantically linked to Hideko Takamine in the yellow press, the star of Horse (1941), and that this may well have also contributed to the birth of Scandal. (65)

While Scandal was Kurosawa’s first work not to suffer from any kind of direct censorship, its story, penned by Kurosawa together with Ryuzo Kikushima, was nevertheless compromised. Just like the spotlight in Drunken Angel had been stolen by Toshiro Mifune’s character and performance as the non-titular gangster, the main focus in Scandal begun to drift early on away from the original main characters played by Mifune and actress Yoshiko Yamaguchi, and more towards the lawyer character named Hiruta played by Takashi Shimura. This character, who in many ways resembles Sanada from Drunken Angel and Watanabe from Ikiru, turned the film into something quite different from what Kurosawa had originally envisioned. “From the moment this Hiruta appeared, the pen I was using to write the screenplay seemed almost bewitched. … As this happened, the character of Hiruta quite naturally took over the film and nudged the hero aside. Even as I observed what was happening and knew it was wrong, I could do nothing to stop it.” (Kurosawa, 178) Months after the film’s release, Kurosawa would suddenly realise that he had actually subconsciously based the character on a man whom he had met years earlier during a drunken night at a bar. (Kurosawa, 178-180) Talk about the dangers of heavy drinking.

As Kurosawa himself notes, Hiruta’s taking over the film has a rather detrimental force on the story, and it takes focus away from the film’s intended central theme. Kurosawa assesses that ultimately “Scandal proved to be as ineffectual a weapon against slander as a praying mantis against a hatchet. … Scandal did not prove strong enough.” (178) Shimura’s performance as Hiruta is nevertheless excellent, so much so that Richie considers it second only to Shimura’s work in Seven Samurai. (66)

Hiruta may in fact not be the only character in Scandal with a real-life counterpart. Actress Yoshiko Yamaguchi (also known as Yoshiko Otaka and Shirley Yamaguchi), who plays the role of a singer falsely accused of an affair with Mifune’s painter, was one of Japan’s most controversial and scandalous actresses of the time, and a big target of the tabloid media. As Ugetsu in a previous discussion on the film has noted, Yamaguchi’s “appearance in the film would have been quite ‘loaded’ symbolically for a contemporary audience”, and it is probable that Kurosawa cast her at least partly with this fact in mind. It has additionally sometimes been suggested that the painter character played by Toshiro Mifune could be seen as an alter ego of Kurosawa himself, who of course had studied painting and, as mentioned before, had himself been the target of tabloid stories.

Scandal is typically considered one of Kurosawa’s lesser works. In his chapter on the film, Yoshimoto writes that “despite the timeliness of its subject matter, Scandal is one of Kurosawa’s least convincing films. … Falling short of squarely dealing with the expansion of the media as a social problem, Scandal lapses into sentimental melodrama.” (Yoshimoto, 180) And indeed, Kurosawa’s portrayal of the media problem is rather one-sided. Richie, himself a newspaper man, observes that the journalists in the film are one-dimensional and too strongly and too lazily vilified, while the painter and the singer remain little more than empty props. In Richie’s view, only Hiruta ends up being an interesting character. (Richie, 66-68)

It must be noted, however, that focusing too much on how the film fails to properly tackle its media subject may be criticising it for something that it, in the end, was not necessarily aiming to do. As Richie puts it, by the end of the film we see that the scandalous posters of the alleged affair have now faded away, and everyone has moved on. “The suggestion is that things come and go, which is a singular way to end a protest film. On the other hand, perhaps the intention is ironic, perhaps Kurosawa wanted to indicate that, after all, all this fuss had been over very little. This would agree with the proposition that the true moral of the film has very little to do with hero or heroine — rather, that the true hero of the film is the lawyer. … The picture is a protest film all right but its protestations are not aimed at the world of the yellow press. They are aimed at the world itself, at this world which takes what is loved, which forces impossible decisions, which insists upon a choice among evils.” (69)

Whatever its goals, Scandal‘s debt to western film making has often been noted as another aspect which contributes to its relative failures. Galbraith argues that “the influence of Hollywood [on Scandal] is undeniable. For the first and only time, Kurosawa simply and obviously imitates rather than transcends his influences, trying to work through several major themes amid a patchwork of ideas. … The second part of Kurosawa’s film rather obviously apes Capra in general and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) in particular.” (120-121)

Just like Scandal has been accused of a lack of focus and original voice in the story department, it has also been criticised for its allegedly lacklustre style. Stephen Prince calls the imagery “for Kurosawa, amazingly pedestrian, but this may be in reaction to the formal energy of Stray Dog (1949), the film that preceded it and which Kurosawa felt was too full of ‘technique’.” (75) In his discussion, Prince links Scandal together with One Wonderful Sunday and The Quite Duel, calling them “necessary mediocrities, productions that enabled Kurosawa to relax between the rigors of the major works No Regrets for Our Youth (1946), Drunken Angel (1948), Stray Dog (1949) and Ikiru (1952)” (75), noting that in contrast to these latter mentioned, the three supposedly lesser works “have a placid surface that is marked by a general absence of radical formal experimentation.” (73)

Prince’s view is, however, not the only one. Richie for instance, while admitting the film’s failures, considers Scandal technically rather well made, praising in particular its editing and transitions. (68) Similarly, our own earlier discussion of the film — it was our film club feature for the first time in April 2010 — found the film to be more satisfying and layered than most critics have given it credit for. This has, in fact, been true of most of Kurosawa’s immediate post-war works, which we have typically found out to be more complex than the standard critical literature on Kurosawa’s works has assumed.

Scandal is, of course, both chronologically and thematically strongly linked to Kurosawa’s works of the late 1940s. James Goodwin draws a particular parallel to Drunken Angel and Stray Dog, arguing that while Scandal itself is not a gangster film, it still “extends the idea of criminality to include the ‘verbal gangsterism’ of gossip in the popular press”. (65) The film has in fact sometimes been seen as the end of Kurosawa’s second phase as a film maker. According to this view, Kurosawa’s next film Rashomon is a big departure from his wartime films and the post-war films of the late 1940s.

While this is true on many levels, reality is of course more nuanced and organic than this line of thinking would suggest. Scandal, in fact, already exhibits the first echoes of Rashomon, in as much as it centres around the unreliability of visual testimony, in this case a photograph. This topic of subjective truth is foregrounded from the very beginning in Scandal, with Aoye the painter working on a painting of Mount Kumotori that, according to the bystanding villagers, looks rather peculiar and very unlike any other depiction of that same mountain. In Rashomon, Kurosawa would take this questioning of subjective truth and testimony onto the next level, and in a sense also re-stage the courtroom scenes of Scandal, while also more directly asking questions about the relation between reality and (moving) picture. The jump from Scandal to Rashomon, which we will discuss in January, is therefore not necessarily quite as large as could at first be imagined.

For the availability of Scandal on home video, see my uide to Kurosawa on DVD. A full schedule of our film club can be found at the film club page, where you can also see that our film for December will be Kenji Mizoguchi’s 1953 masterpiece Ugetsu monogatari.

But November is all for Scandal. What are your views of the film and its position in the Kurosawa canon?





This is a great summary and overview Vili. My comments on this are slightly handicapped by a mechanical issue – a disk stuck in my dvd drive! But the film is still strong in my memory.

I’m still convinced AK’s intentions with the film were more broadly satirical about Japanese society and its thrall to American culture and mores than a simple attack on the yellow press. But, having watched since then a few older Capra films I have been wondering if some of the weaknesses of the films come from Kurosawa being a little too influenced by a type of film making that didn’t really suit him or the material? I’m thinking in particular of the courtroom scenes, which don’t really work that well for me.



I just rewatched this. My reaction was pretty similar to before; I think the script is flawed, but the acting is top-notch, and the first thirty minutes are as good as, say, Drunken Angel, which I’m very fond of, to mention a contemporary film he made not that long before. The film starts to go off the rails for me when Aoe first meets Masako.

I don’t see it as an attack on American culture. Maybe I’m being ignorant or naive, but I doubt that scandalmongering media didn’t exist until the Occupation, and I think too much is made of the signs in English. I see it as an attack on the worship of celebrity, and find it very timely, with the idea, pushed by Ms. Saito’s manager, that all publicity is good publicity, from which Ms. Saito shrinks in horror. But perhaps I’m predisposed to see this; critique of the obsession with celebrity is one of my favorite tropes. And I like the irony that in the end, the scandal would have gone away anyway, possibly sooner if Aoe hadn’t brought the lawsuit. More could have been made of Aoe’s willingness to stand on principle rather than shrug his shoulders, take the money (from his art exhibit), and run.

For more specifics on what bothered me about the film, see the thread I started on Scandal: The Rewrite.


Vili Maunula

Ugetsu: But, having watched since then a few older Capra films I have been wondering if some of the weaknesses of the films come from Kurosawa being a little too influenced by a type of film making that didn’t really suit him or the material? I’m thinking in particular of the courtroom scenes, which don’t really work that well for me.

I was wondering the same thing when I watched a few Capra films this year. Maybe there were too many influences — Capra stylistically, Dostoevsky in terms of material, and Hiruta’s real life counterpart in terms of characterisation.

But like lawless, I must say that I am unable to see the film as an attack on either Japanese or the American culture. Its intentions seem to be more specific than that.



Vili – I feel like I missed something somewhere. Where or what did Kurosawa get from Dostoevsky that influenced Scandal?


Vili Maunula

While I am by no means an expert on Dostoevsky or Russian literature in general, it seems to me that Hiruta’s moral struggle has its origins in Dostoevsky’s exploration of suffering, torment, redemption, self-sacrifice and salvation. Again, I have read only very little Russian literature, so this is entirely based on what I have picked up from second hand sources.



Vili – I saw your reference to it on the other thread later. Those are themes that Dostoevsky dealt with frequently.

I picked up a used copy of The Idiot at a rummage sale recently. I read it once a long time ago, but don’t remember it well, especially as compared to The Brothers Karamazov, which left an indelible impression on me. I’m hoping to reread it before we get to Kurosawa’s adaptation on the film club schedule.


Vili Maunula

Also I am toying with the idea of giving Dostoevsky’s The Idiot another try before March. Last time I gave up about half-way through, but if I start now, I might be able to finish in time. 😀



“The Idiot” is available for free to your Kindle, Vili. Just type in “free books to download” in the Kindle store search, and you will find a few dozen classics, including “The Idiot”.

Having come at the book from Kurosawa’s film first-I did not have Donald Richie’s feeling that the film was just the book slavishly recorded. I don’t think that’s possible anyway-
But, importantly, I think the feeling is so vastly different-there are some things the book can do that are just astonishing…such complex interior psychologies, so nuanced and delicately stated…and other things that are purely cinematic that film does. The horror and the frozen feeling of lives stunted and twisted as that is externally visible-those things are just astonishing in the film.

I would say that the Prince Myishkin character is felt from the outside in the film, from the inside in the book, but that Rogozhin is a cypher in the book, much simpler to understand in the film, and easier to sympathize with… (Mifune!) The character of the homes and landscape also are much more aprehensible in the film. They become characters as well-fully fleshed out. The nightmarish winter carnivale, theough…this is purely an invention of Kurosawa’s and a wonderful one!


Vili Maunula

Thanks for the suggestion, Coco! I have downloaded a few books from Project Gutenberg, which seems to be where Amazon’s free editions usually come from. But maybe the Amazon versions are better formatted than Gutenberg’s, so I’ll definitely give it a try.

We in fact also have The Idiot in our bookshelf in a couple of different editions. I think. Although I’m not sure in what languages. I haven’t checked in a while.

And even so, I have decided that I’ll try to tackle The Idiot as an audio book. I practically spend all my working hours reading, so I no longer feel like reading in the evenings. However, when I go for a jog or do dishes or work in the garden or clean the house, or do any number of boring and repetitive things, I tend to listen to audio books. Not all books work as audio books, and the more text-centred and textually experimental the book is, the less well it works. It depends a lot on the narrator as well. But I think The Idiot might work.

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