Thursday, November 14, 2019

I Live In Fear Is A Brutal Rumination on Inescapable Paranoia

In I Live in Fear, the past doesn't just have an ominous presence, it practically blankets the proceedings. The horrors that atomic warfare have unleashed on Japan inform the tormented psychological state of the protagonist of this 1955 Akira Kurosawa motion picture.  That protagonist is middle-aged man Kiichi Nakajima (Toshiro Mifune), whose immense level of anxiety over the prospect of further atomic bombs coming alone and further damaging his world are what instill in him paranoia over making sure he's protected from any further bombings. At first, such paranoia leads him to merely build out a huge bomb shelter, but eventually, he concocts a scheme to travel to what he deems the only safe place on the planet: Brazil.

No man is an island and that's no less true of Nakajima, who has a swarm of relatives who condemn his behavior. They think their father/grandfather has gone off the deep end and dismisses his concerns as merely the ramblings of an unhinged mind. Only third-party observer Dr. Harada (Takashi Shimura) seems to really lend an empathetic ear to what Nakajima is going through. Harada openly notes how Nakajima's internal concerns are something every Japanese citizen feels, albeit on a less pronounced level. The way Harada and others contemplate their differing positions on Nakajima's mindset makes I Live in Fear very much an Akira Kurosawa movie in how the characters can frequently become vessels to explore certain perspectives on key debates.

Especially in his tales set in then modern-day Japan like Drunken Angel or Stray Dog, Kurosawa tends to have his characters work just as well, if not moreso, as physical manifestations of certain worldviews as they do as standalone characters. One can frequently see scenes in these movies, including I Live in Fear, as basically Kurosawa wrestling with differing outlooks on the world and humanity itself. Sometimes, filmmakers taking this approach tend to get too enamored in their own arguments and leave the audience out in the cold as a result, the philosophical equivalent of watching someone play a video game they refuse to share.

But Kurosawa always manages to translate his characters as avatars for certain contrasting points-of-view into dramatically compelling material in their own right and I Live in Fear is no exception. Through I Live in Fear, Kurosawa is using his characters to explore the idea of whether it's more rational to be gripped by endless fear or to push horrifying circumstances out one's mind altogether. Is ignorance truly bliss or is it just a band-aid to prevent us from confronting our actual problems? Such a fascinating contemplative exercise makes for riveting family drama, especially since Kurosawa doesn't hold back in depicting the dangerous ways Nakajima's obsessive nature begins to impact those around him.

Also helping to make the proceedings as engaging as they are is the way Kurosawa explores what an overwhelming experience it is living within the head of Nakajima on a daily basis. This poor man can't even hear the clap of thunder without being terrified at mistaking the noise for the impending arrival of an atomic bomb. Toshiro Mifune's gifts as a physical performer that have been used to convey everything from exuberance to assuredness in other Kurosawa directorial efforts are here used to powerful effect to communicate the growing weariness consuming Nakajima's body. By the end of the movie, Mifune hauntingly makes this character a physical ghost of who he was in the opening scenes.

That final scene closes out I Live in Fear on an ambiguous note that doesn't offer a concrete answer on whether true insanity is to be consumed with fear over the future or ignoring prospective danger outright. There may not be any tidy endings found here but you do get a total gut-punch of a conclusion as Dr. Harada and Nakajima share one final tragic conversation together. It's a moving capper on one of Kurosawa's most emotionally brutal endings, the yang to Drunken Angel's yin of a hopeful conclusion. Don't watch it if you're in any sort of emotionally fragile state, but I Live in Fear is certainly an impactful entry in Kurosawa's filmography that lingers with you a good while after it finishes.

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