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I Live in Fear
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by Jay Seaver

"FDR had it right - nothing to fear but fear itself."
4 stars

My most recent viewing of "I Live in Fear" was as part of a double feature with "Godzilla" during a series on films of the Cold War. It's an apt pairing, as both tackle, in their own way, the fear of the atomic bomb - an anxiety which Japan would of course feel especially strongly. Where the other film makes nuclear destruction into a tangible monster to fight, "I Live in Fear" spends its time on how we deal with the real one.

Dr. Harada (Takashi Shimura) must ponder the question of how much time people should spend worrying about the atomic bomb. A dentist by trade, he is also respected enough for family courts to use him as a mediator, and his latest case is an unusual one - the family of Kiichi Nakajima (Toshiro Mifune) is suing to have him declared incompetent. Over the past year, he has become so obsessed with the idea of nuclear war that he first spent millions of yen to build an underground bunker to his family to move into, then, deciding that was not safe enough, hatched a plan to move the lot (including the children fathered with a series of mistresses) to Brazil. Since he is willing to trade the family business that supports them all, they feel they have no other recourse.

In retrospect, the idea seems crazy, but what makes the film compelling is that Harada is able to see the sanity in the elder Nakajima's actions. Everyone he talks to admits to being frightened of the atomic bomb, but, they say, there's nothing that they can do about it, so worrying does little good. But if Nakajima can do something about it, isn't he obligated to? Harada spends most of the film as an observer, sometimes thrashing the case around with his son, and Takashi Shimura does a fine job of showing Harada's growing sympathy for Nakajima without going over the edge into madness himself.

Madness is Mifune's domain, and he's comfortable there. He's playing a man of more than his then-thirty-five years, and in some ways it's rather exaggerated. He spends a fair amount of time bent over, stumbling with a cane; his costume reminds one more like an old man wandering around in his bathrobe than traditional attire. At times, it's a good thing that Takashi Shimura is so grounded as Harada, because we need that to keep Nakajima's fears from seeming like anything but the ravings of a lunatic. Even if it's a broad performance, though, it's not a bad one. His madness does spring from concern for his family, and it is possible to see the hard-driving businessman and even a bit of the ladies' man who was so vital before he became gripped in fear.

Some of his most interesting scenes are the ones which focus on the Nakajima family dynamics. We get a sense of how painful it is for the family to challenge Kiichi, even as we see how necessary it is: There are three generations living under one roof, and that roof is connected to their foundry business; as much as the film is about how the arms race made madness sane and sanity mad, it's also about the other changes going on in Japanese culture. We see how traditional family life can work - Harada and his son share a home and dental practice - but we also get the sense that in the modern world, a household like the Nakajimas' is a house of cards: One thing going wrong can devastate an entire family and leave them unable to support each other. The relationship between the Nakajimas and Kiichi's other families is interesting to watch, as well: They've learned to co-exist, and part of what makes Kiichi such an interesting character is that he never alienates his other children, and wants to bring them and their mothers with him to Brazil, even if he won't officially recognize them in the eyes of the law.

We've got time to mull this over because Kurosawa gives it to us. Kurosawa's style is seldom flashy, and he'll let long moments go by on relatively static shots that show Mifune looking pained or Shimura torn. Or he'll keep the camera steady so that what a character is saying will sink in, like when the old man from Brazil mentions what it took for him to accept the idea of leaving home. He also uses the Academy-ratio frame to crowd his cast together, pushing the camera in just a little closer than usual, just enough to make the audience feel like we are intruding on the characters' private discussions. Kurosawa's straightforward style is deceptively rich - an already chilling shot of the sun during a conversation between Nakajima and Harada becomes even more so when one remembers that a star is a continuous nuclear explosion.

Kurosawa does such a fine job of getting us inside this family that it's almost a shame that he's only telling this one, relatively simple story about them. Still, the ideas are compelling, and even if nuclear annihilation isn't the threat it once was, the film is still an effective reminder of how constant fear is no way to live.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=5673&reviewer=371
originally posted: 03/22/07 15:57:47
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User Comments

3/22/10 brian Just try not to think about it after seeing this, and good luck. 4 stars
10/30/05 Jeanne Yeah, no samurai - just Mifune magnificently playing TWICE his age and losing his shit. 5 stars
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