December 14, 2015

Scandal (1950)

A painter named Ichiro Aoe (Toshiro Mifune) meets a pop singer named Miyako Saigo (Yoshiko Yamaguchi) in the mountains. She has missed her bus, so he offers her a ride back to her hotel on his motorbike. They are photographed together by an opportunistic paparazzo, and a tabloid magazine prints a lurid - and false - story about their love affair. A furious Aoe hires a lawyer (Takashi Shimura) to sue the magazine, but his lawyer may not have his best interests at heart.

1950 was the year Akira Kurosawa made the transition from talented director to international sensation, thanks to his phenomenally successful jidai-geki drama Rashomon. Before he reached that career milestone, however, he directed this: his tenth feature film, and a sharp indictment on Japan's increasingly powerful news media. While generally regarded as one of his lesser films - and that's an assessment with which I'd have to agree - it does pack a fairly solid punch in its first half. The social issues with which Kurosawa tackles here remain depressingly relevant today, 65 years after the film was released.

The film's inspiration was a real-life experience where Kurosawa found himself romantically linked in the press to actress Hideko Takamine. Following the end of World War II the Japanese news media had enjoyed massively increased freedoms, and Kurosawa - no doubt based in part on his own negative experience - came to believe those freedoms had become too great. A runaway press was printing whatever sold newspapers and magazines, regardless of factual accuracy or the public good. I suspect it's this personal agenda that led Kurosawa to push his characters to such extremes. Aoe, as played by Mifune, is a principled and honourable man presented in an unnaturally idealised fashion. By contrast, the magazine editor Asai (Shinichi Himori) is effectively a comic-book villain, presented as immoral, cowardly and actively criminal.

This sort of stark binary division between the good characters and the bad weaken Kurosawa's message. His film becomes a polemic rather than a nuanced debate. While Toshiro Mifune does a wonderful job making Aoe a charismatic and entertaining protagonist, it's no surprise that he is over-shadowed in the second half by Takashi Shimura as the more ambivalent and textured lawyer Hiruta. He is ultimately the only character with any proper depth, being caught between a desire to make his terminally ill daughter proud and a need to pay off his gambling debts. He is a good man who has made bad life choices, and that automatically makes him a much more interesting character.

The film's courtroom scenes are very stereotypically drawn, although they do a good job of expressing the raucous manner in which they were conducted at the time. The press gallery is packed with photographers trying to get the best camera angles, movie cameras recording the action for newsreels and journalists jostling for the best position from which to hear the testimony. It really does showcase just how unpleasant and overwhelming the experience is for both Aoe and Saigo.

Scandal's melodramatic style makes it seem a much closer fit with Drunken Angel and The Quiet Duel than with the startling edge of Stray Dog, Kurosawa's immediately prior film. It feels like a step backwards in terms of style and overall quality, which is a little disappointing. Apparently Kurosawa himself was unhappy with how the film ultimately turned out - I wonder if the drop in quality is because he had his eye too firmly on a moral message, and not on the story or his characters.

There is one absolute stand-out scene, however: the lawyer Hiruta is drunk in a bar at Christmas and bemoans his pathetic life. A random drunkard wraps his arm around Hiruta's shoulder and pledges to do a better job of living his life in the coming year. Hiruta agrees. These two drunks start singing "Auld Yang Syne". Soon Aoe, who has been doing his best to keep Hiruta out of trouble, awkwardly joins in. Gradually the entire bar does. It's a beautifully shot and wonderfully emotional moment. Even in his average films Kurosawa is capable of these sorts of scenes, packed with emotional clarity.

Akira Kurosawa Reviews
1943: Sanshiro Sugata (review)
1944: The Most Beautiful (review)
1945: Sanshiro Sugata Part II (review)
1945: The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail (review)
1946: No Regrets for Our Youth (review)
1947: One Wonderful Sunday (review)
1948: Drunken Angel (review)
1949: The Quiet Duel (review)
1949: Stray Dog (review)
1950: Scandal

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