I Live In Fear (Ikimono no kiroku) (1955)

I Live In Fear (Ikimono no kiroku) first published by Movie Gazette in 2005

In the Fifties, Japan seemed a dangerous place to live. Leaving aside its geographical susceptibility to earthquakes, just a decade earlier, with the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it had become the only country ever to have been subjected to nuclear attack – and with the US currently conducting extensive H-bomb tests not so very far away in Bikini Atoll, nobody was quite sure what the fallout might be. In this Cold War climate of legitimately grounded paranoia, Godzilla (1954) was spawned, a gigantic fire-breathing lizard onto which Japan could project all its atomic-age fears. Yet Akira Kurosawa’s I Live in Fear (Ikimono no Kiroku), in Japanese cinemas one year later, featured another monstrous figure who would also embody his nation’s and the world’s terror, even if he would prove to be less popular with cinemagoers than his rubber-suited big brother.

Wealthy foundry owner and patriarch Kiichi Nakajima (Toshiro Mifune) has developed a pathological fear of nuclear holocaust, and so begins sinking his fortune into various schemes designed to protect the members of his family from imminent destruction – yet they would rather hang on to their inheritance, and so try to have Kiichi declared mentally incompetent in a Family Court where earnest dentist Dr Harada (Takashi Shimura) works as a mediator. As the case goes into appeal, Kiichi is confronted with the greedy squabbling of his family, the impossibly wide reach of the nuclear threat, and his own desperate powerlessness to keep safe the ever growing group of people for whom he feels responsible – until in the end it is Kiichi who explodes, and in the ensuing meltdown finds a terribly logical, if not rational, way to escape earth’s danger once and for all.

In the 1950s, atomic anxiety was very much the province of science fiction B-movies (like The Day the Earth Stood Still, 1951). Kurosawa nods to the conventions of this genre by opening I Live in Fear with an alien’s-eye aerial perspective of Tokyo’s streets, accompanied on Hayasaka’s soundtrack by the distinct futurist tones of a theremin – and indeed the film ends, at least in Kiichi’s mind, on another planet. Yet Kurosawa is far more interested in human drama than space opera, and although it would be another thirty years before he adapted King Lear into the epic Ran (1985), there is also something of Shakespeare’s tragic old man in Kiichi, despotic but humane, surrounded by unfilial ingrates, fearful in thunderstorms, and slowly driven mad.

Kurosawa had originally conceived I Live in Fear to be a comic satire, although probably not to be as madcap as Stanley Kubrick’s subsequent nuclear-age lampoon Dr Strangelove (1964) – but he soon found himself drawn, like his character Dr Harada, to the innate gravity of the material, exposing the faultlines in an extended (and far from nuclear) family, and more generally in Japan’s post-war society, through the disruptive effects of one man’s well-grounded yet excessive fear. All the film’s terror, anger and even decency is written on the face of Kurosawa-regular Toshiro Mifune, in his seemingly effortless portrayal of a complex, petulant man twice his age.

In its own time I Live in Fear may have failed at the box office, but three decades later its tragic tale of an old man burning down the house to save his family from nuclear annihilation directly inspired Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice (1986) – and amidst the many threats facing the world today, from tsunamis to terrorism to global warming, the film still has a powerful impact.

© Anton Bitel