One of the first Japanese commercial features to directly address the fear of nuclear holocaust and the implications of the atom bomb, Record of a Living Being, which is better known as I Live in Fear (1955, aka Ikimono no Kiroku) was an unusual and unexpected movie for director Akira Kurosawa. He had recently completed Seven Samurai (1954), a huge box office and critical success in both Japan and around the world, but his new work was much smaller in scale compared to that sprawling period epic.
Instead of the pure physicality of Seven Samurai, I Live in Fear was a more introspective, cerebral work but its concerns were more timely and relevant to contemporary Japan during the post-war era. Even though it had been ten years since the U.S. military had dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in March of 1945, Japanese filmmakers had avoided the subject in studio features for years. Recent events, however, such as the nuclear testing in Bikini Atoll which exposed Japanese fishermen to fallout and the radioactive rain that fell on northern provinces, compelled Kurosawa to make I Live in Fear.
While an educational film about the aftermath of the Hiroshima-Nagasaki bombings was distributed in the school system in 1953 – Children of the Atom Bomb (aka Children of Hiroshima) by Kaneto Shindo – it did not focus on the motives behind the incident or explore the psychological impact of it. It simply showed the horrific devastation caused by a nuclear weapon without a political or social point of view. Hideo Sekigawa’s Hiroshima released the same year was an even more explicit re-enactment of that fateful day on August 6, 1945. Kurosawa, however, approached the topic of nuclear annihilation in the guise of a melodrama with philosophical overtones.
In I Live in Fear, an elderly businessman, Nakajima (Toshiro Mifune), has become convinced that Japan will be destroyed in a nuclear attack. Fearful that this could occur very soon, he behaves rashly, at first spending a lot of money to build an elaborate underground shelter (which is never completed). He then decides to move his entire family (along with two mistresses, their children and the son of a third, now deceased mistress) to a farm in Brazil. Nakajima’s family think he is behaving irrationally and try to have him declared mentally incompetent. Their main fear, though, is that he will squander all his money (and their inheritance) on his plan of fleeing Japan. Nobody in his family really wants to go to Brazil either but as long as Nakajima is controlling the money, they have no choice in the matter until they decide to involve the Tokyo Family Court in their squabble.
Harada (Takashi Shimura), a volunteer worker for the court, hears the complaints on both sides but, despite empathizing with Nakajima’s fears, rules in favor of his family. This decision only makes Nakajima increasingly desperate and, in a final effort to force his family to accept his original decision, commits an act which has tragic repercussions for everyone.
Kurosawa later claimed that I Live in Fear was inspired by conversations he had with his longtime film composer Fumio Hayasaka, who had become seriously ill during the making of Seven Samurai. Hayasaka had said to him, “The world has come to such a state that we don’t really know what is in store for us tomorrow. I wouldn’t even know how to go on living – I’m that uncertain. Uncertainties, nothing but uncertainties. Every day there are fewer and fewer places that are safe. Soon there will be no place at all.”
These thoughts eventually led to a screenplay about the nuclear age and a man who was driven insane by it but at first, Kurosawa wanted to approach it as a satire. “But how do you make a satire on the H-bomb?” he asked. Instead his story became a tragedy and the somber tone deepened when Hayasaka succumbed to tuberculosis during the film’s production.
Kurosawa was devastated by his friend’s death and said, “I was completely overwhelmed. It went so far that I wondered if this loss would not incapacitate me, ruin me. Truly, at that time, I was like a person half of whom is gone. Hayasaka was indispensable to me….There are many experiments in my films which are the result of the two of us talking things over and most of them are good…Actually, I think it was our work – his and mine – which set a kind of precedent, at least in Japanese films. We showed that sound effects, dialogue, music when put under the image do not simply add to it – they multiply it. It is as though a three-dimensional effect is created.”
Compared to Kurosawa’s previous film, Seven Samurai, I Live in Fear has a claustrophobic intensity with much of it shot in the manner of a documentary. The high contrast cinematography emphasizes washed-out whites and the blackest of black tones with frequent cutaways to inanimate objects – typewriters, fans, machinery in the police station and in the foundry – to stress the sense of dehumanization. “This film is again about a social problem,” Kurosawa stated. “And one of the reasons that I like social problems is simply that by using them I can make a question better understandable to my audience. Indeed, there is something topical about films. If they don’t have topicality, they are not meaningful. Films are not for museums.”
Perhaps I Live in Fear was too topical at the time of its release. Tokyo had just experienced a disaster in the local tuna industry – all the fish were contaminated by radioactivity – and Kurosawa’s film certainly didn’t do anything to reassure the public’s fears. “It was my biggest box office loss,” he later said. “After having put so much of myself into this film, after having seriously treated a serious theme, this complete lack of interest disappointed me. When I think about it, however, I see that we made the film too soon. At that time no one was thinking seriously of atomic extinction. It was only later that people got frightened and that a number of films – On the Beach  among them – were made.”
Akira Kurosawa was nominated for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival for I Live in Fear in 1956 but it wasn’t until 1961 that the film received wider distribution outside Japan; it was screened in a Kurosawa retrospective at the Berlin Filmfestspiele, where it was acclaimed as a major rediscovery by the critics.
Still, I Live in Fear is rarely ranked by film scholars as one of Kurosawa’s masterpieces for various reasons. Some have noted Mifune’s unconvincing, old age makeup (he is playing a character more than half his age) and the film’s occasional slow pacing as liabilities while others have pointed out the film’s uncertain tonal shifts. Is Nakajima crazy or is it society? In the end, Nakajima becomes a King Lear-like figure of tragedy but all along he is no less troubling than those who question his rantings with responses like “H-bombs, eh? That’s a foolish thing to worry about. Let the Prime Minister do the worrying. If you’re so worried why don’t you just move off the earth altogether?”
Even if I Live in Fear is not in the same league with Seven Samurai or Ikiru (1952), it is nonetheless a thought-provoking, still topical drama and mandatory viewing for any Kurosawa fan. TimeOut movie critic Rod McShane said it best when he wrote, “It’s a problematic film, wearing its uncertainties on its sleeve; but whether shooting in long takes or cutting the footage from multiple camera shooting, Kurosawa remains the cinema’s supremely humanist emotional manipulator. See it and worry.” I Live in Fear was released on DVD by The Criterion Collection in January 2008 as part of their Eclipse Series set: Postwar Kurosawa. The disc came with no extras other than an essay on all of the films in the collection by Michael Koresky. The other films in Eclipse Series 7 included No Regrets for Our Youth, One Wonderful Sunday, Scandal and The Idiot. I Live in Fear is not currently available on Blu-Ray and may never be released on that format since it is not one of the director’s more popular titles.
*This is a revised and updated version of an article that originally appeared on the Turner Classic Movies website
Sources used for the Kurosawa quotes: The Films of Akira Kurosawa by Donald Ritchie (University of California Press); The Waves at Genji’s Door: Japan Through its Cinema by Joan Mellen (Pantheon)
Other websites of interest: