Consumption and the Atom Bomb: Fear of the Unseen in the Films of Akira Kurosawa

Akira Kurosawa’s films are suffused with a fear of unseen danger, particularly in the form of disease. Kurosawa’s first (Drunken Angel) and last (Red Beard) collaboration with his favorite lead, Toshiro Mifune, are about heroic doctors who struggle to help their patients in an environment hostile to their aims. In Drunken Angel, Takashi Shimura, the drunken angel of the title, plays an alcoholic doctor in postwar Japan who struggles to treat a young small-time gangster, played by Toshiro Mifune. By 1965, Toshiro Mifune, in Red Beard, stars as a compassionate and almost saintly clinic director who selflessly helps the poor. In I Live in Fear, Mifune plays an old man who is convinced that Japan will be destroyed by atomic weapons. Running both through Kurosawa’s medical dramas and I Live in Fear is a fear of that which can’t be seen.

I Live in Fear is a fascinating, if uneven, film. Released one year after Gojira (Godzilla), directed by Kurosawa’s lifelong friend, Ishiro Honda, I Live in Fear is a product of the same nuclear anxiety. Kiichi Nakajima, the main character, tries to move his family to Brazil to avoid atomic destruction and is committed to an insane asylum. Moving to Brazil, though, of course, would do little if there was a full nuclear war. The atomic threat cannot be seen or prevented, and trying to resist can only result in insanity.

In Kurosawa’s movies, disease, as an invisible and relatively uncombatable menace, is treated the same as the atom bomb. In Red Beard, the highly philosophical clinic director comments that doctors cannot save a patient from death, and he accepts his patients’ deaths with sadness but equanimity. He further claims that economic relief would help his patients far more than medicine. In the melodramatic The Quiet Duel, the doctor treats himself for his syphilis, but accepts sickness as his due and doesn’t expect a recovery. In Drunken Angel, the doctor is portrayed as highly skilled, but the sick have more agency in their recovery than he does. Kurosawa’s medical dramas are all highly unusual in this regard. Little of the drama in them comes from the specific disease or the doctors’ ability to diagnose what ails their patients. His medical dramas, like his police procedurals, diagnose and investigate society far more than a patient’s sickness or a crime. Social injustice, like disease and the atom bomb, is an unseen threat that hangs overhead and always threatens to strike. Kurosawa’s samurai films, with their certainty in the social order and neat resolutions, lack the threat of unseen violence, and the thematic complexity Kurosawa explores through it.

Illness is a major premise in more than Kurosawa's medical dramas. Ikiru (To Live), one of Kurosawa’s most sincere films, opens with the narrator telling the viewer that Kanji Watanabe, a middle-aged bureaucrat, has stomach cancer and will die within the year. After a brief slide towards nihilism, the threat of death ultimately jolts Watanabe into a delayed embrace of life. He dedicates his remaining time towards turning a mosquito-infested pit of water into a park. His fear of death allows him to stand up to the comparatively smaller threats of bureaucratic complacency and criminal interests that would normally stall such a product. There is some optimism then in Kurosawa’s obsession with fatal illness, but it’s heavily tempered by Watanabe’s death and the self-interested embrace of the status quo that soon returns after he is gone.

Film is such a visual medium, the the attention that Kurosawa gives to the unseen is fascinating. There is the obviously invisible threat of tuberculosis in Drunken Angel, syphilis in The Quiet Duel, and atomic war in I Live in Fear, but Kurosawa also examines dangers that are more abstract: Rashomon is about the difficulty of ascertaining truth; The Bad Sleep Well is about the insidious effects of corporate corruption; and Scandal, at its heart, is about the difficulty of distinguishing the upright from the immoral. Running through The Lower Depths, Stray Dog, and High and Low is an attempt to display the easily seen, but often ignored, lives of the poor.

Kurosawa’s last film, Madadayo (Not Yet), follows the annual meetings between a retired professor of German, Hyakken Uchida, and his former students. At each meeting Uchida announces he is still not ready for death. Madadayo is one of Kurosawa’s most meandering films, but it too plods along under the shadow of hidden violence. Towards the beginning of the film, there is the threat of unpredictable bombing raids, and, as Uchida ages, the threat of natural death. There is an extended subplot where Uchida loses his cat and is paralyzed by his fear of what violence might visit it that he will never see.

Violence, by the sword and under wraps, defines Kurosawa’s films. While his films with open violence bend closer to comedy than terror, the suspense in High and Low and The Bad Sleep Well can be truly frightening. A full reckoning of the impossibility of safety evinced in Red Beard and I Live in Fear is highly uncomfortable. Kurosawa is clearly frightened by the unseen. There are a lot of things that films can’t do, but they surely can bear witness, even if they are as unhelpful in finding the truth as the deponents in Rashomon. Kurosawa, if nothing else, doesn’t look away.