Director: Akira Kurosawa
While clearing off my DVR last week, I watched this early film by Kurosawa, which I had recorded last spring. I wasn't exactly sure what to expect, knowing little beyond the fact that it stars two of Kurosawa's greatest actors, Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura, each of whom made many movies with the director, and is about an artist who sues a gossip magazine for libel. It turned out to be not only one of the most unusual films by Kurosawa I've ever seen, but—and this was purely by accident, since I wasn't aware of it in advance—perhaps the oddest Christmas-themed movie I've ever come across.
The film stars the young Mifune as a pipe-smoking, motorcycle-riding artist. While out painting in the mountains, he encounters a concert singer (played by Yoshiko Yamaguchi, who was billed as Shirley Yamaguchi when she made House of Bamboo for Samuel Fuller a few years later) who has missed her bus and offers her a ride on his motorcycle to a nearby country inn. The two spend a chaste night at the inn in separate rooms. But two paparazzi who work for a scandal magazine called Amour spot the famous singer and sneak a picture of her and Mifune relaxing on the balcony of her room in their kimonos. The magazine publishes the photo and a wholly concocted story about the pair being caught spending a dirty weekend. Motivated partly by gallantry and partly by sheer stubbornness, the outraged artist is persuaded to sue the magazine after being visited by a shabby lawyer played by Takashi Shimura.
The second part of the film shifts the focus to Shimura, who pulls out all the stops in his extravagant performance as the lawyer. This is a man who at first appears to be a charmingly comic eccentric but is soon revealed to be a deeply flawed person, a man who gambles compulsively, drinks too much, is considered a washed-up failure and object of ridicule by others, and is consumed with self-loathing. Egged on in his gambling by the sleazy editor of Amour, he accumulates large debts then accepts money from the editor to pay his debts, in effect being bribed to lose the case. The lawyer also has a long-suffering wife and a teenaged daughter gravely ill with tuberculosis. The painter and singer become involved with the family and give the daughter a Christmas to remember while she dispenses optimistic platitudes like a bedridden Tiny Tim. You haven't lived until you've seen Mifune riding through the slums of postwar Tokyo with a fully decorated Christmas tree on the back of his motorcycle as "Jingle Bells" plays on the soundtrack. This sequence also contains Yamaguchi singing "Silent Night" to the daughter with Mifune accompanying her on a pump organ. Later that same night Mifune and Shimura visit a squalid dive called The Red Cat, where the two proceed to get rip-roaring drunk while the house combo plays "Buttons and Bows" and the drunken Shimura ends up leading the entire club in a maudlin rendition of "Auld Lang Syne."
The third part of the movie deals with the libel trial. Suborned by the editor of the magazine, Shimura is torn between the hold the editor has over him and his duty to his clients. Things look pretty bleak for Mifune and Yamaguchi, and the question becomes whether the lawyer will go through with his plans to lead the case to defeat or have a last-minute change of heart and reveal his unethical behavior to the court and ruin what is left of his reputation and career. To appreciate the ramifications of this dilemma fully—for both the lawyer and his clients—it's necessary to keep in mind the importance traditional Japanese culture places on saving face and the complete shame associated with dishonor.
David Thomson has written that Kurosawa is the Japanese director "most alert to Western art and American cinema in particular." One can certainly see the influence of American gangster movies and film noir in early Kurosawa films like Stray Dog and later ones like High and Low, and so closely do his well-known samurai movies resemble Westerns (his favorite movie was reportedly Stagecoach) that more than one has been remade as just that. But while watching Scandal I kept thinking of Frank Capra. Mifune's painter is as idealistic and headstrong, and in his way as naive, as Capra's Mr. Deeds and Mr. Smith. As the villain of the movie, the magazine editor is as heartless as Edward Arnold's newspaper publisher in Meet John Doe, or for that matter any of Capra's villains, a man driven by greed and the love of power and indifferent to the human cost of his actions. Kurosawa's view of the media is as negative as Capra's in several of his movies, especially Meet John Doe. The climactic trial is reminiscent of the one in Mr. Deeds, while the Christmas setting brings to mind It's a Wonderful Life. And the slow fall of Shimura as the lawyer is as poignant as George Bailey's descent into despair in It's a Wonderful Life.
While none of these things is unique to Capra, their presence together in one movie makes the similarity of Scandal to Capra's social comedies hard to overlook. It's almost as if Kurosawa sliced and diced several Frank Capra movies and threw in a pinch of A Christmas Carol for good measure. Kurosawa, however, did this with so little restraint that he makes Capra seem almost temperate in comparison. If you find Capra sentimental, you'll find Scandal downright mawkish. If you find Capra lacking in subtlety, you'll find Scandal positively overbearing. If you think Capra's heroes and heroines are conflicted, you'll find Shimura's lawyer a virtual martyr to weakness, self-pity, and hopelessness.
With its every element so overstated, Scandal has clear shortcomings that make it likely to be of greater interest to followers of the director than to the general viewer. Still, it is certainly a fascinating movie and unlike any other Kurosawa film I've seen. Vincent Canby called Scandal "a parody of Hollywood," but while watching the film, it never occurred to me for a moment that Kurosawa's intentions were anything but serious. He directs with confidence and professionalism, providing many imaginative visual touches, and parts of the film are quite affecting even if the level of pathos is often excessive.