Sunday, 5 February 2017

'Stars have Fallen in a Stagnant Pool': A Review of Akira Kurosawa's 'Scandal' (1950 film)

[Warning: Spoilers for the entirety of Akira Kurosawa’s Scandal]

Akira Kurosawa’s Scandal is a masterfully directed first draft. It is a potentially great film where one can see every mistake dragging it down. When writing, Kurosawa and Kikushima seemingly started with, ‘What if two innocent people got libelled in a sex scandal?’ As they continued, however, their interest shifted from the libel victims to their lawyer, Hiruta (Takashi Shimura), and his redemption story. In early drafts, such shifts of focus are fine, but the writers neglected to make the whole script fit this new focus.

The painter Ichirou Aoye (Toshiro Mifune) and the singer Miyako Saijo (Shirley Yamaguchi) vacation in the mountains, separately. A chance encounter leads Ichiro to chauffeur Miyako to their inn, where they have a platonic conversation in her room. Two tabloid photographers trailed them. They take a photo of this famous singer and her ‘paramour’. The tabloid has plastered their libel all over Tokyo’s streets when our heroes return. Help arrives in the attorney Hiruta, a poor, weasly-looking man, with a consumptive daughter. Can Hiruta save them? 

The film suffers from misplaced focus. From my outline of the first act, you’d think Ichirou and Miyako are the heroes, that the plot centred on their reactions to, and sufferings from, the scandal. But no. Our hero is Hiruta; he is the only character with a complete arc. Hiruta starts as wanting to do good, to put his slimy past behind him. The tabloid bribes him to throw the trial, thus betraying Ichirou and Miyako. His accepting the bribe is an obstacle to his redemption. By the end, he comes to a cross-roads were he either must conceal the bribe, and lose the case and his self-respect, or reveal the bribe, and win the case, but lose what little respect from others he had (and possibly his career).

And yet this film about Hiruta’s redemption begins by establishing Ichirou’s individualism and love of freedom. The opening scene shows him painting a mountain, in a style entirely his own, for he ‘never imitates’. He tells Miyako he drives a motorbike because he loves the sense of freedom. A character having such values, and the film showing the character has such values, is no mark against a film, by itself. (Indeed, it suggests a round character.) But by foregrounding Ichirou’s values, the film signals it will be about these values. It isn’t. The plot never challenges his values. His individualism does not turn the court against him in the libel lawsuit. (‘Well, if he’s willing to do that, then, of course, he had sex with that woman.’) Media attention does not curtail his freedom. It does not chase him wherever he goes, thus forcing him to remain in hiding. I am not saying the film should have challenged Ichirou’s values. But if it was never going to challenge them, it should not have given them such undue prominence.

And talk about undue focus, the film is called scandal, but it doesn’t explore scandal, or the human costs of libel. Ichirou and Miyako suffer little from their sex scandal. The scandal bolsters their careers, if anything. Her concerts and his gallery showings sell-out. They do complain their new audiences don’t care about their art, only their sex lives. But this is not sufficiently explored to be a theme – in fact, the film only explores it enough to diffuse the scandal’s stakes. What have they to lose in this libel case? Their reputations? The truth? The film only gestures in any such direction.

The film realises its misplaced focus, and relegates our side characters to the side-line, to focus on Hiruta.  This is only until a misjudged monologue in the climatic court scene. In this scene, Hiruta must decide whether he’s man or scum, yet the scene begins with a monologue from Ichirou. He gives an impassioned defence of himself and Miyako, saying they have done nothing wrong. This protestation of their innocence would have been a tremendous capstone to the film, had the film been about them and their innocence. The audience does not care whether they lose this libel suit (ergo, the court rules they did do the scandalous act), because the film did not build up the stakes of their losing the case.

Even given the low stakes facing both our libel victims, the film focuses on the one with the lower stakes. Ichirou may not be the protagonist, but he should not even be the foremost side-character – Miyako should. The film touches on gendered double-standards concerning sex scandals. Accused of sleeping with a famous singer, Ichirou gets crushing teenage girls gawking at him. Accused of sleeping with a famous artist, Miyako gets a post-box full of slut-shaming. Although the film rarely extrapolates on what exactly these two have to lose, the film knows Miyako has more to lose than Ichirou – yet it devotes more screen time to Ichirou. This is a failure of plot focus and structure. Most of Ichirou’s dramatic functions (his hiring Hiruta, consoling Hiruta’s daughter, helping Hiruta believe in himself), the writers could have shifted to Miyako.

But, as I said, Hiruta is the true protagonist of the film. He is the germ of brilliance at the film’s centre. He is a self-pitying, self-loathing, weak man wanting to become better. It’s no coincidence his name, 蛭田, contains the kanji for ‘leech’.

Kurosawa gives him that best kind of character introduction, where the audience gets the character’s essence in miniature. The audience does not see Hiruta, at first. They see Ichirou’s life model screaming at Hiruta, who was staring in through the window. In the narrative, this isn’t as creepy as it sounds: Hiruta was checking if anyone was home. Nevertheless, Kurosawa didn’t have to have Hiruta mistaken for a peeping tom. Kurosawa wants the audience to associate Hiruta with that level of villainy. Peeping is not an outright threatening crime like assault or stalking. Peeping is a pathetic, skeevy crime, a crime reeking of impotence. Even as Hiruta advertises his legal services to Ichirou, with genuinely good intentions, the audience suspects him of pathetic-ness, skeeviness, and impotence. The audience senses he will do wrong, not from malice, but weakness.

With directorial flourishes, Kurosawa codes Hiruta as pathetic. (For one he cast Takashi Shimura, a man who resembles an abused rat.) But let’s look in detail at a specific scene, when Hiruta confronts the libellous tabloid editor. To outline: the scene starts with Hiruta threatening the editor with a lawsuit, bluffing and bigging up his case; the editor pokes holes in Hiruta’s case; the editor says (dishonestly) he has hired one of Japan’s finest attorney’s. In outline, the editor beats Hiruta down from Hiruta’s early dominance.

But the Kurosawa’s direction prevents this from being a battle for dominance. Although Hiruta starts the scene literally higher and more prominent in the frame, standing while the editor sits, the audience never feels he’s in control. His clothes are baggy and scruffy, made more so by contrast with the editor’s crisp, tailored suit. In the middle of his threats, Hiruta has to scurry off screen to cough his lungs out, before scurrying back as though nothing happened. When the editor convinces Hiruta he has the upper-hand, the audience does not view it as a reversal of positions, but a realisation of the inevitable.

As the audience needs to see some good in Hiruta for his redemption to seem believable, he has a consumptive daughter. She makes his willingness to accept a bribe, his willingness to betray his clients, less damnable. His ill-gotten gains do not merely serve himself, but his dying daughter.

But while I understand the daughter’s narrative purpose, she is an artistic misstep. She’s straight from a Victorian novel, the consumptive girl who is too good for this world. She serves only as a spur to other characters’ consciences. She is not a character; she is a narrative device.

If Scandal is a great movie held down by mistakes, the Christmas party scene in the middle shows the greatness it could have achieved. Narratively and atmospherically, it symbolises the cross-roads Hiruta stands at, where he can either rise up, or remain low. Ichirou and Hiruta drink in a bar. Hiruta drinks to forget what a horrible man and father he is. Ichirou wants to keep this pitiable leech from hurting himself. Their dourness seems out of place among the Christmas cheer. Another drunk starts yammering about he’ll change his life. Next year will be his year, he yells to the bar. He’ll become a new man. Hiruta jumps into frame – Yes! Next year will be his year, too. This year, he was scum, but in the next, he will become a man! He calls for the patrons to join him singing Auld Lang Syne, at first futilely, but eventually the patrons join in, growing to a choir. The scene does not end on this solidarity. It ends by montaging the singers’ sad, sobbing faces.

The scene superposes aspiration and resignation. We have the saplings of redemption, a man who vows to be better, but the scene’s details complicate this. For starters, Hiruta is drunk. Alcohol bolsters hope and courage, before sobriety murders them. Secondly, while New Year’s Resolutions in general go infamously unfulfilled, he makes his resolution on Christmas. Still six more days to remain scum.

Auld Lang Syne could easily have unbalanced this ambiguity of hope and despair. If no one else joined Hiruta singing, he would have been a pathetic old man, nursing delusions no one believes. If everyone joined (a lá that cliché of a few claps growing to applause), the crowd would validate his optimism. By having them all sing, but cutting to their sorrowful faces, Kurosawa captures the ambiguity of all big resolutions. Everyone in the bar thinks, ‘I will become a better person; I am too worthless to become better.’

The outdoor sequence at the end acts as synecdoche for the scene, concisely capturing the ambiguity. Wandering drunkenly with Hiruta, Ichirou bellows at a pond, ‘It’s a miracle. Look! Stars have fallen in a stagnant pool.’ The hope of this exclamation is tempered, but not extinguished, by the image’s triteness, and that the image comes from a drunkard.

Such prolonged spurts of brilliance make the film worth seeing, but do not expect a brilliant movie. It takes the film too long to realise who its hero is, so it never recovers from its out of the gate stumble. But when it does focus on Hiruta, you’ll find a masterfully done redemption story.

[Version Watched: Madman/Eastern Eye's DVD release.]

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