Blogging a disastrously translated "Record of a Living Being"

That I was able to sit through “Record of a Living Being”, which was terribly translated, abysmally translated, is a testament to Kurosawa’s remarkable powers as a story teller just via his cinematography.

Below is a blog of the film, but first some background. The film was made in 1955, coming between the “Seven Samurai” and “The Throne of Blood”. In 1954 the US and USSR and Great Britain had been staging experimental explosions and fallout struck Japan in the form of radioactive rain, as with other northern countries. The Japanese were alarmed by the testings and later by the fallout. I read that a number of films were made on the subject of radiation at that time, and Kurosawa made his own, “Record of a Living Being”, inspired by the suggestion of the composer with whom he’d worked for ten years, who was then dying of tuberculosis. It began as a satire and though it instead became a drama it’s comedic roots are obvious. Instead of lightening the subject the residual comedy makes the film seem broader in scope, showcasing not only the subject of The Bomb, but saying something of the human condition in general, and more specifically that of an elderly man who rules his family with the near mini-Shogun authority, his overwhelming sense of responsibility to them, and how it molds their response to him. In more than one respect we have here the root of Kurosawa’s later adaptation of “King Lear” in “Ran”.

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Jazzy music opens the film with a seeming hint of theramin, interestingly. The theramin was first used in sci fi film in “The Day the Earth Stood Still”, and became a 50’s sci fi staple, evoking immediately other-worldly futuristic interior landscapes. I’ve no idea if these films made it to Japan during the 50s and if they were popular there, but the use defies here the futuristic sci-fi monsters. Though Kurosawa opens broad with cars, cable cars and people flooding a Japanese street, coming and going, the focus will soon narrow down and concern the real fear of radiation as it effects a seemingly tyrannical family head who can indeed be viewed as a “monster” partly created by radiation, in this case the fear of it.

Narrowing down, we pass by a cable car , see into a dentist’s office beyond, then move into the office itself. A boy waits to have his teeth worked on by Takashi Shimura playing Dr. Harada, probably best known as the head samurai in the “Seven Samurai” and who has one of the more expressive faces, I think, in cinema history.

A woman given as his daughter enters and calls Dr. Harada to the phone. The Medical Association has promoted him to be a committee member (so says the film’s translation which means in this case he is a counselor in Family Court). The dentist working alongside him is his son and informs the person upon he’s working about how the duty involves divorces, settling agreements and the like; he talks of how his dad likes to be a negotiator and he’s forced to listen to him. When his dad comes back in complaining he is expected at court all afternoon, the son and the patient exchange knowing smiles.

The next scene is of Dr. Harada approaching the Family Court room and coming upon a family in heated, lively discussion of a dispute. The translation is so bad I’ve no idea what the argument is about and when a typically laconic, disgruntled teenage boy tells a man, “We both come from the same hole”, I wonder what in the world this could mean, and if it might have the meaning that first leaps to mind. The camera finally focuses on a typically laconic, disgruntled teenage girl who stands mopping herself with a handkerchief then vigorously fans herself. Whether she’s almost crying or simply in a mood is difficult to tell.

The ensemble acting is already a pleasure to watch. I’m familiar with no other director, outside of Fellini, who accomplishes what Kuosawa does with this many people. Not to say they don’t exist, I’m just unfamiliar. Even Altman in his group scenes tends to focus on individuals whereas Kurosawa can fill a frame with actors, keep the camera distant, and manage to make each stand out as a fully fleshed individual.

Everyone at the famliy court seems to be concerned with convincing their father with something as Dr. Harada enters the court room. A woman apologizes for her father’s impulsiveness. Perhaps we’re supposed to be confused about what’s going on, everyone anxious, but one grasps just how bad the translation problem will be right now, the dad saying to his son, “Why can you say some mature words? You only peep on my assets.”

Only peep on my assets?

The son attempts to reassure his dad that the whole of Japan is as worried as he is. The dad fans himself, then slams the table asking why his sons won’t listen to him, coffee spilling, and his wife in the background begins wailing as the dentist looks on with a confident, passive interest. Another man complains of their losing face. (Very important, you don’t want to lose face! Which brings to mind the “No Face” monster in “Spirited Away” and makes me wonder if it’s a direct translation.)

The court steps in to good-naturedly explain that it’s their job to listen and try to give advice. And everyone continues to wipe themselves with their handkerchiefs, the heat so oppressive as to seem blistering. They send everyone out and read up on the problem.

“The victim is Chung’s wife. Chung in June last year. To the radiation format the bomb.”

The council pauses to look at each other.

I wonder into what land I’ve been dropped. Chung? Chung?! The father’s name is supposed to be Kiichi Nakajima, played by Toshiro Mifune who was only 35 at the time, acting a man twice his age. I knew Mifune starred but watching the old man I had difficulty grasping this was Mifune, except for his hands. I recognized Mifune’s hands. If there is a moment where you think, “This isn’t an old man,” it’s when his actions are too quick and vigorous, but even then it suits the character of this old man who stands supported by the cane. You think, yes, this is a man whose wrath could easily eclipse physical infirmity.

So here is just how bad the translation is.

“Feels so frightened. Is sick of worries. In September of the same year he needed to leave home. Ignored the objection of the family. Bought 480 miles of land in Chow. To build some strange houses. November the same year. Knew that the place might be radiated. To stop the progress. As a result. Make the chung’s family to suffer a loss of 7.4 million. But to his strange behavior. He didn’t feel sorry and became mad. Chung wanted to find a piece of peace land on earth. In South America. Planned to migrate to Basil (note: not a typo) . In order to implement. He declared to use all wealth. The family therefore applied for an injunction from the court. If it lasts. Chung’s behavior will destroy the family life. So we have this declaration.”

The court stands about looking puzzled. Are you? I am. Basil! You will be even more amazed when you read the translation I happen to have in ‘The Films of Akira Kurosawa” by Donald Richie. (Oh, hi Fred. The resident waterbug scoots across the kitchen floor. He has more lives than a cat.)

“I demand that Kiichi Nakajima be certified quasi-incompetent on grounds that the appelant, wife of said Kiichi Nakajima, finds that since June of last year he has become suddenly, extremely and inexplicably fearful of atomic and hydrogen bombs and of the radioactivity thereof, and, seking to evade radioactivity from the south did, despite the opposition of his family, puchase property in Akita Prefecture, and did begin to build an underground shelter. Further, upon learning that radioactivity was coming from the north as well, he stopped this construction thus causing his family the meaningless loss of seven million yen. His conduct has now continued and, stating that safety lies only in South America, he has wilfully planned his family’s emigration, declaring that he will invest all funds he possesses in order to realize this aim. Unless he is declared quazi-incompetent and is placed under a guardian, not only his own but the lives of his entire fmily will be in jeapordy, and the family will be ruined. Therefore, the court is requested to take this procedure.”

Now you tell me how we got from that to “Bought 480 miles of land in Chow to build some strange houses…”


The victims (the children) are called back in and the children encourage the mother to go in as well as she is a victim too. I’m thinking there are a lot of children but why are some going in the court room and some staying outside. Who are children and who are in-laws? A man who is given as the husband of a daughter attempts to go in but is told, “Outsiders can go in” by the secretary who bars his way and he nods assent and stays outside.

Big translation problems here which is too bad as it’s beautifully filmed and acted.

Go from a shot of Nakajima sitting and fuming to one of the Dr. Harada, his day at court over sitting at home drinking a bit of sake or beer it seems, in his t-shirt. He is seated on the floor at table with his son who is reading a newspaper. With a look of concern, he asks his son, “Chun, what do you see the bombs of radiation, hydrogen?” His son wants to know why. Dr. Harada asks if it’s frightening and his son says everyone is frightened. So, the dentist asks, why does his son not seem frightened. (The answer is garbled by the translation.) Dr. Harada says, never-the-less, someone is planning on escaping. The son says that person must be mad. Dr. Harada disagrees and says no he’s not mad.

The story could have been told without the dentist, he’s inessential, but he represents the fears of many in Japan.

Another city scene, industrial. Men on a truck. They are backing it into place by a stairway where stands Nakajima. They begin shoveling out coal, I guess. By holding and observing the coal, people discuss its quality. It’s the family business apparently (turns out they run a foundry) and the dad is arguing about the price of the coal or something. In the background the children continue to argue with each other over the court case, condemning each other.

A car arrives, greeted by Nakajima. Who is the apparently wealthy man who gets out of it? A person approaches and asks Mrs. Chung if she’s sure about her decision, much to everyone’s confusion. The visitor who disembarked the car is identified as a farmer. He sets up a projector and displays his prosperous South American farm on film. His smile is huge. It is too big, too brilliant. “That is your house!” he says to Nakajima. In the film within a film, he walks toward the camera with his bright white smile, waving happy greetings in the brillant South American sun.

Nakajima visits various members of his family who each confound him by protesting that they will not be going with him to Basil. When he visits his youngest son who is still asleep in a run-down apartment, the son protests, “This is not good. Not for dad to use the asset”, to which Nakajima replies, “The decision is not human being.” He reassures his son (and himself) that he saw the farm film and that it looks good. He feels better for having seen it. But the son says he will not go.

His daughters protest that they won’t be going.

No one wants to migrate with Nakajima and he simply can’t understand it. Why won’t they listen to him? He’s the “host” of the family. He visits what seems to be a daughter or daughter-in-law, it’s difficult to tell what she is. While they are talking outside, a plane goes overhead, causing Nakajima to pause in his conversaton. Then another plane passes. The young woman not only ignores it, she is so used to the plane that it doesn’t exist for her.

Are we all waiting for Nakajima’s flashback to the war years? I was.

Another plane goes zipping overhead, there is a bright flash of light and Nakajima dives to the side of the room, cowering, in a “flashback”, for there has been no flash of light. Bombs go off. He hears people screaming. No, it’s his grandchild who is screaming as his grandfather cowers over her. And it wasn’t bombs after all. Wasn’t the bomb dropping. It was a thunderstorm. It pours rain.

I suffered through the whole film wondering exactly who was who. The bad and spare translation gave no clue for the most part, but later in the film when it was mentioned that Nakajima had one daughter and two sons, one by a former marriage, I was made even more perplexed (note: going through the movie again I see I’d gotten this wrong, that it said he had two wives and three children to support, one by a former marriage). “The Films of Kurosawa” supplies a synopsis and through it I learned that some of these women were not daughters but mistresses. This woman who was with Nakajima in the above scene was revealed to be a mistress, the infant I’d imagined to be a grandchild was instead Nakajima’s own child, and a man hanging about–who in a later scene we are informed is a “son-in-law” (which heightened the confusion over their being one daughter) is this woman’s father! There, if you ever rent this film you now know.

Back to Dr. Harada who is on the phone. He is told that the clients have ignored the court. “His family said they couldn’t wait.”

An express mail arrives for Mr. Chung (Nakajima). He enters his household, enraged, his wife stepping between he and his children to try to bar them from his anger and prevent an altercation. He storms off and she reads the mail he’s handed her. She sinks to the ground.

Now they are back in court and a son is protesting his dad’s plan isn’t thorough. Nakajima argues that they may not have the money for the farm but the farm lord wants to go home so they can barter with him. The son says this is illegal but the court disagrees, that the law has nothing to say about it. A lot of garbled translation follows.

Dr. Harada leans forward. He suggests the family follow the dad’s plan, that he doesn’t think it’s bad to migrate, that many people want to go to Basil. A son begs him to reconsider, that they are satisfied with the current situation and don’t wont to leave their workshop. Nakajima protests the workshop is in his blood as well and it’s difficult for him to leave it but still insists on migrating.

“You can’t see the danger,” he says.

The son replies, “Dad, fate is not under control. Everyone will die. What radiation? Can we care?”

“I accept the concept of death but I don’t want to be murdered,” Nakajima says. And everyone falls silent.

Nakajima argues his family is his responsibility. A son responds his dad his selfish and inconsiderate, that he ought to go to Basil alone.

Nakajima attacks him, striking him.

Oh, it is still beastly hot outside. Apparently back at the workshop a woman cools some men off with a sprinkler and they dance in the water.

Back at the court, the children are in the hall outside wondering where their father is. The son who had said his father was selfish says to just let him go, then their problems would be over. Nakajima enters with cold soda pop for everyone, each glass bottle already opened and carrying a straw. The family exchanges guilty looks.

Nakajima is Kurosawa’s Godzilla, this film released a year before Godzilla. Or rather he is the Godzilla that in later sequels vacillates between being savior and monster. In the first film Godzilla seems to be The Bomb itself, arousing archaic horror. Here Nakajima-Godzilla is supplied the added dimension of being Japan’s response to The Bomb and the later nuclear tests (which Godzilla followed), the insecurity and fears. How to continue to live life as normal, as if there is a future? Are those who do so preposterously ignroing imminent ruin? Nakajima wants to save his family by taking them to South America which is to him paradise, he imagining it exempt from the terrors of radiation and the prospect of war. Is he insane? If his family did migrate and there was war and South America was a safe island, then he would become a hero. But the family is Japanese, they want to remain in Japan. Just as the wealthy farmer in South America is eager to return to Japan. That’s certainly not to be overlooked, that Nakajima is desperate to take over the South American farm of a Japanese whose dream is returning to his home.

Back to the court room where the magistrates sit deliberating. It looks like the court is leaning in favor of an injunction. Dr. Harada points out Nakajima is afraid of radiation–he doesn’t see him as irrational, Nakajima has stirred to the surface his own concerns. Nakajima’s family says he is abnormal, that the doctors may say he is ok but that “his words are abnormal”.

“We feel uncomfortable to the bombs. I believe you have the same feeling,” the dentist argues. “But we are unlike Chung who is worried too much. No underneath house is built. And no migration to Basil. It’s not difficult to understand his feeling. Everyone is different. How can we say easily that he is wrong?”

Dr. Harada’s fellow magistrates argue that Nakajima’s family members have their own views, their own rights. Dr. Harada responds that any decision to deny the father’s use of his assets is childish, that Chung’s words have meaning. “We even don’t understand his family. Only let Chung suffer the fierce. This is the worries to radiation. Have we considered other reasons? Why can’t we find the root of fierce?”

They call Nakajima in to talk to him alone.

He says he wants to leave the disgusting radiation, that it is useless to be killed by it. “Only chicks use the Emu policy. Sons are a good example.”

Which is what the deepest fears of everyone are, that they may turn out to be ostriches sticking their heads in the sand with their insistence upon continuing life as normal.

Nakajima leaves the room and the court again wonders at the judgment they should make. Apparently they decide upon an injuction.

Now Dr. Harada in his office, suffering the heat in his t-shirt, late at night; he’s reading a book with the picture of an atomic bomb explosion on the front, “Death Ashes.” His son asks him why won’t he change and his father replies, “You read it in the viewpoint of a Japanese, it may cause a trend to retreat.”

What’s that mean? Well, I know from reading “The Films of Kurosawa” that instead Dr. Harada has said something to the effect of if the birds and animals could read this book then they would be promptly fleeing Japan.

Now a countryside scene. A car with a “Hotel” flag. Nakajima emerges with the farmer. “The dream of 30 years comes true.” They stand in sight of Mt. Fuji with a third man.

(Mangled conversation.)

The Farmer: I also want to stay here. Do you really want to sell the farm? You really want to buy this land?

Nakajima: How much for this hill.

Farmer: Here is about ten yards.

Third man: Equal to twenty small towns.

Nakajima: How much.

Third man: 8.2 million.

Farmer: Can buy 4000 yards in Basil.

Nakajima: Any deposit?

1.5 million.

You’re probably smarter than I am because I was totally confused, then realized, oh, this is the barter that the son had referred to as being illegal. Nakajima is unable to purchase the South American farm outright at its given value, so instead he will purchase for the Farmer this land that is within sight of the national symbol of Mount Fuji. And though the volcano slumbers and is a national symbol, calling to mind the beauty of Japan, it certainly also represents The Bomb, because, as with Godzilla, there is always the possibility a volcano will reawaken with horrifying cataclysmic swiftness. The farmer is so confident and eager to return to Japan that he has no qualms of situating in site of Mt. Fuji, in the path of the radiation from nuclear tests.

Back home the family is apparently changing locks on the safe and now discover that their father has purchased the land. 1.2 million. A sister says something a brother doesn’t like and he slaps her, she slaps him and he chases her outside striking her.

Nakajima visits the yougest son who lives in the hovel. He is youth for whom the present is what matters, dressed in jazzy pants. He turns up his jazz music rather than listening to his father.

Nakajima goes around asking to borrow money (which will I guess pay the remainder of the deposit), finally going to what the film will eventually identify as his daughter (when she is his mistress). They had received a check for 200,000 but the husband (really her father) says he has spent it all. They argue! Everyone is arguing, always bitterly and explosively arguing. The woman searches for the money and finds only a little. She pulls out a nest egg she has kept to give to Nakajima. Nakajima says it’s useless, not enough. She urges him to take it, arguing with him to take it, and he does.

Quite a different scene when one knows that he hasn’t gone to a daughter to borrow money, but to his mistress the mother of his infant daughter.

Nakajima meets with the farmer. The farmer suddenly rises and shakes Nakajima’s hand vigorously, telling him he is a good, trustworthy man. He’s saying he can’t wait, that he plans to go back to South America, and there he will wait for Nakajima’s reply. He invites Nakajima to come and visit the farm. He offers the story that, “When my dad said to migrate to Basil I objected,” but then there was then a fire and the home burned. He returns the 1.2 million to Nakajima and tells him to give the money back to his children and discuss things with them peacefully.

Nakajima returns the money to his children. One of the brothers says his father can’t have the money, that the assets can’t be used, they’re frozen by the court. A sister yells and throws a fan at the brother, the brother yells and throws the fan back. The father attacks his son for hitting the sister and the father and son now proceed to hit each other while everyone yells and there’s great commotion. All the fighting is getting kind of getting comical, though it shouldn’t be, and is where the roots of this as a satire show through, the volatility of this family, scenes of anxiety always bursting into full-blown battle.

Shot of a plane taking off. It’s the farmer leaving and the father seeing him off.

Dr. Harada is on a streetcar reading a newspaper. He looks and sees the father is also on the same car, looking distressed, close to emotional and physical ruin. The dentist goes to talk to him but the father appears disoriented and won’t respond, either that or he is embarrassed that he’d lost the lawsuit. It must be the latter as he stands and turns his back on the dentist. When he disembarks, Dr. Harada follows. Dr. Harada apologizes for what has happened but Nakajima tells him to not waste his time, walking away. Then Nakajima returns and tells Dr. Harada he’s not scared of any radiation or hydrogen bombs. “But you open your eyes to see clearly. I am now not feeling good. All because of you. You made me like a bird in a cage. Just to think about the radiation. Wait until die. And feeling worser and worser. But I can’t do anything. It’s the most painful in life.” He shuffles off.

Dr. Harada speaks to one of the other members of the court who says the judgment was disappointing but did they have any other choice? That if he wasn’t a magistrate he would think about it from Nakajima’s viewpoint as well (so he seems to be saying). “He can’t avoid the tragedy, no one is to blame, since there are radiation problems, and he is more sensitive than the others. In fact that man is very careful. This time he is stuck.”

Now to Nakajima at the house of his mistress (here, his daughter), holding his infant daughter (here, his grandchild), terribly distressed, cuddling the child protectively. The sound of wind surrounds, then leaves. The son-in-law enters (actually the mistress’ father). A storm is brewing. Pages of a book flap in the wind. “This boring weather persists a while,” the son-in-law says. “The report says because of the hydrogen bomb experiment. Father-in-law should know about it,” he laughs, “you should know better about the effects of radiation. Better to be in USA and Russia. The radiation ashes come to Japan. Because of the weather, radiation be’d gathered in Japan. We are the people. Don’t know what to become. Hair drops. Bone deteriorates,” he laughs, drunk. “Then all bad luck. We saw the nuclear bomb before. It’s cruel to watch. Have you seen? A little child…”

“Shut up!” Nakajima says.

OK, what had the mistress’ father actually said?

“Isn’t the weather strange? The newspapers say it is because of the H-bomb tests. Of course you know a lot more about this than I do, but they say that the radioactivity is bound to reach Japan no matter where the bomb itself explodes. I’m no scientist, mind you, but it’s something about some atmospheric currents and Japan is in some sort of valley–and anyway all the radioactivity is bound to flow down on us. Wonder what will happen. Our hair will fall out, I guess, and then our bones will get rotten, I hear. Well, it’s not very nice to think about it, is it? Just the other day I saw in a magazine something about Hiroshima. It was a pretty gruesome sight–they had pictures too, but I imagine you already saw it. Anyway, they had a picture of a baby–it was just about this big and–”

The son-in-law (mistress’ father) says it’s useless to worry if you’re broke. “In fact you are fortunate. It’s not bad to stop you using your assets. Now you have a quiet life.”

It thunders and Nakajima, agitated, looks down at the infant he is rocking.

The daughter (mistress) enters and thanks Nakajima for rocking the child to sleep and would take the child from him, but he won’t release the infant, clutching tight. Then he does. He goes in and grabs up the newspaper to look at the picture of the bomb test.

“Murderer! Japan has become a radiation country!”

Now Nakajima gathers his family together. For once they are sitting peacefully, quietly. Tea is passed around. Nakajima bows to them and addresses them, begging them all to go with him to Basil. “Maybe I am mad. But the radiation pollution is close. Don’t know when the war comes. In war time no one can go. Take the chance now. Can’t let the children die,” he cries pointing to the infant. “Can’t let the radiation kill our children. It doesn’t matter me. It’s useless if you don’t care. But think for the children. I have thought this way. But I also love you. How can I leave you? Please follow me. A letter from Basil. They are kind to invite. Invite us to get our living rights.” He continues to entreat his family to go with him, then his wife does as well, begging the family to go to Basil, that he is thinking of them. But none of the children are replying, none are having anything to do with it.

Finally, overcome with the sight of her father prostrating himself and begging, a daughter gets up and goes to him and says she will follow him.

Nakajima collapses.

In the next scene a departing doctor says Nakajima is only tired, that he needs sleep and rest.

The family talks about getting Nakajima to make a will in case he dies.

The mistress (which the translation would have us believe is a daughter) sits with Nakajima’s daughter and primary wife. The daughter pulls out a family photo album and shows the mistress pictures of when the family was very happy at the beach the year before, photos of celebration. The mother says they were too happy, that one must be careful not to be too happy for look at them now.

In the photos, everyone smiling, they were playing tug-of-war.

Nakajima sleeps restlessly. He opens his eyes and hears the children discussing what to do. What we’ve got for a translation of it gives no illumination as to their plans but it seems perhaps at least some are thinking of acting illegally and selling the foundry before their father can totally ruin it and taking control of the money.

In the next scene it’s daylight, Dr. Harada is looking for Nakajima’s workshop and is told it’s really bad. There’s smoke. Fire trucks. The workshop has burned. There is nothing left but steel framing, bringing to mind photos of Hiroshima that are all rubble and twisted metal. The workers apologize, believing they must have accidentally caused the blaze, but Nakajima reveals that he did it, rather than have them take the blame. Because his children wouldn’t leave the workshop he destroyed it so they would go to Basil with him. He insists they can rebuild in Basil.

“So you don’t care about our lives?” the workers ask. What are they to do?

Which is a further terrible weight upon Nakajima, the idea he has ruined their lives, left them jobless. So he entreats them also to go to Basil with him, saying it is all his fault. “I must save everyone. Please migrate with us. You go with us.”

But with what money?

When told that they don’t trust the Basil Man, Nakajima desperately concedes they can live anywhere if they are hard working, even in the Amazon.

“There is no absolutely safe place on the earth,” is the reply. “400 tons of hydrogen bombs can destroy the world. There are not just 400 tons in the world!”

This should be an exciting, heart-wrenching scene, but something is wrong here. You can feel it in the acting, the camera work, a certain confusing lethargy and weight has entered. What is it? Well, as it turns out, the composer who had inspired the film, who had been ill with tuberculosis, had suddenly died at this time. I guess Kurosawa shot this film in part linearly, following the story line, for he states that the sudden loss of his friend took a great deal out of him, so that he felt he could hardly continue with the film. And some of it shows here.

The police arrive.

Next. Nakajima is in jail. The other prisoners laugh that he didn’t commit arson for the compensation, that he instead was crazy enough to burn his workshop out of fear of the bomb and a desire to save his family. Nakajima is now catatonic, unresponsive.

The family is seen leaving what must be an asylum. Dr. Harada is coming to visit. He tells the family the judgment was a bad one. The son-in-law protests this is the best for everyone.

Dr. Harada speaks with the doctor who says every mad man is the same, but with this patient it is different, that he makes him feel uncomfortable, despite the fact he’s mad. “Or we are really the mad man.”

Dr. Harada visits with Nakajima who at first seems calm, at peace at last. Then he looks out the window and sees the sun. He exclaims the planet is burning and everyone must leave it. The earth is on fire, destroyed.

Leaving, Dr. Harada passes the mistress and infant who are now coming to visit Nakajima. Neither says a thing to each other as they don’t know each other. Dr. Harada has had no dealings with her. As he leaves, shoulders bowed, this man who had prided himself on being a negotiator, settling disagreements, she timidly ascends the stairs bringing Nakajima’s youngest daughter to see him in the asylum.

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The 1967 NY Times’ Review for “Record of a Living Being” was less thank lukewarm.

A ’55 Kurosawa:’I Live in Fear’ Is at the 5th Avenue Cinema

Published: January 26, 1967

“I LIVE IN FEAR” merits attention in the retrospective series of Akira Kurosawa films that Thomas Brandon is presenting at the Fifth Avenue Cinema only because it is finally having its first commercial theatrical showing in New York, and that for an understandable reason. It is one of the weakest of the great Japanese director’s works. It was made in 1955 and was shown here at the Museum of Modern Art in 1963.

Aiming, it seems, to tell a story of an aging man’s fears of the hydrogen bomb and his consequent obsessive endeavors to get his family to move with him to a farm in Brazil, it dwindles off into a talky, tedious recounting of the family’s bickering with the old man, who is obviously a crank at the beginning and is totally mad at the end.

Family quarrels are usually painful, but this one is especially so because the family is generally unappealing and the old man is a cantankerous bore. As played by Toshiro Mifune, with his back bent and a mean scowl on his face, he is simply a pig-headed nuisance whose only thought for confronting a peril is to flee.

I feel sure that Mr. Kurosawa could have come up with a more constructive thought on how people should use their energies to pacifistic purpose than the negative one he gives us here. Quarreling and going mad suggest nothing except cynicism and despair. And they are certainly not very stimulating.

So much for “I Live in Fear.”

Their view of “Record of a Living Being” is entirely different from mine but then I’m confused that the reviewer was looking for a film that gave “constructive thought” toward pacifistic endeavor and was unable to accept the happy tug-of-war family becoming the quarreling family pulled apart at the seams by Nakajima’s desperation. What constituted their “lives” after all? Obviously more than preservation of self, those “lives” needed the context of their familiar work and social situations. What does catastrophe do but threaten to tear loose from these securities which define the self? And here The Bomb had birthed another Bomb in the Godzilla-Nakajima desiring to uproot everyone in order to save them. Finally burning down his own factory. As far as I’m concerned it’s a well-constructed story for which there was going to be no answer, for the question wasn’t one to be appeased by living “pro-actively” (a phrase that, if you can believe it, was used once in the transalation). The film was not dealing only with the question of “What do we do about the bomb?” It has to do with a catastrophic loss of security in the present and future, what happens when confidence in order is obliterated.

Hollywood was busy in the 50s making sci-fi films in which the quest for space was on, Americans rooting for rockets that would save them from an Earth destined for some sort of perilous extinction. I rather look at this as being Kurosawa’s response.






4 responses to “Blogging a disastrously translated "Record of a Living Being"”

  1. Vili Maunula Avatar

    Now, that was quite a read! You must have had a Mei Ah release of the movie, as those come with horrible translations (which are made from a Chinese translation of the Japanese film, hence the Chinese names). Unfortunately, many of Kurosawa’s older films are not available in English on DVD in any other edition.

  2. Idyllopus Avatar

    Thanks for visiting and the pointer to your blog!

    I figured it was based off a Chinese translation, though it escapes me why the Japanese names weren’t retained. If it had been a direct into English translation and Nakajimi had been called Mr. Smith and they had been talking about buying land in Nebraska, I would have thought “What’s with that!”

  3. Vili Maunula Avatar

    One of my “favourite” Mei Ah moments is in Drunken Angel (Yoidore tenshi), where the protagonist (Mifune’s “Mr Ching Wing”, or something along those lines) breaks down and starts yelling “I am a tuberculosis, I am a tuberculosis!”

    I couldn’t have put it better than what you write in your blog entry (which I still stare in awe, by the way): “That I was able to sit through [it], which was terribly translated, abysmally translated, is a testament to Kurosawa’s remarkable powers as a story teller just via his cinematography”

    Thanks for visiting my site, by the way. I am actually going to add a link to your blog entry if you don’t mind. Once I stop staring, that is. (Sorry, I know it is rude to stare, but this is quite a post you have here!)

  4. Idyllopus Avatar

    Oh, that’s terrible. “I am a tuberculosis!” Burst out loud laughing here.

    There are so many of the older Kurosawa films that I’ve not yet seen. I went through a period where I watched as many as I could get my hands on, and I need to do this again. The compassion he invests in his work is exceptional; impossible to express in words how every frame is a literal picture of that compassion, that this compassion is what supplies the depth in the shadows and the brilliance of the highlights.

    Sure, link away. I’m glad you enjoyed the post.

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