If someone should feel compelled to make a film about 9/11—specifically, about the social and psychic toll that the attacks have and haven’t taken—a good model would be Akira Kurosawa’s I Live in Fear, out on DVD in the Criterion Collection’s Eclipse series.
Made in 1955, just a decade after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the film stars Toshiro Mifune, Kurosawa’s favorite actor, as an aging Japanese industrialist named Kiichi Nakajima who grows so anxious about the H-bomb that he decides to sell his foundry and move his entire family to Brazil—beyond the range of the radioactive fallout from a nuclear war between the superpowers.
Nakajima’s sons don’t want to move, or lose their inheritance, so they petition the courts to declare their father mentally incompetent. Nakajima can’t understand why no one else seems to see the danger as clearly as he does. Finally, when a son-in-law explains to him that not even Brazil would be spared from the fallout—that living with the bomb is inescapable—he plunges into madness and winds up in an asylum, with a deranged grin on his face, hallucinating that he’s fled to another planet. Meanwhile, one of the judges who ruled in the sons’ favor—a gentle dentist named Dr. Harada—has come to feel guilty about his verdict. He’s been reading a book about nuclear fallout, called The Ash of Death, and wonders if the man he committed might not be crazy after all.
The film’s final shot takes place on a stairway in the asylum. One of Nakajima’s daughters is walking up the steps to see her father. Dr. Harada is trudging down the same steps, having just paid a visit, and he is heading back out into the street. The clear question: Which of them is about to go mingle with the insane? Which world is crazier—Nakajima’s or the real one?
It’s a rather unsubtle message, but Kurosawa compensates with an understated visual style. According to his autobiography, he started using three cameras around this time, letting them all roll while the actors played the whole scene as if in a stage play, then choosing the best angles in the editing room. It gives the film a documentary feel—many scenes are shot from behind the characters—as if we’re peeking in on a slice of life. (The British title for the film, which, I’m told, more closely matches the Japanese, is Record of a Living Being.)
Kurosawa shows a world in which the most dreadful dangers are shrugged off as routine. Sirens wail in the background all through this film; it’s not clear what kinds of sirens (police, ambulance, air-raid drills?), and nobody pays attention anyway. In one harrowing scene, Nakajima visits one of his young mistresses and their infant daughter (the man is no saint). We hear the sound of two jets, probably American fighter planes on alert, streaking overhead: He looks up; his mistress continues with her kitchen chores. Then we see a flash. He dives onto the floor, to protect his son. He’s cowering, shaking; the baby wakes up, crying from the disturbance. It turns out the flash was just lightning. It begins to rain, and his mistress looks at him as if he’s nuts.
Many movies in the 1950s, American and Japanese, played off fears of the Cold War and the bomb, but for the most part in metaphors—monsters hatched from radiation (Godzilla) or aliens invading from outer space (too many to mention). I Live in Fear confronted the thing itself—and not just the fear of it, but the more common phenomenon: the suppression or evasion of the fear and the complacency that this engenders.
It’s remarkable that this film was made, in the only country where atom bombs were dropped on cities, and so soon after the fact. In March 1954, a year before this film was shot, the United States tested a hydrogen bomb on Bikini Atoll in the Pacific. The fallout cloud, which spread across an area of 7,000 square miles, drifted over a Japanese fishing boat, called Lucky Dragon No. 7, and covered 23 crewmen with radioactive ash. The next year, the number of American nuclear tests tripled. More than 30 million Japanese citizens signed petitions against testing, to no avail. There actually were reports of people moving to South America, especially Brazil, for the same reason Nakajima wants to go, though how many isn’t known.
In the film, most people go about their business as if nothing disastrous had happened, and most real Japanese people seemed content to do the same. In any case, they stayed away from I Live in Fear, which proved to be Kurosawa’s first box-office flop since his great success, Rashomon, which had won the Golden Lion at the 1951 Venice Film Festival and introduced the world to Japanese cinema. His studio decided not even to offer this new film for export. It wasn’t shown in the West until six years later, at the 1961 Berlin Film Festival, where it drew much excitement. (Berlin was going through its own Cold War nuclear crisis at the time.) The New York Film Festival showed it in 1963, but it didn’t receive U.S. theatrical release until 1967 and didn’t play in Los Angeles till ‘71. It remains one of Kurosawa’s least-known works.
In the United States, a couple years after I Live in Fear came out in Japan, Norman Mailer wrote an essay called “The White Negro,” which began: “Probably we will never be able to determine the psychic havoc of the concentration camps and the atom bomb upon the unconscious mind of almost everyone alive in these years.” Mailer was celebrating a new type of person, the hipster—the “American existentialist” or “white Negro”—who responded to this fate with rebellion. But the vast majority of people, in America, Japan, and probably everywhere, kept going to work and paying their bills as they always had. Kurosawa captured the “psychic havoc” on that side of the fence—and what happens when one otherwise upstanding citizen snaps out of the spell, stares into the abyss, and feels in his bones there’s no way out.
In the weeks and months after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, many of us, especially in New York City, feared to ride the subway, shuddered at strangely shaped bags, conjured mushroom clouds over the Empire State Building, and contemplated moving, if not to Brazil, then at least across the Tappan Zee Bridge, where life might be safer. But at some point, we put the fear aside, ignored it, or suppressed it as the only way to snap back into some semblance of normalcy.
This is the turbulent terrain that an American update of I Live in Fear—a film about our own “psychic havoc”—might cover and somehow dramatize: the line between obsession and obliviousness, between whimpering terror and blithe denial; the undeterminable toll on our “unconscious minds” from embracing either course; and the question of whether it’s possible to lead a fully conscious, sane life on some road in between.