by Mark Gabrish Conlan • copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
Last night’s film at the San Diego Public Library was a marvelous one: Scandal, a 1950 production by Akira Kurosawa for the Shochiku studio whose plot could seemingly be made today with only minimal updating. An artist, Ichirô Aoye (played by a young and almost matinee-idol handsome Toshiro Mifune — it’s hard to square his boyish good looks here with the weatherbeaten appearance he presented in Kurosawa’s later samurai epics), is out in the countryside painting a picture of a famous mountain. A semi-famous singer, Miyako Saijo (Yoshiko Yamaguchi, later known to U.S. audiences as Shirley Yamaguchi), happens on the painter and a group of three acquaintances who are standing around kibitzing (one of them complains that the real mountain isn’t anywhere nearly as red as he’s painted it, but Ichirô says, “That’s how I see it in my mind’s eye”) because her car has broken down and she’s walked into the countryside. Ichirô gives her a ride back to the nearest town on a motorcycle and they book separate rooms at the local resort — only later in the evening she invites him to her room, purely as a matter of friendship and gratitude.
Alas, a photographer (they wouldn’t be called paparazzi for another decade — not until another legendary film director, Federico Fellini, gave them that name in his script for La Dolce Vita — but they’ve existed almost as long as the celebrity cult itself and 1930’s movies like Picture Snatcher and What Price Hollywood? acknowledged their existence) sneaks a shot of the two of them standing on the balcony. He’s working for a newly established scandal sheet called Amour, whose editor, Asai (Shin’ichi Hamori), sees a goldmine in the photo and assigns two of his staff members to write a story around it, alleging a love tryst between the famous singer and the not-quite-so-famous painter. He tells his writers that if they don’t have the facts, they should just make stuff up. A more cynical director might have made the rest of the movie a story about how the two capitalized on their unsought and somewhat embarrassing fame — we do see Ichirô’s latest show and note that his pictures are selling faster, and for higher prices, than they were before — but both he and Miyako feel shamed by the whole affair.
Ichirô makes the acquaintance of a sleazy ambulance-chasing attorney, Hiruta (Takashi Shimura) who bears a striking resemblance to Wallace Beery and unexpectedly turns out to be the central focus of the film. Having learned that Hiruta is not only barely hanging on financially but has a chronically ill five-year-old daughter, Masako (Yôko Katsuragi), who badly needs expensive medical care, Asai meets him at a bicycle race and offers him a bribe — and Hiruta takes Asai’s check but never cashes it. Another reason Hiruta takes the bribe is he’s intimidated at having to go up against the legendary Professor Kataoka (Sugisaku Aoyama) — at first Asai and Amour’s publisher only threatened to hire him as a bluff, but when they see how much the name intimidates Hiruta they decide to call him in for real. Though Ichirô gets Miyako to join the case, it goes wretchedly for them once it goes to trial, with Kataoka making mincemeat out of Hiruta and ultimately turning his own key witnesses against him by noting that he hadn’t arranged for them to testify when he filed the case and therefore he hadn’t prepared properly. (The trial is being held by a panel of three judges — no jury — and apparently the Japanese legal system didn’t yet include discovery, the process in American law by which each side is supposed to disclose its case to the other and attorneys on both sides can use it to garner new facts they can use at trial.) Hiruta, whose hangdog act gets a bit tiresome by the time the movie ends but who also plays surprisingly well as a man torn apart both by his conscience and his love of the two nice kids he’s trying to help, suddenly turns the trial around when, after an outburst by Ichirô that he believes in his own case, and Kataoka says the same about Asai, Hiruta gets up in the middle of the trial and shows the check with which Asai bribed him, demanding to be allowed to testify and revealing, as the chief judge questions him, that he took the bribery check but never cashed it and the attempt proves that the Amour editor does not believe in his own case and should be punished.
Ichirô and Miyako win the case but the final shot is of Hiruta, rooting around in the Japanese slums, his life ruined by his burst of honesty (there’s an intriguing quote of the final scene from the similarly themed American film Five Star Final as Hiruta walks the streets of a seedy neighborhood, seeing copies of That Photo peeling off the walls where they’d been posted). Scandal is fascinating partly because Kurosawa’s modern-set films are so much less known than his historical epics, partly because of the contemporary resonances of the story (it could be remade today either in Japan or the U.S. with surprisingly little change), partly because it was clearly obviously influenced by the American movies of the 1930’s (World War II put an end to cultural exchanges between the U.S. and Japan “for the duration” but evidently Kurosawa had been able to see American-made films before that, and they — particularly Capra’s and Ford’s — clearly influenced him; there’s a shot of the protagonists in a sad little nightclub called “The Red Cat” on New Year’s Eve singing “Auld Lang Syne” that seems pure Ford to me) and mainly because it’s a drama with heart, one that treads the thin edge of overripe sentimentality and sometimes goes over but ultimately comes through as a stark, moving, almost noir-ish drama.
It’s a film that deserves to be better known that it is; alas, Kurosawa made it the same year he made Rashomon, a period piece and one which made him an international superstar but also helped ensure that his samurai movies would tend to dominate the rest of his career. It’s also historically and politically important in that it was made in 1950, just after the U.S. had lifted its four-year occupation of Japan and the modern Japanese republic had just been founded — with elimination of restrictions that rankled many Japanese, and in particular with a freedom-of-the-press guarantee that was strictly an American invention and had no precedent in Japanese culture, and which (according to one imdb.com reviewer) utterly horrified Kurosawa, lending this film an almost palpable sense of personal bitterness under its surface sentimentality and superficially “happy” ending.