It had been 10 years since the end of World War II, but it is clear from I Live in Fear that the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were still fresh in the minds of both Kurosawa and the Japanese people.
I Live in Fear would be Kurosawa's final film depicting the atmosphere of post-war Japan. After this film his modern day pictures would be more akin to Ikiru, in that they would depict mainly singular individuals and more common themes.
Kurosawa was no stranger to disaster. He recalls a memorable event in his autobiography.
As a young boy Kurosawa was living in Tokyo during the Great Kanto Earthquake. The death toll of the earthquake was estimated to be over 100,000.
One day, Kurosawa and his brother Heigo traveled into the city and there they observed dozens of dead bodies strewn about.
Kurosawa wanted to look away but his brother told him to keep looking. He said if you look away then fear will consume you, but if you look at your fear straight on, then there's nothing to be afraid of.
It is true that Kurosawa's upbringing effected his later films, and it is no doubt true that this event effected Kurosawa greatly in making this film.
I Live in Fear revolves around one man, Kiichi Nakajima (Toshiro Mifune), and his family.
Nakajima's family has taken him to family court because of his recent behavior. Nakajima, fearful of another nuclear attack, was planning on building an underground structure in the North but after hearing about potential fallout coming from that direction, decided to abandon the project, costing his family a considerable sum of money.
Nakajima's next plan was to bring his entire family to live on a farm in the only place on Earth he thought safe, South America.
A dentist, Dr. Hanada (Takashi Shimura), is called in from his normal work to perform his duties as a family court arbitrator. Although he himself feels for Nakajima, the court sides in favor of his family.
Desperate for money and with all of his assets frozen, Nakajima begins pleading with the families of his mistresses for cash. When they refuse Nakajima turns to the man who is letting him live on his farm in Brazil. He tells him the story of his reluctance to leave Japan, but finally had no choice when his house burned down.
With his entire family against him, Nakajima makes one last desperate attempt to convince his family to come with him by burning down the foundry that he owns and has put his entire life into.
After this Nakajima is brought to an insane asylum to live out his final years. In the final scene, Dr. Hanada comes to visit Nakajima in his room. Nakajima in one final episode laments about what he believes is the Earth being destroyed, even though what he is really looking at is simply the Sun.
Like his previous post-war films, Kurosawa attempts in I Live in Fear to capture what it was like living in Japan at that certain time. And like films like One Wonderful Sunday and Stray Dog we are invited in this film to observe this world through one or a few individuals.
Before meeting these people Kurosawa begins the film with a montage of scenes of daily life. People going about their daily routines without the slightest hint that they are being filmed.
After several of these shots Kurosawa has the camera pan to a single window, and with the help of his moving camera, we are invited into the room. This simple camera movement goes a long way in establishing the belief in the audience that what we are witnessing in the film could be happening anywhere in Japan.
Throughout the film we are told similar things by the characters of the film. Many empathize with Nakajima's feelings. "All Japanese share your anxiety," says one of the court arbiters.
Often it seems that Kurosawa is not asking us to sympathize with Nakajima, but instead with Dr. Hanada, the court arbiter who is, as we are, looking at the case from an objective point of view.
Somewhat like Rashomon, where Kurosawa gives the audience of the role of judge and jury, I Live in Fear presents the audience with a similar role, but in this case Dr. Hanada is our guide. We often feel as conflicted as he does.
While no one could blame Nakajima for his wanting to protect his family from being killed by the atom bomb, his actions nonetheless seem irrational. "Everybody has to die," Nakajima says, "but I won't be murdered."
These types of statements not only make the audience stop and think about their judgment, but the people in the film stop speaking and merely sit and stare as they contemplate the decision they are about to make.
In the end Kurosawa is essentially giving his own people two options when it comes to their anxiety about the bomb. They can either let fear consume them to the point where they can no longer function in society, or they can overcome their fear and live their lives.
The latter option to several individuals (including Dr. Hanada by the end of the film) seems to amount to living oblivious to the world around them. When Dr. Hanada is speaking to the doctor in the asylum at the end, the other doctor wonders if it is really Nakajima who is the insane one, or if it is really those who remain undisturbed.
Like many Kurosawa films, the final verdict is left up to the audience. Even though Nakajima ends up in an insane asylum, Kurosawa leaves the door open to a sympathetic viewing of the character.
Nakajima is, from the beginning, presented as an incredibly stubborn, short-tempered and gruff man. He violently opens his fan and frantically waves it to cool himself off. He opens his kids' mail and calls them fools in every other sentence. But he has his good moments as well. He gently cradles a baby, shielding it from what he obviously sees as a world on the brink of destruction. He buys his children soda and supports them financially.
Even though he has destroyed himself and all of the workers that were employed at his now destroyed foundry, we cannot help but feel that throughout the ordeal Nakajima meant well and was only trying to do what was best for everyone.
It is also clear throughout the film that Kurosawa is making another point about Japanese society, one that was seen in Ikiru as well. The issue once again is the conflict between traditionalism vs. modernity, and children vs. parents.
Even though Nakajima supports the children of several mistresses, one dead and two alive, they are quick to turn their backs on him when he is the one that needs help. Even when he collapses due to exhaustion his children speak more about his will than his condition. They even go behind his back to secure the money they believe he will spend on his master plan.
All of their actions are done in the name of helping their father who they believe to be mentally ill. Even though to some people this may seem like a legitimate excuse, their behavior seems cold and heartless when compared to what their father is simply trying to do.
One of Nakajima's daughters does help him, but it is too little too late according to him. Nakajima's own wife eventually realizes that it is her duty to stand by her husband and urges her children to go with them to Brazil.
In the end the children get what they want. Nakajima is finally put away, but they look none the happier for it. The looks on their faces as they leave the asylum seem to be looks of deep inner thought. Did they do the right thing? Was he simply doing what he thought was best for them?
It is somewhat ironic that the man who talks to Dr. Hanada in the end about whether or not the family did the right thing is not even a blood relative, but the husband of one of Nakajima's daughters.
Going back to Kurosawa achieving a great sense of place in his films, I Live in Fear creates in its atmosphere a visual representation of its theme, that of anxiety. Much like Stray Dog where the search for a lost gun is made all the more stressful by the heat of the sun, the same effect is created in I Live in Fear.
It seems everyone in the film is fanning themselves or trying to cool off in one way or another. Like previous films, the heat of the day matches the heat of the situation. The anxiety is made worse by the constant presence of heat and perspiration.
Sound is also important to creating this atmosphere. Certain sounds trigger Nakajima's anxiety, most notably the sounds of passing airplanes. Whenever a plane goes by, Nakajima becomes more restless and looks visibly uncomfortable. The same can be said during a thunderstorm that sends him running and cowering.
Nakajima is living with this fear wherever he goes. He can't do simple activities without his anxiety often overtaking him. But there are others who are unaffected. Just as Kurosawa shows us the incredibly anxious Nakajima and increasingly anxious Dr. Hanada, he often shows people in the background simply going about their daily lives.
Again, Kurosawa is merely showing one slice of life in Japan. Not everyone, including Dr. Hanada's own son, is bothered by prospect of another nuclear bomb.
The themes of I Live in Fear are as relevant today as they were back then. While the overlying cause of peoples' fear has evolved from nuclear bombs, to communism, and now perhaps to terrorism, the core of the films message remains true. You can either be consumed by your fear or live with it.