Akira Kurosawa Series – Scandal (1951)

In the opening of Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 film Scandal, the artist Ichirô Aoye (Toshirô Mifune) has his canvas set up with a gorgeous view of the looming mountainside. A small crowd of passersby stop by to offer unsolicited critiques of Aoye’s artistic process. Those familiar with Kurosawa’s background as a painter prior to his filmmaking career will recognize Aoye’s character as a reflection of the director himself. And, artists and critics alike will look at this meta commentary on the very foundations of criticism from unique perspectives, according to their respective occupations. One might think that this initial scene is a taste of the narrative themes to be found in the rest of the film. Interestingly enough, this is not quite the case in a tale that spirals into a technical drama of journalism and legality, competing against the emotional stakes of family, honor, and dignity. It is a story of guilt, conflicting loyalties, self-preservation, and respect for others.

The first thread of this tapestry is woven as Aoye is spotted giving a motorcycle ride to a well-known singer, Miyako Saijo (Yoshiko Yamaguchi). Saijo had actually happened across the tail-end of the conversation between Aoye and the critics in the shadow of the mountain. Aoye offered her a ride back into town as a simple courtesy. This led to a quick drink and chat in her hotel room, which is portrayed as a relatively platonic encounter. However, the local tabloid Amour is desperate for provocative content and stories to run. A few quick photos are snapped by the paparazzi, which are in turn published along with a written article that has no direct evidence to back up its claims that Aoye and Saijo are lovers, other than these out-of-context photographs.

L-R: Toshirô Mifune as Ichirô Aoye and Yoshiko Yamaguchi as Miyako Saijo.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s bull – once it’s in print, the public believes it,” says Hori (Eitarô Ozawa), the supervisor of the publication. “You know what the idols of the age are? Photos and the printed word!”

At this moment, the eponymous “scandal” is born. Aoye responds with a libel suit against Amour and Hori, seeking out Otokichi Hiruta (Takashi Shimura) to represent him in the case as his attorney. As it turns out, the character of Hiruta undergoes the most development and personal evolution over the course of the film. You would be in your right to consider him the main character of Scandal. The surrounding turmoil of the court case is a merely a vessel for the augmentation of Hiruta’s arc as he grows into himself and into his place in the story. The introduction of his sickly, tuberculosis-ridden daughter, Masako (Yôko Katsuragi), establishes the basis for the poignancy of the script, co-written by Kurosawa and Ryûzô Kikushima. Hiruta is ready to do whatever it takes to provide for his family and care for his daughter. This includes betraying his client, Aoye, and throwing the case in lieu of a bribe from the other side. Yet, the pure innocence of Masako at the center of his misdeeds brings Hiruta even more grief. He is sacrificing his honesty for the sake of his daughter, but she is such a beautiful, kind, and compassionate soul who would be disappointed to find out what her father was doing. Masako just wants her father to be a man of honor and peace, while Hiruta in turn wants her to be healthy and in good care. Takashi Shimura’s performance hits you like a freight train with its agonizing vulnerability.

“If a person doesn’t let out what’s deep in his heart, he’ll end up choking to death on it,” Hiruta says.

(Far Left): Takashi Shimura as Attorney Otokichi Hiruta.

While Hiruta is the central character of the story, he is merely a drop in the ocean of other individuals with similar problems in their lives. Consider the scene at a New Year’s Eve party, when Hiruta and a host of others are gathered in a crowded bar, many of them drunk and bumbling through their exhaustion and depression. Hiruta leads them in a chorus of “Hotaru no Hikari,” a Japanese song to the famous tune of “Auld Lang Syne.” The atmosphere of this moment possesses a certain spirituality that is both mournful and cathartic. Hiruta himself is taking an introspective look at his own flaws, and seems intent on bettering himself as a father, friend, and human being. Even still, admitting to one’s own brokenness is a painful process.

Kurosawa has described in interviews before that when he is editing each of his films, there is a singular scene that reaches the pinnacle of what he believes to be “true cinema.” There is a special feeling he gets when it all comes together. Of course, he says the ultimate goal is to make a movie in which every single scene is this brilliant, but the primary objective is to bring at least that one particular scene to every motion picture he creates. I would say that in the case of Scandal, this moment comes in the courtroom climax of the film. It completes several emotional arcs and brings a beautiful sense of fulfillment to the story. Part of this is thanks to the script and the stellar delivery from the actors – especially that of Takashi Shimura – but just as critical to the process is the technical filmmaking proficiency of Kurosawa as a director. His blocking, choreography, and camera movement always brings something new to analyze and appreciate. In my prior reviews for Stray Dog (1949) and Rashomon (1950), I made note of the dazzling depiction of the weather, elements, and outdoors. On the other hand, with regard to Scandal, interior settings have the majority of the screen time. Kurosawa and Director of Photography Toshio Ubukata use the composition of the picture accordingly, consistently seeking out innovative techniques of framing and motion to bring dynamic energy to the screen and the courtroom, conjuring up that unmistakable cinematic experience that is so precious.

L-R: Yoshiko Yamaguchi as Miyako Saijo, Toshirô Mifune as Ichirô Aoye, and Takashi Shimura as Attorney Otokichi Hiruta.

Looking back, I still find it fascinating that I hardly mentioned the characters of Aoye and Saijo after initially chronicling how they set off the motion of the plot. Toshiro Mifune and Yoshiko Yamaguchi are actually billed ahead of Takashi Shimura in the credits, but it is hard to argue that this movie ultimately belongs to anybody other than the character of Attorney Hiruta. At the beginning of the film, I did not anticipate that we would end up with this result; but alas, Kurosawa’s brilliant narrative subversion took me on yet another ride of wonderful storytelling and magnificent filmmaking.

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