Scandal

scandal 1Year: 1950

Studio: Shochiku Co. Ltd.

Screenwriter: Akira Kurosawa & Ryuzo Kikushima

Cast: Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Shirley Yamaguchi, Noriko Sengoku

Cinematographer: Toshio Ubukata

Music: Fumio Hayasaka

I’m surprised that “Scandal” hasn’t amassed a larger following among cinephiles – its main topic of the paparazzi and how they affect the lives of people is in the zeitgeist and has been there for over a decade now. In many ways, this film has dated the least of any of Kurosawa’s oeuvre, and between its motorcycles and odes to two iconic American directors, it’s also the most American of his films so far – a huge change from the anti-American subtext in many of his previous movies. The fact that it’s pretty good should be a factor too. And yet it doesn’t seem to make much of a splash with critics, film buffs and didn’t even merit its own DVD release from Criterion, instead being sandwiched into the “Postwar Kurosawa” Eclipse set. Weird.

Our story concerns a B-list painter named Ichiro (Toshiro Mifune), who is photographed with the famous actress Miyako (Shirley Yamaguchi) on her hotel room’s balcony. Though they are both in their robes, it’s an innocent moment, with Miyako straining to see something Ichiro is pointing at. The photograph is sold, both are plastered on the cover of Amour Magazine with a story claiming they are lovers, and Ichiro decides to sue.

Of major note with “Scandal” is that it’s the closest Kurosawa ever comes to blatantly ripping off the style of another director (or two). The early stretches of the movie, with the employees of Amour discussing whether to publish the photo, the circus music that plays while the issue is being printed and one delightful sequence in particular where Ichiro and the editors trade barbs in the press like a tennis match, feels so much like a Billy Wilder movie that I was gobsmacked to see that Wilder’s “Ace in the Hole” came out a year after “Scandal.” The other, bigger influence on the movie is undoubtedly Frank Capra, and those overtures begin the moment Takashi Shimura enters frame.

scandal 2Shimura gives an astoundingly good performance as Hiruta (one that frankly steals the movie out from under its “star” Mifune), a down-and-out lawyer who shoves his way into Ichiro’s studio and presents himself, all while pouring raw sewage from his shoes (he stepped in the wrong puddle on the way over) onto Ichiro’s floor. Hiruta has a hunchback, eyes that often bulge and is a big drinker. His law practice isn’t exactly booming, since his office is a converted birdhouse on the roof of a building (not kidding), but then again neither is his family life. His wife isn’t exactly a talker, and his daughter Masako (Yoko Katsuragi) is suffering from a really bad case of tuberculosis that has kept her in bed for many years. In other words, he’s a mess, but Ichiro hires him anyway.

From this point onward, it becomes readily apparent that Kurosawa is trying his best to make a Frank Capra movie. While the humor in the first third was broad, there was a lot of bite to it – but after Hiruta shows up, the tone noticeably alters. We realize that, even though we’ve been following Ichiro for over half an hour, the movie is really about Hiruta. The lawyer isn’t above taking bribes from Amour to get some extra money for his family, though the guilt of what he is doing quickly hobbles him emotionally to the point of being unable to function. We learn that Ichiro hired him because he hoped that the case would bring Hiruta out of his funk, and has known from minute one that the lawyer was double crossing him, but forgives him because he thinks Hiruta will do the right thing in the end. Yes, really. Hiruta’s poor, dying daughter is basically Tiny Tim, and Hiruta’s redemption in the last act hinges on her death. Oh, and there’s this metaphor about stars that I’d rather not discuss because “ugh.”

scandal 3Okay, in case you didn’t realize from reading the last paragraph, but the movie begins to lay it on pretty thick. Like most of Capra’s work, there comes a point where you just either go with it or don’t. Here it’s a long sequence where Hiruta comes home drunk to find Ichiro and Miyako singing “Silent Night” for the adorable dying girl after decorating her house for Christmas. Hiruta takes Ichiro to a bar where they sing “Auld Lang Syne” and drunkenly wander around town together. Nothing happens of note to further the plot – it’s basically a variation on the bus singing scene in “It Happened One Night” or the pool scene in “It’s a Wonderful Life” in that it’s completely implausible but still oddly charming.

If you don’t go with that, then you certainly won’t go with the shenanigans in the court room. You won’t go with Ichiro’s defense to the judge being that he or the actress don’t “look” like the type of people who would lie (note again that she’s an actress). You won’t buy Hiruta calling himself on the stand to confess everything and come away clean. And you’ll probably roll your eyes when a cheer goes up as Ichiro wins the case, despite the fact that the spectators were malicious and rude in every prior scene.

Did I buy it? It’s like Nancy Meyers wrote in “The Holiday”: “I love corny. I’m looking for more corny in my life.”

A lot happens in “Scandal.” For a movie that is about an hour-and-forty minutes, you’ve got the actual scandal, the first set of repercussions, the lawyer, the bribe, the dying kid, the courtroom, the slowly simmering romance between the artist and the actress, the drinking and plenty more. But the movie oddly doesn’t “feel” overstuffed, with Kurosawa and his co-screenwriter Ryuzo Kikushima zipping back and forth from one to another with relative ease, and because they don’t really care about the tone of the movie (instead assuming the actors will keep everything making sense), it’s easier to get away with it. They do take their time with important scenes or moments, like when we see Ichiro riding on his motorcycle with a Christmas tree tied to the back (it’s the most memorable shot of the entire movie).

Another great moment takes place when Ichiro can’t find a copy of the magazine he’s on the cover of. Frustrated, he simply shows up at the offices of Amour and demands a copy, then sits there in silence for what must be a minute reading the article about him. Everyone stares, but he doesn’t look up. Finally, he finishes, and when the editor approaches him, Ichiro simply knocks him out and leaves, the 1950 equivalent of a mic drop.

But while Mifune’s character is interesting and Shimura’s a revelation, the women don’t come off well. Like at all. Miyako should be, for all intents and purposes, the third lead, but her character is so ill-defined and useless that she becomes wallpaper by the halfway point. She’s there, but doesn’t make an impact. The screenwriters do something very odd when introducing her or talking about Miyako in general – they never let her speak and define who she is. Ichiro guesses about what kind of person she is. Her ballbusting mother does the same. In other words, she’s not a character, but a cipher. Worse still is Ichiro’s “best friend,” a horrible woman named Sumie and played by Noriko Sengoku. Sengoku also helped sink “The Quiet Duel,” and here her character actively hurts otherwise good scenes. Sumie is introduced complaining that Ichiro no longer draws her nude, then gives Ichiro the very worst advice possible over and over again, like the sad best friend in any awful romantic comedy. And sure, Masako is awesome and her death is a major plot point, but in all her beautiful dying she remains a saint, not a character. Whether consciously or not, Kurosawa adds in a moment that perhaps says more about his view of the female characters in this movie than he meant it too – when Sumi and Miyako are talking too much, Ichiro walks over to his motorcycle and just starts revving to drown them out.

I don’t think “Scandal” is like any other Kurosawa movie – it’s deeply flawed but doesn’t care, and I like that kind of gumption in a film. It means to say something about redemption, says it with more than a little treacle, but never grates. I wish more of you would watch it.

Notes:

-The article about this in the Criterion DVD is a waste of paper. Absolutely worthless.

-Ichiro is a painter, so it’s easy to see that Kurosawa put a lot into him, though it’s frankly odd that we never get a good look at any of his work.

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