Akira Kurosawa’s SCANDAL is a brilliantly bittersweet film that works as an indictment of a celebrity-crazed public and paparazzi-fueled gossip gone wrong (as if it were ever “right”) while completely pulling you into its well-rounded characters and situations that will seem all to familiar in this era of TMZ and other “entertainment journalism” that’s merely feeding a voyeuristic “need” to pore into the private lives of people that for the most part don’t want or need this sort of intrusion.
The film is also a sentimental holiday story and seeing the Japanese takes on Christmas and New Year’s Day (circa 1950) makes for an interesting cultural shock that adds a nice layer of necessary humor to the plot. If you’re one for the weeping moment, this one’s also a great few-hanky flick that’s near flawless (meaning your strings will be yanked appropriately and at the right moments).
Kurosawa (who also wrote the script) gets stellar performances from Toshirō Mifune and Shirley Yamaguchi as two famous people caught up in a faked news story cooked up by a pair of unethical photographers. When Mifune’s painter, Ichiro Aoye, has a chance meeting with Yamaguchi’s singer, Miyako Saijo as he’s working in the mountains, he offers her an innocent ride into town, unaware that they’re being tracked by paparazzi looking for some sort of scoop. After being ambushed by the would-be Weegees, he denies them an interview, so the two creeps use a photo they’ve snapped clandestinely as part of a story claiming Aoye and Saijo are lovers. While this sort of story is pure tabloid fodder these days, Japanese laws worked a bit differently back then.
(thanks, John Harris!)
With his personal and professional life in chaos, Aoye decides to sue the magazine for its lies and here, the film introduces Takashi Shimura as Hiruta, a poor lawyer who begs to take Aoye’s case up. The painter hires the lawyer, but his desperation for money leads him to betray Aoye’s trust when he takes a bribe from the magazine that ran the scandal story to lose the case. Hiruta’s treacherous change of heart comes thanks to him wanting to pay for treatment for his terminally ill daughter, Masako (Noriko Sengoku). Unfortunately for Hiruta, Aoye and Saijo become friends with Masako as the trial progresses and poor Hiruta is faced with being even more completely disgraced as things wear on and his now lousier lawyer skills do no good for the non-lovebirds.
As noted above, this is also a holiday film and here, Kurosawa’s Japanese Christmas and New Year’s sequences are touching yet hilarious as familiar joyous tunes play and a wide range characters react to the seasonal celebrations in their own ways. On Christmas Day, Aoye rides his motorcycle to Hiruta’s home with a fully decked out tree on the back, much to the delight of the neighborhood children. The tree is a surprise gift for the lawyer he thinks is doing a fine job and his small family (his wife and Masako). Hiruta stumbles home drunk and creeps into his home to the sounds of “Silent Night” being played on a small organ by Aouye and sung by Saijo. Kurosawa shots this sequence for maximum emotional impact and it works as the camera moves from Hiruta’s sneaking viewpoint to each of the other characters framed in their own window before showing them all together then going back to Hiruta as he sinks to his knees and lowers his head in shame. Yep, you’ll probably need a hanky there…
The “Auld Lang Syne sequence is amazing because it’s even more emotional thanks to this film being set five years after two atomic bombs were dropped on Japan. Aoye and Hiruta are at a run-down bar on New Year’s Eve and when the clock strikes midnight, the house band starts playing. With the exception of the musicians at the beginning and one drunken guy, no one in the bar is smiling as the sing, not one kiss is given and everyone looks either resigned to whatever fates they think they deserve or already lost to their thoughts. It’s and amusing and extremely touching scene, especially if you’ve ever come into a new year with a sense of dread or disillusionment. Despite the downbeat tone here, there’s a more or less “happy” ending that’s satisfying yet still makes you think a bit about what we’ve become since as a media-happy culture that doesn’t seem to think of “celebrities” as actual people just like us.
By the time the film wraps up (it’s a brisk 104 minutes), you’ll probably be looking at that small pile of damp tissues on the floor and wanting to throw a brick at the next person who asks if you’re caught the latest celebrity gossip. Don’t do that, however – you don’t want to make the papers yourself. Just point them to this film and tell them they could use a brake from that faux “reality” they’re so overly obsessed with…
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I haven’t seen this movie in a while, but I remember liking it. I’ve always said Kurosawa’s contemporary films are just as good in their own way as his samurai films, and while this doesn’t measure up to the best of those (HIGH & LOW, DODESKADEN), it’s another good collaboration between Kurosawa, Mifune and Shimura. Great write-up!
Thanks much! I’ve always had a soft spot for some of Kurosawa’s early contemporary work because you can see him getting better with each film and yes, the later films are indeed better, I think he learned a lot from doing those earlier flicks. I actually have a High & Low review incoming along with The Bad Sleep Well (probably my favorite contemporary Kurosawa film), which I thought I’d done already on my older blog, but actually haven’t gotten to yet (oops!). I think I’ve talked about TBSW so much in the last year that it felt as if I’d done a review!
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I’m really glad you reviewed this movie; otherwise, I would never think to look for it. Movies like this are almost more relevant now than when they were first released, no?
You’re welcome! It’s a great little film that needs more love, especially as many think of Kurosawa’s samurai epics first and foremost when considering his output.
This sounds like a real winner and I can’t thank you enough for sharing. It has immediately moved to the top of my must-see list.
You’re welcome! It’s a pretty fine film as well as an interesting culture lesson of sorts thanks to those holiday sequences.
I’ve only seen a handful of Japanese films (woeful), and this is not among them. However, I agree with your culture shock sentiments – watching a classic always highlights them but when it’s a classic from Japan it’s heightened. Is this a genre you watch regularly? I’d be interested to hear what else you’d recommend?!
Oh, I could rattle on like an old train about some Japanese films and directors. The best thing to do is pick a favorite American genre and poke around to see if there’s a director there who’s made a film in that genre.
Among other modern directors, I like Shinobu Yaguchi’s works (The Waterboys, Adrenaline Drive, Swing Girls, Happy Flight) and Koki Mitani’s Once in a Blue Moon is a fun homage to some American classics and directors.
You can pretty much count on almost anything Kurosawa to be at least well-made and surprising on a few levels. His contemporary 50’s and early 60’s work films (The Bad Sleep Well, High & Low, Ikiru, Stray Dog, Drunken Angel) and his samurai films (Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, Yojimbo, Sanjuro, Kagemusha, Ran,) are all worth a watch. I know some critics didn’t like Scandal as much as I did, but it has a nostalgic tone that I thought he nailed in the holiday sequences and I liked his take on how many people feed on those made-up celebrity tales with the same appetite they do these days. With a handful of exceptions (where a studio recut his work) even his “lesser” works are intriguing in that you can usually find some greatness under the parts that don’t gel.
I’ll skip discussing Japanese animation in this reply (that’s a post and a half or two right there) except to note that anything by Hayao Miyazaki will be a fine viewing experience.
I’d also add at least one silent film in: Otona no miru ehon – Umarete wa mita keredo “An Adult’s Picture Book View — I Was Born, But…”) , Yasujiro Ozu’s 1932 masterpiece. This one’s been showing up on YouTube, so it’s at least free to check out.
As for the rest, it’s a HUGE list of directors, movies and genres I need to put out as a post one of these days. There are better folks out there who do have long lists of recommendations and reviews, so feel free to look all over, as it’s like discovering new worlds when you start exploring cinema from another country…