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…