very name Kurosawa Akira carries with it some pretty heavy
cinematic baggage, with any work that does not meet the
criteria for classic unfavourably compared
to those that do, films that to this day are
amongst cinema's greatest achievements. His 1950 Scandal [Shubun] is doubly cursed in this respect. Regarded by a fair number (though by no means all) of
those who have seen it as a minor Kurosawa effort, it was
also made and released shortly before Rashomon,
a genuine movie masterpiece that brought the director and
Japanese cinema to world attention. This very proximity
makes it hard for any follower of Japanese cinema to judge
the film purely on its own merits, but I'm prepared to give
it a go.
story revolves around painter Ichiro Aoye and singer Miyako Saijo,
who after a chance meeting end up at the same hotel. Here they are tracked down by two paparazzi photographers, who
snap the couple in a perfectly innocent
encounter, an image that quickly appears in the celebrity gossip magazine
Amour as evidence of an illicit affair. The story is given
extra spice when Aoye drops in to the Amour offices and
gives publisher Hori a physical seeing to. Enter low-rent
lawyer Hiruta, who convinces Aoye that they should take
the case to court, but it turns out that Hiruta's legal integrity is not all
it should be.
first and most obvious thing that strikes you about Scandal,
given the year in which it was made, is how contemporary
its story has remained – it's easy to see parallels
with the activities of modern tabloids and the general public's seemingly insatiable appetite for celebrity
gossip. This also represents one of the film's key problems,
as we are asked to identify not with ordinary people whose
lives have been destroyed by spiteful lies, but a well-to-do
singer and a self-confident and resilient painter, both
successful in their respective professions and who suffer little more than bad words as a result of the story,
and certainly never face anything approaching real hardship.
The dramatic upshot of this is that the stakes are not that
high, and by the time the case gets to court there is little
real tension, as the pair appear to have little to lose
if things do not go their way. It all becomes a matter
of moral right against wrong, which is certainly enough to engage,
but not to compel.
is partly due to the broad and largely uncomplicated strokes
with which the characters are drawn: Aoye and Saiji are
upright, blameless and utterly decent; Amour editor Hori
is sleazily self-confident and completely without scruples;
and lawyer Hiruta is a maudlin drunk with a gambling addiction
and a tubercular daughter, whose smiling, starry-eyed innocence
is enough to instantly beguile Aoye and even prompt her
sloshed father to blurt out his misdeeds before falling
instantly into a snoring sleep. With such clear-cut examples
of the good, the bad, the tragic, and the redemptive, it's hardly surprising that the story plays out in
largely melodramatic fashion, at times slipping quite spectacularly
into sentimentality. Curiously, this appears driven more
by Kurosawa's experience of the Hollywood product than by
traditional Japanese cinema, as Christmas arrives and the
sounds of Jingle Bells, Silent Night and
(huh?) Buttons and Bows wash over the soundtrack
and an entire bar get chummy and dewy-eyed singing Auld
Lang Syne in what comes across as a mushy version
of Casablanca's rousing Marseilles
sequence. Of course this also reflects a post-war Japan
that has lost part of its cultural identity and moral strength
following the American occupation, with even the name of
the offending magazine a French word widely used in the
West rather than Japanese in origin.
however, there is a great deal to admire and enjoy. If the
casting of Kurosawa's favourite leading man Mifune
Toshiro as Aoye creates a character who appears more warrior than
painter, with a motorcycle as his steed and a 'punch first
ask questions later' attitude to publisher Hori, then this
is balanced through the use of the director's other main
man Shimura Takashi as Hiruta. Hunched up and crushed by
the weight of his own failings, his moment of arrival in
the film is a gem, as he follows his wind-blown hat into
the Aoye house after scaring the posing Sumie, pauses to look
up at the artist like a confused bullfrog, then hands Aoye
his card and scuttles over to the stove to dry out his socks,
explaining his purpose in engagingly disjointed manner as
he does so. If his drop into relentless self-pity in the
film's midsection is a bit much at times, then the scenes
at the race track and the courtroom climax still allow the
actor to show his metal. His legal opposition displays an
equally intriguing casting differential, with
Ozawa Eitrô's villainous sneering as Hori eclipsed by Aoyama Sugisaku's imposingly officious authority as top prosecuting
lawyer Dr. Kataoka.
scenes are particularly memorable, as when the very drunk Aoye
and Hiruta stumble around each other on their way home or
Aoye transports a Christmas tree on the back of his bike.
The farmers called to testify at the trial deliver
the film's rare moments of comedy, while Aoye's relationship
with his long-time model Sumie provide the film with its most intriguing character
detail, their easy but open banter reminding me almost of
Claudius's unfussy attachment to the prostitute Calpurnia
in I Claudius – Aoye and Sumie may not
be sleeping with each other, but there is clearly a bond
between them that over the years has gone beyond that of
artist and model. That this is never built on is simultaneously
a little disappointing and yet pleasingly ambiguous.
the key pleasure for film fans, though, comes from Kurosawa's
repeatedly inventive and telling camera placement and sometimes
superb editing, the sheer breeziness of the pace of the
opening scenes getting the main plot up and running in a
matter of minutes, and the action is propelled from scene to
scene with sometimes inventive economy. If there is a little
too much reliance on newspaper headlines to explain key
plot developments in the later stages, then this also keeps
the pace kicking over, right up to the inevitable but still
pleasingly handled outing of the truth.
biggest surprise about the whole venture is the vitriol
with which Kurosawa, through the mouths of his characters,
attacks Hori and by association the yellow press he represents.
The venom expressed by Hiruta in his lowest moments is simply
out of proportion for the deed in question and makes you
wonder just what incident in Kurosawa's own past – what tabloid
attack on his own work or person – pissed him off so much.
last thing – if you've seen the film, don't you just ache
to see Aoye's much discussed picture of the red mountains?
before we even kick off here a couple of things need noting.
The film itself had not been well preserved and both the
picture and soundtrack had suffered considerable damage,
which have undergone extensive restoration by Eureka, but
a number defects do remain. In addition, Scandal
was one of several Japanese films made in the immediate
post-war period in which the dialogue was post-dubbed, and
not with the sort of pin precision that is possible now,
resulting in some very noticeable synchronisation issues. Given
all this, the picture restoration is very impressive, with
detail levels and contrast generally very pleasing, and
although some damage remains it rarely detracts from the
viewing experience. The framing, as you'd expect, is 1.33:1.
mono 1.0 soundtrack fares less well, with pops and crackle
proving fairly constant companions, though the dialogue
and music are clear enough. The above-mention sync issues
will not prove a major problem for non-Japanese speakers,
who will be flitting between faces and subtitles, which
are well translated, if not always bang-accurate.
video Introduction (6:39) sees
Alex Cox having a bit of a dig at Kurosawa over his attitude
to the film's subject matter, revealing a little about the
director's relationship with the popular press and wondering
just what he had to hide. Compression artefacts run a bit
Gallery has 25 of Shochiku's
original promotional stills and the poster, all of which
are in very nice condition and reproduced at a decent size.
there is the expected Masters of Cinema Booklet,
though it's a little thinner and with larger type than usual,
containing just one glowing essay by Joan Mellen, which
is a very interesting read.
you react to Scandal will be governed in
part by your tolerance for the sentimental and your views
on the tabloid treatment of celebrity lives. And yes, it
does pale somewhat when compared to the same year's Rashomon
(there, I said it), though both films are ultimately concerned
with the nature of truth and how it can be manipulated for
personal ends. All other considerations aside, the film
is still well worth seeing for its technical handling and
Shimura's performance, and is still a must for anyone seriously
interested in the work of one of the world's finest directors.
have done as good a job as can be expected given the condition
of the original materials, and in terms of the picture quality
have actually exceeded expectations. Frankly it's great
to see less widely heralded films receiving the Masters
of Cinema treatment, and on that score alone this release
deserves to be applauded.
The Japanese convention of surname first has been used for all Japanese names in this review.