“Scandal” - Akira Kurosawa (1950)

Akira Kurosawa made Scandal (Shûbun, 1950) in the same year and just before his international breakthrough work, Rashomon (1950), but the two films are strikingly different. While Rashomon has a surreal and almost mythic aura too it, Scandal comes across as a contemporary commentary on modern society’s foibles. Nevertheless, it is interesting to compare the two films, because Kurosawa’s exaggerated and stereotyped theatrics works effectively in one film but not so well in the other.

The story of Scandal concerns how two young people are victimized by an unprincipled, scandal-seeking tabloid journal that will stoop to any level of mendacity in order to increase its circulation.  In this case the two targeted young people, a painter and a popular singer, are particularly harmed by the yellow journalism, since their professional lives depend on their maintaining a good public image.  This issue of personal privacy and public media is hardly less relevant today.  Thanks to the continuing and relentless global spread of surveillance media, it is a problem that is worsening all the time, but it is interesting to see it here presented in an Asian cultural context with its own specific issues.  These additional cultural issues, however, cloud and ultimately detract from the overall presentation.

The narrative structure of Scandal passes through three basic stages.  The first phase sets up the basic narrative theme about privacy, while the second phase switches gears and shifts the focus to something else.

1.  The Artist and the Singer Scandalized
In the first third of the film, the basic privacy-invasion events take place that create a public scandal. The established landscape artist Ichiro Aoye (played by Kurosawa favorite Toshiro Mifune) is shown painting a scene in a mountainous area, while some curious locals watch him work. A pretty young woman, Miyako Saijo (Shirley Yamaguchi) approaches on foot and asks for directions to her hotel. When the locals tell her she has a two-mile walk ahead of her, Aoye says he is going there, himself, and offers to take here there on his motorcycle.

It turns out that Miyako is a famous popular singer, and two paparazzi surreptitiously take some photos of Miyako and Aoye at the hotel and hand them over to Hori (Eitaro Ozawa), the publisher of the tabloid journal, Amour. Hori immediately has an article published with the photos that wrongly claims Miyako and Aoye were having a secret sex romp at the mountain hotel. The article causes a public sensation, and Aoye’s angry response and strenuous denials only feed the flames of public notoriety. Miyako shies away from further publicity, but Aoye tells her that publicity-shy passivity is exactly what the scandal-mongers count on, and he vows that he will fight them in court.

During this first third of the film, Kurosawa expertly uses rapid scene shifts and back-and-forth responses between the two contesting parties, Aoye and Hori, each separately surround by journalists,  to create a fast-paced buildup of tension in the fashion of Frank Capra comedy.  The issue is clear-cut: how can we protect our privacy and integrity from snoopers and unprincipled media that publish lies about innocent people?  Even after the lie is corrected, the damage is usually irreversible, and the media outlets fame and coffers have swelled further.

So at this point the confrontational sides are now established: the super-cynical and manipulative media boss, Hori arguing for freedom of the press versus the naive and innocent Aoye who has only his personal sense of righteousness to count on.  Of course, we know whom we want to prevail, but Aoye seems to be overmatched by the experienced and well-funded Hori. Soon the situation seems to be further imbalanced when we see that Aoye naively hires as his lawyer, a shabby and evident fly-by-night shyster named Hiruta (Takashi Shimura). How can Aoye prevail with the  clearly incompetent Hiruta carrying his case in court?

Even so and with the cards stacked against Aoye, we look forward to a brisk, Capra-esque battle between the two unequal forces.  But then something strange happens.

2.  Hiruta’s Struggles
In the second phase of the film, the focus and tempo of the story shifts dramatically over to Hiruta.  In fact I would say that the narrative is hijacked by Takashi Shimura at this point.  Hiruta has a teenage daughter, Masako, who is critically ill with tuberculosis, and this of course enlists Aoye’s (and our) sympathies on his behalf.  But Hiruta is also quickly revealed to be a hopelessly weak and self-indulgent fool who drinks and gambles away his scant family resources.  He spends much of his time in an inebriated semi-stupor, wallowing in self-pity. These scenes showing him slobbering about his own weakness (but doing nothing to change himself) seem to go on interminably – there is one such scene lasting almost ten minutes where he goes out with Aoye to a bar on New Year’s Eve and weepingly gets all the assembled drunks to join him in a chorus of “Auld Lang Syne”.    

On top of all his self-indulgences, Hiruta proves to be corrupt, too.  Hori bribes him to throw the case in his favor so that Hiruta can continue to compulsively place losing bets at the bicycle races.

Throughout the full course of this second phase of the film, Hiruta makes no progress.  We are just witness to repeated slobberings and blubberings.  The once-promising Capra-esque pace and themes of the film has vanished. 

3.  The Trial
The third phase features the courtroom scenes – with Aoye and Miyako (now enlisted to support Aoye), represented by the incompetent Hiruta, as the plaintiffs; while Amour and Hori represented by the famous lawyer Dr. Kataoka are the defendants. Of course, the trial goes disastrously for the plaintiffs, as Dr. Kataoka wraps Hiruta around his little finger in the courtroom.  It seems that Kataoka has managed to get the burden of proof placed on the plaintiffs: in order to win their case, Aoye and Miyako apparently have to prove that they did not have a sexual liaison at the mountain hotel.

At the end of the film, just before the final verdict is to be given by the trial judges, Hiruta learns that his daughter has died at home.  Her last reported words were her expression of faith that Mr. Aoye would win his court case.  In evident response to this tragedy and his daughter’s faith, Hiruta returns to the courtroom, and just as the final verdict is given he stands up and reveals that he had been bribed by Hori.  Though this destroys his legal career, it somehow causes the judges’ final decision to be reversed – the plaintiffs win their case.  In the final shot, of Aoye speaking to a crowd of journalists outside the courtroom, he says that, though they may be puzzled by what he means, he has just witnessed a star (meaning Hiruta) being born.

Generally the camera work and editing are excellent in Scandal.  However, as I have indicated above, I don’t feel that Kurosawa’s shift from the social (and Capra-esque) perspective in Phase 1 to the personal perspective on Hiruta in Phase 2 works at all.  The somewhat exaggerated histrionics that Kurosawa employs in his costume epics does work well in the Capra-esque context of Phase 1, but not in Phase 2.  Indeed the performances of Toshiro Mifune (Aoye), Shirley Yamaguchi (Miyako), and Eitaro Ozawa (Hori) are quite effective.  In particular, Mifune looks handsome, cool, and relatively under control (unlike his comportment in some subsequent films) – just right for the role he plays of an artist who believes in universal truths. 

But to me the performance of Takashi Shimura (Hiruta), another Kurosawa favorite and an actor I have liked in most other roles I have seen him in, is not effective here in Scandal. There is no narrative progression to his character, just extended sequences of exaggerated grimaces, frowns, and self-pitying rhetoric.  His performance is overbearing and tedious.

One could, it is true, point to some tenuous connections between the social themes of Phase 1 and the personal themes of Phase 2.  Japan was at this time flooded, and perhaps somewhat culturally challenged, with the wonders and temptations of Western modernism. Virtually everyone in the film is seen to be wearing modern, Western dress and engaged in Western-influenced cultural activities.  The time is at the end of the calendar year, and the children on the streets are all calling for Santa Claus.  The songs we hear outside, in the parlors, and in the cafes are from the West: “Jingle Bells”, “Silent Night”, and “Auld Lang Syne”.  But there is also the gambling and alcohol consumption that accompanies this “anything goes” atmosphere.  The apparent suggestion is that in the face of social disruptions and increasing social disorder, the proper response is to maintain the personal values of honesty, commitment, and personal integrity.  In this sense one can see why Aoye’s claimed that the rebirth of Hiruta as a star was more significant than his own social-level court victory.

Nevertheless, the connections between the themes of the Scandal’s Phase 1 and Phase 2 are not well made, leaving the overall narrative fabric of the film in a confused and dissatisfying state.  The more interesting potential narrative threads, such as those concerning privacy, the public’s role in maintaining social responsibility, and the possible romantic involvement between Aoye and Miyako, are never developed and carried through.

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