Why did Bosley Crowther pan Akira Kurosawa's 1955 anti-nuke psychodrama I Live in Fear (a.k.a. Record of a Living Being) as "one of the weakest of the great Japanese director's works"? Alongside Ingmar Bergman's misanthropic Winter Light (1963), it's one of the most serious treatments of Cold War nuclear-annihilation anxiety, more serious than 1964's flippant Dr. Strangelove or ponderous Fail-Safe.
Crowther praised Bergman's film, in which a Lutheran pastor's crisis of faith is triggered by a parishioner's paralyzing fear of the atom bomb. Sweden of all places has probably had one of the world's slimmest chances of being nuked, making it all the more striking that one of its citizens should be obsessed with it. But in Japan, due to the US occupation, films about the effects of Hiroshima and Nagasaki weren't made until Kaneto Shindo's Children of Hiroshima and Hideo Sekikawa's Hiroshima in 1953. American audiences certainly wouldn't have been exposed to many; Sekikawa's film was screened only in an abridged version, while I Live in Fear had to wait for its US premiere until 1967 and Children of Hiroshima until 2011. Crowther should have recognized at least the pioneering role of I Live in Fear, not to mention its exploration of intergenerational tensions, social responsibility, and madness.
When Dr. Harada (Takashi Shimura) is summoned for jury duty, he becomes embroiled in a family dispute over the property of its patriarch, Mr. Nakajima (Toshiro Mifune, nigh-unrecognizable with white hair and architect-style circular tortoiseshell glasses). Nakajima is so anxious about an H-bomb attack that he's making plans to sell his financially successful foundry and his house and move his whole family to Brazil. His family doesn't understand at all; only Mr. Hori—roughly Nakajima's age—can commiserate: "All Japanese people share your anxiety." When Dr. Harada asks his son how he can be so calm, he responds, "There's nothing else we can do, is there?" In 2018 most of us share the son's disavowal; we all know a nuclear holocaust could happen any second but behave as if it's a fairy tale.
Nakajima is ultimately committed to an asylum, yet there are some who doubt that he is any more delusional than they. After reading an account of the long-term effects of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki blasts, Dr. Harada tells his son, "If the birds and beasts could read it, they'd all flee Japan." Even Nakajima's psychiatrist wonders, "Is he really insane? Or are we, who can remain unperturbed in this world, the crazy ones?" This coda is the verbalization of an argument already made in the opening credits, in which a spooky theremin score accompanies wide shots of countless blissful ant-like commuters. Although you won't find I Live in Fear in your local video rental store's sci-fi aisle, the theremin theme gives it a The Day the Earth Stood Still vibe, and the ambiguous ending borders on The Twilight Zone. Dr. Harada visits Nakajima, who points out the cell window at the sun and shouts, "The Earth is burning!" Harada leaves shaking his head, but the viewer is unsettled. Was Nakajima right all along? Are we the crazy ones?