One of the earliest Japanese atomic bomb related films is Ikimono no Kiroku. It’s about a wealthy industrialist, Nakajima (Toshiro Mifune), who seeks to escape the threat of radioactive fallout from South Pacific nuclear weapons testing by moving his complacent and reluctant family to Brazil, initiating a struggle that ultimately brings tragedy. The film was produced by Toho, one of the largest movie studios in Japan. Like many movie studios, Toho produced promotional materials to advertise its films, and here I'd like to look at some of those materials.
At the left is the cover of a pamphlet published by Toho in 1955, the year the film was released in Japan. Notice the expression on Nakajima's face. It seems to suggest anxiety and fear, even longing, almost as if he is reaching out for help. More subtly, observe that on the right side of his face there are bumps that resemble the types of burn scars seen on those who survived the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In the film itself, Nakajima has no such scars. Toho’s strategy in altering Nakajima's appearance may have been to imply that he was perhaps a hibakusha, an atomic bomb survivor, many of whom bore the scars of radiation burns. However, it might also refer to the symbolic meaning of the film that beyond bodily disfigurement nuclear weapons also bring about a psychological scarring, an implication that spans an audience far broader than the Japanese bomb survivors.
The pamphlet contains production stills and photos from the film, along with several pages of descriptive material in Japanese. A section on reasons for the film's production reads:
At the atomic energy meetings in Geneva, remarkable improvements in the peaceful use of atomic energy were predicted to bring well-being to humanity. However, people should also promote the idea that there are no real winners in an atomic war. How would a war using hydrogen bombs be explained to all of humankind? This question definitely exists vaguely in every person's mind, but since people think this cannot be helped they may have visibly give up their concern. Perhaps we also need to consider humanity's weakness and stupidity as our problems, and it is this that has inspired Akira Kurosawa's enthusiasm.
After providing an overview of the plot, characters and crew, the pamphlet alludes to an intention of reaching Japanese as well as international audiences and deliver its hopeful message about nuclear weapons:
What does this story convey? Is he a madman? Or is the world going mad? Kurosawa and his production team have created a masterpiece that is a representative voice of the Japanese people, as well as the peace lovers all around the world who are hoping for 'no more Hiroshimas.' During the past year, they have kept their passion at bay waiting for the day that this work may touch all of humanity beyond the victims. No doubt this film is full of serious and powerful passion. Would their common feeling toward the production, with its enthusiasm and earnest wishes, remain profoundly in the audience's heart?
Although the producers clearly had high hopes for this film at the time, it 'bombed' at the Japanese box office. Ticket sales were low and the film slipped into obscurity as Kurosawa rode his more well known historical dramas into the limelight. Perhaps Ikimono was not well received in Japan because it had been only a decade after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Or perhaps it was the residue of the American occupation, which ended only three years before the film's release and which forbid portrayal of the bomb in media. Ikimono would not be screened in the USA until 1967, where it was released under the title I Live in Fear, rather than the more accurate translation of its Japanese title, Record of a Living Being. Ikimono has only recently received well-deserved recognition as somewhat of a lost Kurosawa classic with the release in 2007 of a remastered DVD. Viewing Ikimono no Kiroku almost sixty years after its production, the film ironically leaves an impression that is close to the original message that Toho and Kurosawa had hoped to convey about nuclear weapons, as an understated thoughtful reflection on the bomb's psychological implications.
In another section of the Japanese pamphlet, Kurosawa explains his intention for making the film:
The movie describes the threat of hydrogen bombs. However, it doesn't intend to describe this threat sensationally. Via a story of an old man, its description suggests that the audience think about his problem as theirs. This problem perhaps exists vaguely and creates a huge and insecure shadow in people's minds. Nevertheless, most people turn their back and ignore the problem. Because the problem is tremendously terrifying, it happens the same with us all. Are these the weaknesses and stupidity of human beings? For example, if other animals knew the threat of these hydrogen bombs, perhaps they would act instinctively. At least they would find a safer place and move there for their species' preservation. The main character in this movie possesses the living being's intelligence and power. As a human being, he might have many weaknesses. However, the audience is urged to listen to an honest exclamation of the living being, even if his actions might be odd at first glance.
Ikimono saw an American cinema release in 1967 under the title I Live in Fear. It was screened with English subtitles, rather than the English dubbing that characterised American audience viewing experiences with Japanese genre films of the time. At the right is a promotional photograph provided by the distributor upon its American release. Notice that the expression on Nakajima's face is similar to that of the Japanese pamphlet, most notably the wide eyed gape, and his hand is reaching outward in both. It seems to be expressing fear but perhaps also with an element of pleading. However, there is no sign in the American photo of the radiation burns that seem to have been added to the Japanese promotional pamphlet image from 1955, which was published domestically and was clearly intended for Japanese audiences.
However, if you look closely at the US photo you'll see that it, too, has been slightly retouched. On the left side of Nakajima's face, there seems to be some airbrushing related to fixing his facial hair rather than adding radiation burns. Retouching the photographs, for whatever reason or effect, can remind us of the attention to detail and how the same film can be promoted in different ways for different times and places. What's common to the two images is Mifune's startling and engaging portrayal of Nakajima. Incidentally, even though he was in his early thirties when the film was made, with the help of makeup and his delivery of the details of speech, mannerisms and posture, Mifune makes a very convincing sixty-year old.
In addition to the materials for the Japanese and American releases, Toho also printed a dual French and English pamphlet, possibly to promote the film in Canada but more likely for Cannes, where it was an official selection in 1956. The French title, Si Les Oiseaux Savaient, which translates as 'If the birds knew,’ captures more accurately than the sensationalised English title I Live in Fear the point Kurosawa made about the film, and which is also uttered by the supporting character Harada (Takashi Shimura), that if the animals knew about the bomb they would surely flee. The photo selected to promote the film in this pamphlet resembles the desperate visage of Nakajima in the other promotional materials noted above, although his expression is closer here to what might be understood as exhortation, staring at us and pointing with the ubiquitous fan that he uses throughout the film, as if to plead, 'Won't you listen to me?'
[This essay is by J. Progler, professor of Culture, Society and Media at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University in Japan, and is part of the materials he has been developing for an undergraduate lecture subject on cinema and the atomic bomb.]