FILM (1950)

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 May, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 May, 2010, 12:00am

Toshiro Mifune, Shirley Yamaguchi, Takashi Shimura, Noriko Sengoku, Yoko Katsuragi
Director: Akira Kurosawa

Frank Capra's justice-fighting 'little men' were hardly small in stature, be they Gary Cooper in Mr Deeds Goes to Town (1936) or James Stewart in Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939). Joining their ranks is Japanese icon Toshiro Mifune, oozing star glamour as he fights a corrupt press in Scandal (1950), the closest auteur Akira Kurosawa ever came to Capra-esque populism.

The courtroom drama pitting a free-spirited artist against the cynical editor of a scandal rag might have been called Mr Aoye Goes to Tokyo, with painter Ichiro Aoye (Mifune) a maverick who triumphs against the odds. It is one of Kurosawa's most engaging if relatively unknown works, with an entertainingly mid-20th-century Yankee ethos emanating from its totally Japanese core.

The film was released four months before Roshomon (1950), the masterpiece that established the worldwide renown of both director and star and put the samurai genre on the international cinematic map. To fans of such Kurosawa-Mifune collaborations as Seven Samurai (1954) and Yojimbo (1961), the sight of the fashionably unkempt artist racing his motorcycle through post-war Tokyo may be disconcerting. Yet at the same time there is also a strange familiarity, for Mifune's subtle mixture of sensitivity and raw strength is not far removed from the samurai persona with which he is more closely identified.

Although he does not wield a sword, Aoye is something of a rebel leading the Japanese equivalent of a Bohemian existence, as evidenced by a stark atelier and unconventionally platonic relationship with model Sumie (Noriko Sengoku). He is far from a prude, but when tabloid Amour creates a scandal by publishing 'compromising' photos of himself and recent acquaintance Miyako Saijo (Shirley Yamaguchi), a classically trained singer of impeccable reputation, he takes the principled stand of suing editor Asai (Shinichi Himori) in court.

Kurosawa, who was inspired by his own tussles with the fourth estate to write the script (with Ryuzo Kikushima), clearly views the paparazzi and their bosses as among the lowest of the low. Nor does he place much faith in the legal profession, represented by Aoye's down-and-out lawyer, Hiruta. As played by Takashi Shimura, a favourite of the director's who appeared in more than 20 Kurosawa features but is best known to Western audiences as the doctor in Godzilla (1954), he effortlessly steals the spotlight with the picture's showiest and most complex role. Wavering between a thirst for justice and the practical realities of providing for tubercular daughter Masako (Yoko Katsuragi), Hiruta is corruptible, buffoonish, and the very definition of pitiful.

Kurosawa gives free rein to his sentimental side in the treatment of bedridden Masako, a symbol of purity who brings out the best in both her father and the painter. Entertaining for its post-war mixture of East and West is the Christmas Eve sequence, with Aoye providing the musical accompaniment to Miyako's rendition of Silent Night as a kimono-clad Misako looks on bedecked in a paper crown.

For Chinese movie buffs, the movie's chief attraction is screen and recording superstar Yamaguchi (above left with Shimura and Mifune). A fluent Mandarin speaker born to a Japanese family in China (as was Mifune), she gained her initial fame under the Chinese stage name Li Xianglan and had a huge following in both countries.

Her role in Scandal is uncharacteristically subdued, Kurosawa intriguingly fading her into the background as an almost disinterested party to the scandalous maelstrom threatening to engulf chanteuse and artist.