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January 2004: Kurosawa's ScandalKurosawa's Scandal (1950, running-time 104 minutes), starring Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura, is an underappreciated gem. It is a Christmas movie, and its theme is sin and redemption.
It's December. An artist, Aoye (Mifune), rides his motorcycle up into the mountains to paint a landscape. While he works, three rustics who have happened by critique his canvass in progress: too restless, too red. "Mountains move," he informs them, and the mountains he sees inside of him are red. He won't copy others: "Do you ask someone how to make love to your wife?" This painting will be hailed as his masterpiece.
While this is going on, they hear singing, and Saijo walks into view. She is singing to herself but stops when she sees the others. They don't recognize the famous singer. She has missed the bus and asks how far to Kaminoyu. As it is two miles and Aoye is going there too, he offers to transport her bag. They resume their discussion and scarcely pay any attention to her. Noticing her indecision, Aoye offers to give her a lift, too.
Overtaking the bus, the singer is recognized by a reporter and photographer for the gossip magazine Amour. They immediately smell an affair and a scoop. They follow the pair to the hotel in Kaminoyu.
Aoye, fresh from the bath, pays a visit to Saijo in her room. She, too, is in bathrobe, having washed off the dust of the journey. He has heard the maids gossiping and realized who she is. He says, "You have big eyes." His transparently sincere manner puts her at ease. He drapes his towel over her balcony to dry. She makes tea, he lights up a pipe. An allusion to the curious crowds unsettles her, so he changes the subject by admiring the beautiful green of a marsh that is just visible from her balcony. As she leans over with him to see it, there is a click. They don't know it, but their picture has just been taken.
Back at the Amour offices, the publisher, Hori, looks at the photo, identifies Aoye (who is known for his motorcycle), and plans a big splash. When his writer says, "We could be wrong," Hori says, "So what! The public will love it."
Buses, billboards, and loudspeakers promote the December issue of Amour. Aoye holds up traffic as he gapes at a whole wall of posters of himself and Saijo and the two towels, in front of a sign written in English that says, "Loading Zone for Special Service." He tries to buy a copy of the magazine, but the issue has sold out. It has gone into a second printing, and the Amour staff are celebrating, when they hear a motorcycle engine. Aoye walks in, grabs a copy, sits on a desk, and reads the article. "Who's in charge?" he demands when he finishes, and on Hori answering, levels him. This makes more press.
Aoye, Saijo, and her mom. Aoye, angry, wants to sue the magazine. Saijo is afraid of such an action.
Aoye at work in his drafty studio in a dilapidated building, which is also his living-quarters. We hear the sound of the wind blowing outside. His outspoken friend and model, Sumie, sits for him, and they talk about the Amour story. For her part, Sumie knows the story isn't true because he is different from most men. Even when posing nude, she has never felt him staring. (This marvelous actress, Noriko Sengoku, makes a memorable third with Mifune and Shimura in four films in a row: Drunken Angel, Quiet Duel, Stray Dog, and this one.) Although Sumie is sitting in profile, what Aoye has been drawing is two large eyesSaijo's!
Aoye calls a break and throws Sumie an orange, which she plays with while talkingthen screams. A man's face in the window! A moment later the bell rings. When Aoye opens it, a hat flies in, followed by a funny-looking little man, Hiruta (Shimura), who introduces himself as an attorney.
Hiruta's manner is eccentric in the highest degree. He has stepped in a sewer and proceeds to empty his boots and ring out his socks on the floor. He babbles nonstop. He has heard of Aoye's case, feels for the justice of his cause, wants to represent him, hates that devil of a publisher, etc. After he leaves, Aoye and Sumie are weak with laughter. When Aoye says he'll visit Hiruta's home to see what his family is like, Sumie is shocked he would even consider entrusting his case to such a crackpot.
Hiruta's house. Hiruta is not home; but Aoye meets his daughter, Masako, an invalid suffering from TB. She shows Aoye a beautiful floral bridal robe her mother has made, which she is enjoying until it is due to be delivered to the bride: "Even though it's winter, the bride who wears this will feel like she's walking through a field of flowers." Aoye is greatly moved by this happy soul.
Hiruta's office, a shack on the roof of a building. The sound of wind, clothes flapping on a line. Hiruta is not there, either. Aoye sees betting sheets for the track and is about to leave when he is arrested by a photo of Masako on the doorpost. This decides him. He writes on the chalkboard, "Appointing you as my legal council. Details later. Ichiro Aoye."
Saijo at the piano and her agent. She is playing and singing the same song she sang in the mountains, and her agent complains that she sings nothing else since that day. (Unfortunately, the subtitles never give the words to the song.) She talks of canceling a performance because she's so embarrassed by the scandal.
Similarly, the scandal has made a big success of Aoye's one-man art show; and similarly, he talks of canceling it. Sumie, on the other hand, wants him to let her manage it in return for a cut. And just as Saijo is obsessed with the song she was singing in the mountains the day they met, so he is obsessed with the painting he did that day and won't put a price on it. In short, he loves Saijo, and she, him.
Hiruta and Hori at the Amour offices. Hori tries to convince the lawyer that the suit's no good unless Saijo sues as well (a bluff: Hori assumes Saijo would never do this). That failing, he bluffs again by telling his assistant to call Kataoka and have him come by. The name of this feared attorney has its desired effect, and Hori says, "Now how about a drink?"having shrewdly recognized an alcoholic.
Night. An Amour truck brings Hiruta home drunk, with an armful of presents and a stuffed bear. He kneels by his daughter's futon to give her the things. She says, "Mr. Aoye came here. He brought me those apples. He kept telling me what a good man you are. But somehow deep down he seemed afraid, afraid you might do something bad. I know how he feels. Lying here with this fever, I see things so clearly it frightens me. Father, you're doing something wrong again. Don't deny it. I can tell. You're acting so kind and gentle tonight. You seem so sad. I can sense this feeling welling up inside of you. That's how you get whenever you've done something wrong. [He tries to speak.] It's alright. I appreciate your tenderness. I love this bear."
"Masako," he cries, "I'm no good. I'm a petty crook."
"No, you're good."
"No, you're father is a loser. Not even a skunk. I'm just a worm. What have I become? There was a time when people always tricked me. People tricked then laughed at me, laughed at me then tricked me. . . . To protect myself from being tricked, I started tricking others."
Her mother tries to shush him, but Masako bids him go on, saying, "Talking makes him feel better."
He tells her about the awful Hori: "But as horrible as that monsterthat villainis, he finally won me over. He defeated me. By the time I realized what had happened, it was too late." Hiruta passes out, his head on his daughter's futon, and she strokes his hair.
Hiruta's roof-office. Wind. The superintendent calls Hiruta to the phone: it's Amour. Hiruta tries to avoid the call, but Hori was prepared for this and left the super with message: they'll be at the race track. Hiruta paces in indecision, then gets his hat and coat and heads for the door. He is stayed by Masako's photo but then looks away, turns it over, and goes out. He gives the slip to Aoye, who was just coming up.
Aoye's art show. Sumie sits eating an apple. Saijo peeps round the corner wearing a dust mask for disguise. (Apparently, wearing a dust-mask in public was not that strange.) She wants to buy the red mountain painting! Sumie says it's not for sale because Aoye associates it with some fond memory. Saijo coloring, Sumie recognizes her with an exclamation, and Saijo is swarmed by the crowd.
The bicycle races. The more Hiruta loses, the more money Hori thrusts on him. Finally, Hori says he'll forgive the debt if Hiruta will convince Aoye that his case is no good without Saijo. (The bicycle races tempting men to ruin contrasted with Aoye's motorcycle bringing pure air and freedom.)
Aoye's studio. Saijo and Sumie are setting table while Aoye cooks. Hiruta comes and, fiddling with the motorcycle, does his errand. But the plan backfires: Saijo is ready to be a party to the suit. Hiruta is so agitated he accidentally sounds the horn.
Hori is now afraid and engages Kataoka for real, who tells him all he has to do is prove the affair took place. Hori is walking, thinking about this, when a street Santa Claus hands him a leaflet and cries, "Merry Christmas!"
To the tune of "Jingle Bells" Aoye rides to Hiruta's house with a fully decorated Christmas tree on his motorcycle. That night Hiruta comes home drunk again and hears "Silent Night." The tree is set up, Aoye is playing the organ, and Saijo is singing to Masako, who is sitting up with a crown on her head. The crown has a star on it, and the bear also has a star on his head. With an exclamation of self-loathing, Hiruta flees, breaking glass, and Aoye goes after him.
Hiruta and Aoye at a bar, the Red Cat. Here are people who have no better place to go on Christmas, carousing. A man stands on a bench a delivers a sort of homily. He says this year went to hell somehow but swears next year will be a different story. He is joined by Hiruta, and soon the whole room is singing "Auld Lang Syne," weeping for their lost innocence.
The night sky. Aoye is walking Hiruta home past the neighborhood sump, both drunk. The stars are reflected in the water. Aoye suddenly stops and says: "Look, old man, a miracle has occurred. Stars have fallen into the filthy pond. Old men, life can be so touching at times. Glittering stars amid all this reeking slime. An old villain like you gets such a charming daughter."
"Thank you, thank you," says Hiruta. "Yes, she's as lovely as those stars, and I'm just a no good bum!"
"Quiet! Someday even you may become a star. You may shine, too. What mortal can know what God has in store for us?"
The hearings begin in a media frenzy. Asked by reporters about three missing key witnessesthe rustics who can testify to Aoye and Saijo's accidental meeting that day and how he came to offer her a rideHiruta is strangely silent. In court, witnesses from the hotel paint a lurid picture, but Hiruta, catching Hori's eye, neglects even to cross-examine them.
Hiruta's house. Masako flings away the flowers Aoye has brought. As she sobs, her mother explains that his kindness upsets her because she suspects her father is cheating him. Aoye admits he has his suspicions but still has faith, and they have located their witnesses.
The rustics' testimony gives comic relief, and the crowd's applause shows they are on the side of the plaintiffs. Kataoka asks for an explanation for the late appearance of witnesses without whom the plaintiffs would have had no case to bring in the first place. The implication is that they may be fabricated. Hiruta, again catching Hori's eye, has no answer and so seems to confirm the suspicion.
Aoye's studio. Wind. Saijo and Sumie are there. The mood is gloomy. The papers are forecasting a bad verdict. Aoye sits on his motorcycle and revs up its engine to reassure himself. Then Hiruta comes in with a gust of wind, but Sumie starts when she sees his ashen face. Masako is dead. Her last words to him were: "Father, Aoye will win. He'll win the case."
Court. The judge asks for final statements. Hiruta stares vacantlyin another worldso Aoye speaks up just to offer his good character and to swear the article was a lie. As Kataoka speaks, Hiruta's face begins to contort, and when the judge asks for any last remarks, he jumps up. Mopping his brow and speaking in starts, he says he has evidence against Hori and asks to take the stand as a witness. There, with trembling hands, he offers his evidence, a check to himself for 100,000 yen. Under questioning by the judge, he says that this is why he neglected to locate the three rustics: "The evidence which bares my own dishonesty proves Amour as guilty." "Is the defense in accord?" asks the judge. Kataoka, with a withering look at his client, says yes; and the crowd goes wild.
Aoye and Saijo are being interviewed, and their physical attitude tells us that they have an understanding. They look like a couple: she sits slightly behind Aoye, gazing confidently at him and allowing him to speak for both of them. With a glance to her for reassurance, Aoye says, "We just saw a star being born." "You mean Hiruta?" "Exactly." "You call that guy a star?" "For the first time I saw a star being born. Compared to that, our victory was nothing."
At the same intersection where before Aoye first saw the posters, Hiruta is chasing his hat. He crosses. Behind him we see the posters in tatters, blowing in the wind.
The weather always has a strong presence in Kurosawa's films. In this one it is the cleansing, scouring wind. It blows at Aoye's studio when Hiruta first comes to call. It blows when Aoye first goes to Hiruta's rooftop office. It blows again at Hiruta's office when he receives the phone call that sends him to the track. It blows at Aoye's studio when Hiruta comes to say that Masako is dead. And it blows Hiruta at the street-corner in the final scene. We can also say that Aoye, riding his motorcycle, creates his own wind. He says: "I love the freedom a motorcycle brings. It feels so good."
The scenes with Masako are windless, but Masako's love itself is like a relentless wind, carrying everything before it. Hiruta cannot help but confess in her presence. In her vision of the bride walking through a field of flowers "even though it's winter," perhaps Masako senses that she is not long for this world. Her last words lead directly to Hiruta's redemption, because it is to make them come true that he finally rises to accuse himself before the court.
Masako is also like the red, moving mountain of Aoye's painting. An invalid, she stays in one place, yet her love is bigger than a mountain and touchesno, overwhelmseveryone around her and radiates beyond. There is no limit to her motive power. Aoye compares her to a star. Just as the reflection of the stars make even the sump beautiful at night, so Hiruta's crummy life is redeemed by his love for Masakohis love being like a reflection of her in him. His love is embodied in the gift of a stuffed bear (already a symbol of innocence in One Wonderful Sunday); and in the "Silent Night" scene we see she has put a star on the bears head, foreshadowing Hiruta's redemption. (Is this why the wind keeps knocking Hiruta's hat off?)
We can also say that Hiruta, in spite of himself, left the door open for this outcome; for though he took a check from Hori's hand, he for some reason neglected to cash it. This will count in his favor, and his newfound friends who will certainly do all in their power to help him.
It might be asked why Aoye goes to Hiruta's house in the first place, against all reason. Aoye believes in Providence. God may have sent Hiruta to him for a reason; and indeed, it is through Hiruta that he meets that beautiful soul, Masako. "Since when is she trying the case?" demands the practical Sumie. But even when the case is in shambles and he himself suspects something untoward is going on, Aoye persists in his faith that something good will come of it.
One of the good things that comes of it is Aoye and Saijo's falling in love. This is handled very subtly. We are given enough to see that each is in love with the other; but not until their final scene together do we sense (and then only from their posture) that they have spoken the words. It is the funny way of Providence that falsely accused of illicit "love," they found a pure and innocent love.
Another good thing that comes of it is, of course, the vindication of the plaintiffs' good name. The story of sin and redemption is complete when Hiruta convicts himself before the court, but Providence adds the blessing that his clients gain the victory they deserve, and the power of the tabloids is shaken. And so, Hiruta's inward redemption expands beyond him to make a difference to many others. Another mighty wind, another moving mountain, another radiant star.
In the movie's final image, Hiruta, to a lone clarinet, chases his ever-frisky hat at the same intersection where the case that led to his redemption began. The more things change, the more they stay the same. We look in vain for something different about hima stronger stride, maybe a new hat; but he's the same little man, another face in the crowd. But then the camera zooms in on the tattered Amour posters flapping, and a rippling piano comes in. His ordinariness only accentuates the miracle that he is someone who made a difference.