Rare is it that a film director suddenly burst upon the scene with an initial Citizen Kane. Even one of the pantheon of immortals like Akira Kurosawa had a learning curve before breaking through with his period masterpiece Rashomon in 1950. It's often claimed that restrictions and structure give birth to creative art. Post war conditions in both Italy and Japan can be cited as examples with Italy's poverty requiring a number of neo-impressionistic filmmakers to drastically economize for their work and with censorship restrictions on Japan curtailing content. Japan also opened up western contact, which may partly explain how Akira Kurosawa came to become such an international phenomenon. But it take the talented filmmaker a few films to perfect his craft before the floodgates were unleashed.
Having witnessed the disastrous effects of Japan's wartime regime and the country's rebuilding efforts under U.S. occupation, Kurosawa created a series of overlooked films dealing with this period—now readily available through The Criterion Collection's five disc Eclipse series entitled Postwar Kurosawa. Frequently set in Japan's postwar ruins, these more intimate dramas are peopled with characters struggling to come to adjust contemporary society veering away from tradition. Among the better films in the box set is Scandal (Shubun), a 1950 film that pairs two actors who share long collaborative resumes with the legendary director: Toshirô Mifune (16 films) and Takashi Shimura (most famously in Ikiru and Seven Samurai).
Despite moments of melodrama and occasional easy shortcuts, Scandal contains a great deal to savor—beyond helping complete the Kurosawa canon. Primarily watch the film to see how the lead male actors dominate the screen, establishing themselves firmly as regulars in Kurosawa's ouevre. It's also the second of many times that Kurosawa collaborates with writer Kyuzo Kikushima, so we can discern how their narratives develop their structural style in this redemption tale about Japanese pop culture and the paparazzi.
Maverick painter Ichiro Aoe (Mifune) paints canvases that reflect the world as he sees it. Three illiterate onlookers remark that the mountain he's painting doesn't look that way in real life. Instead of being irritated Aoe patiently explains how a creative artist works—the mountain moves if you look close enough, and he views the mountain through a filter that sees it in red tones. By chance famous singer Miyako Saigo (Yoskio Yamaguchi) meets Aoe in the hills after she has missed the bus, and he gives her a ride to town on his motorcycle. This attracts the paparazzi assigned to get a photo of the reclusive singer for a disreputable tabloid; they turn an innocent moment into inuendo and the private worlds of Aoe and Saigo are never the same.
While the shy singer secludes herself even more, Aoe attempts to dispute the gossip, but this only backfires when the opportunistic publisher (Sakae Ozawa) counters every claim to whet the public's appetite and sell more illicit copy. Aoe eventually decides to sue the publisher and hires ambulance chasing lawyer Hiruta (Takashi Shimura). With only a smattering of legal expertise Hiruta is a good hearted man down on his luck and prone to drink beyond his means; he also has a sweet teenaged daughter who has been bedridden with tuberculosis for five years. She fears that her father is cheating the artist, yet Aoe reassures her. Relying on his artistic nature, he is convinced that her father's heart wil win out in the end.
Taken in modern context the "scandal" is hardly sensational, but that's of little import. Among the strengths of Scandal rests with Kurosawa's restraint. Rather than rely on standard Hollywood devices that would sensationalize the event and turn the story into a combination love story and blatant redemptive morality tale, he allows the story evolve more naturalistically. Like his protagonist, Kurosawa sees beyond the obvious and crafts a small scale story that blossoms into much more in the years to come. His two lead actors will grow into icons that will deliver even greater rewards in future dramas critical of modern Japanese society like Ikiru and High and Low. This film serves as a mustard seed for these masterworks.