“Freedom of the press or harassment?” The more things change, the more they stay the same. Akira Kurosawa’s attack on the declining moral standards of the post-war society as reflected in the duplicity of the gutter press has unexpected resonance in the present day in which the media is simultaneously unwilling to challenge authority and in thrall to the populist allure of celebrity gossip with sometimes tragic results. The aptly named Scandal (醜聞) is essentially a morality tale which draws additional power from its seasonal setting and embodies the soul of the contemporary society in a conflicted lawyer consumed by internal struggle against despair and hopelessness.
The more literal scandal however revolves around a well known singer, Miyako Saijo (Yoshiko (Shirley) Yamaguchi), and a motorcycle-riding artist, Ichiro Aoe (Toshiro Mifune), who meet by chance while staying at the same remote mountain inn. Having ironically headed to the mountains to escape the various “annoying things” that plague her in the city, Miyako has been pursued by two muckrakers from the tabloid press who take umbrage at her refusal to see them. They are then fairly delighted when they manage to snap a picture of Ichiro and Miyako standing on her balcony looking out at the mountains like a young couple in love. They deliver the photo to their seedy boss, Hori (Eitaro Ozawa), who is over the moon with excitement at his new business prospects. Suddenly Ichiro and Miyako are on posters all around the city with headlines such as “Love on a Motorcycle” and “Miyako Saijo’s secret love – revealed!”.
Though Ichiro is a semi-public figure himself having been featured in magazine spreads as an artist on the rise, he is not a worldly man and is shocked by the idea that the press can make something up and print it with no consequences. He feels he must resist not just on a personal level angry to have been misrepresented but for the post-war future to ensure that the press is held to account and that it does not misuse its power to breach the privacy of ordinary citizens. To his mind, they only get away with it because most people just ignore them and wait for the scandal to pass, a sentiment born out by Hori who dismisses a concerned underling with the reminder that they’ve never yet been sued so they need have no fear saying whatever they like whether it’s true or not. “The kind of snobs we target think the law is beneath them” he adds, suggesting that most people prefer to think of the gutter press as something they can safely ignore and that it’s only themselves that they show up in their torrid obsession with the lives of others.
But Hori also ironically defends his right to press freedom and quickly hits back that he’s being oppressed by those who wish to silence his right to free speech even when what he’s saying isn’t true. Lawyer Hiruta (Takashi Shimura) who offers to represent Ichiro in his lawsuit quickly identifies Hori as a duplicitous conman but also allows himself to be manipulated accidentally accepting a bribe after being led to believe that Hori has a top legal expert on retainer and the case is hopeless unless Miyako, who has so far maintained a dignified silence, can be persuaded to join as co-plaintiff. Ichiro had decided to accept Hiruta’s offer of representation largely on meeting his teenage daughter, Masako (Yoko Katsuragi), who has been bedridden with TB for the last five years. Masako is a pure soul whose isolation from the contemporary society has allowed her to maintain her innocence and humanity but it’s also true that it’s the society that made her ill in the first place.
The morality play reaches a climax on Christmas Day as Ichiro delivers a tree on his motorbike while Miyako sings carols for a radiant Masako who is at least sitting up and looking much healthier than she’s ever been before. But the more Hiruta debases himself, caught between an accidental debt to Hori, his own lack of conviction, and the frustrated desire to do right, the sicker she gets as if poisoned by post-war duplicity. Even so, Ichiro continues to defend him insisting that Hiruta isn’t a bad person just a weak one and that in the end he won’t be able to go through with betraying him but will eventually come clean and tell the truth when it counts. Ichiro’s faith is as much in the institutions of the new democratic Japan as it is in Hiruta as he explains at the trial admitting that he may have been naive in placing too much trust in the legal system thinking that he couldn’t lose because he knows he’s in the right. As the opposition lawyer points out, that’s not a very good legal argument because his client thinks he’s in the right too only he doesn’t know that Hori is both a liar and an idiot who’s staked everything on the assumption that Hiruta won’t expose him for bribery, which would at least strongly imply he can’t back up his story, because it would mean destroying himself.
In the end it’s Hiruta who puts himself on trial, baring his soul to the court which he acknowledges he has betrayed in his negligence and wilful obstruction of justice. It’s a victory for truth and decency and a turn away from the duplicitous, capitalistic mores of men like Hori who think they can do whatever they want and only laugh at those who value fairness and compassion. “In all my 50 years I’ve never seen a more confused age” Hiruta explains speaking of post-war chaos and the forced comprises of the intervening years of despair and desperation. As he coaxes the denizens of a small bar into an early rendition of Auld Lang Syne on Christmas Day, each vowing that this time next year things really will be better, many of them breakdown in frustrated longing drowning their sorrows as they continue to yearn for better times they do not really believe will come. But then like all the best Christmas films, this is also a redemption story of a man who decided that it wasn’t too late after all and that he might have to destroy himself in order make himself anew and be the man his daughter always knew he could be even if in the end he could not save her from the ravages of the post-war society.
Scandal screens at the BFI Southbank, London on 10th & 24th January 2023 as part of the Kurosawa season.