Scandal ★★★½

A story about fake news, differing perspectives, interrogation, slander, false witnesses, obfuscating reality while smearing one's reputation, and a culture's inability to parse truth from fiction feels like an all-too perfect dry run for anticipating the RASHOMON effect. Arriving on the heels of that film, SCANDAL is a protest story against yellow journalism in the same way DRUNKEN ANGEL is a protest story against the yakuza. SCANDAL protests "verbal gangsterism," said Kurosawa, an ideology he saw embodied in the media's expanded, postwar freedoms after being liberalized from the shackles of American Occupied censorship. Ritchie states: "The Occupation was coming to an end and for the first time in the history of Japan people were beginning to be allowed to say, do, read, write anything that they pleased." Even if that meant publishing a steady stream of celebrity gossip and baseless falsehoods. Can you imagine the kind of film Kurosawa would make today in the age of #FakeNews and reality television? 

Actually, SCANDAL is a little more messy than everything I've described above due to some competing storylines. The first half focuses exclusively on how tabloid culture (influenced by the West) was ruining the East through sensational press and nasty gossip. The second half gradually shifts into a redemptive fable about a character who seems to be standing in for the hypocrisy of a nation that was abusing its newly recovered freedoms. The two stories are clumsily woven together, borderline non-sequitur. Ritchie calls it a "curiously unbalanced film," but to me the jaggedness of the storytelling always seemed pointed at both the political/private (first half) and the personal/intimate (second half). The target chews off more than it can handle in 104 minutes, but the intent is to marry the ways that lurid commercialization corrupted everyday citizens, how one instance of crookedness (the Mifune/Miyako paparazzi scandal) set in motion a L'ARGENT-styled domino effect into revealing yet another instance of crookedness (the Shimura courtroom scandal).  

From the perspective of the spurned paparazzi, who titillate the public with little regard for the truth, you have to remember that sensation sells; sensation is what puts food on their plates. From the perspective of the vacillating lawyer, who plays both sides of a case and corrupts himself in the process, you have to remember he's trying to choose the good, but he's also needing to pay for expensive medical bills for his ailing daughter's tuberculosis. His motives for wanting to defend the man and woman who were wrongly exploited by the press are sincere, but he's also financially driven. Giving in to some desperately needed cash against the plaintiff he represents doesn't make him evil. "It's not because he's a bad person," says Mifune, "he's just weak." Weakness of will doesn't make the lawyer vile, only human. Kurosawa guides our sympathy for this morally conflicted character in the same way he did with the gangster in DRUNKEN ANGEL, two troubled souls trying to reclaim their humanity. And it is through losing themselves, fighting against their baser instincts, that redemption is made possible.

SCANDAL is not without its troubles and melodramatic flourishes. The first and second half are problematic from the perspective of narrative cohesion, but they're really intellectual counterparts. The personal is the political, the private is also political. By dropping a real human being (Shimura) into a story that initially felt like an attack against yellow-press for privacy intrusion, Kurosawa transforms an otherwise one-sided villainy into a morally interesting tale about deciding between right and wrong, justice and corruption. For as playful and light-hearted as the execution is, I was surprised by how ambitious its reach was, even though it never quite coalesces everything it wants to embrace. Like I said earlier, it makes for a preliminary launching point to RASHOMON, a film that will next perfect the art of lying, of falsifying objective reality.


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