It's good, but it's a bit of a slog and for a while it threatens to lose its way in the second half.
Toshiro Mifune plays an elderly businessman who's scared of the nuclear bomb. In 1955, this was normal and rational. The Cold War had the war balanced on the brink of nuclear annihilation. Stalin had died only two years earlier and Khrushchev hadn't yet disowned any of his atrocities. However Japan had even more reason to worry than most countries, having been nuked twice in 1945 and then more recently having had a radiation scare after America's 1954 Bikini Atoll hydrogen bomb tests. (Two fishermen were contaminated by radioactive ash, then sold their fish in the marketplace.)
In other words, everyone's scared of the bomb. Mifune's character, though, wants to sell everything he has, including his business and his foundry, and take his family to live on a farm in Brazil. In return, they're trying to get him declared legally non compos mentis so that they can seize control of his assets.
This film exists on two levels: the debate about the bomb and the personal conflicts among Mifune and his family. The bomb stuff isn't that great, to be honest. The film's a reaction to reality, rather than a discussion of it. People live their lives as there wasn't a sword hanging over their heads, because there's no alternative if you're not going to crawl into a hole and hide for the rest of your life. Mifune can't do that. He can't shut his eyes to the apocalypse. At one point he'd literally been digging that hole for crawling into, trying to build an underground bomb shelter for everyone to live in until he decided Brazil was a better idea.
Godzilla had been directly about the atomic bomb, but Kurosawa's film isn't. It wouldn't significantly change if everyone was instead frightened of being invaded by Daleks or eaten by the Cookie Monster. You could rewrite it in half an hour to be about global warming and eco-destruction and that might even work better. The farm in Brazil would fit more naturally, for a start.
What matters is that in 1955, all this was all too real. The end of the film is the nearest Kurosawa gets to saying something specifically about nukes, with Mifune's final tour de force. That scene's a statement as much about armageddon itself as much as the reaction of this one human mind to its horror. However, at the end of the day, it's hard to care about any of these people. Mifune is a destructive monomaniac and his family are unpleasant and often venal. Even when they're in the right, they're so off-putting that you want to disagree with them anyway.
For the first time, an Akira Kurosawa film lost money on first release. I'm not surprised. It's not pretending to have any answers, but instead is dividing its cast into monsters and blind, self-serving worms without the imagination to look up. The one sensitive, thoughtful man (Takashi Shimura) is also ineffectual and putting forward logically flawed arguments. The film's angry, harsh and pessimistic about the future existence of the human race, while also attacking most of its contemporary audience. Yup, that'll blow them away at the box office all right.
However at the same time, it's lighter than you'd expect of its subject matter. It won't get you opening your wrists. There's humour, for instance with my hero, Takashi Shimura, both enjoying his part-time courtroom work and enjoying grumbling about it. Being introduced to the dysfunctional Mifune rabble makes the court mediators twinkle like Santa as they explain that their job is to try to promote harmony. They live for the opportunity to turn fighting into happiness. (No end of opportunities here.) Mifune's face is funny as the Grumpiest Man in the World, although in fairness I'd be similarly disgruntled if my descendants were trying to get me certified.
The important thing is that it's a human story, not a metaphor. What makes Mifune turn that way in the end? Is it, at least in part, his family? All the unpleasant undercurrents of regular family interaction are being dragged to the surface, squirming like the ugliest, most evil-looking things from an ocean trench. Mifune had children by three mistresses, which he doesn't even seem to hide from his wife. People seem to have pinned their financial futures on daddy's money and it doesn't seem to have occurred to anyone to say, "Have fun in Brazil; I'll stay in Japan, find another job and be independent." They just fight. "Our names must be put in his will." Similarly Mifune is both right and wrong. He's voicing inconvenient truths that everyone else ignores, but he thinks the dangers are so huge that nothing and no one should be allowed to stand in their way. A religious cultist might think like that, perhaps.
Plus, of course, today we know that the world didn't end in 1955.
The acting's immense. Eiko Miyoshi's devastating as Mifune's bovinely stoic wife. It's clearly destroying her to be a party to all this. Takashi Shimura improves all things. (This is a law of cinema.) However it's Mifune who's incredible. He's a 35-year-old playing a 70-year-old and you'd swear on your mother's grave that he couldn't be a day under 69. That crooked, stomping gait, that stubborn glare, those bad-tempered spectacles... I've seen a few Mifune films by now, yet every time I fail to recognise him because he transforms so completely for every role.
As an aside, I've criticised the arguments of Shimura's character. He defends Mifune because he sympathises with the man's fear of nukes, but that's not much of an argument. Everyone was frightened of nukes back then. Not everyone went around devastating their family's lives. However that's not a plot hole in the movie, because Shimura's really a dentist, not a lawyer, and his legally trained colleagues soon poke holes in his arguments.
Is this film fun? No. My attention threatened to wander a bit in the second half, for what it's worth. If you're looking for a Japanese nuclear-themed film from Toei in the mid-1950s, I'd recommend Godzilla. However there's plenty of good stuff here and Kurosawa's too honest a filmmaker to be preachy. It always comes down to the people and Kurosawa's sparing us nothing with them.
"Is he the lunatic, or am I the lunatic?"