Akira Kurosawa: Ikiru (1952) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Akira Kurosawa: Ikiru (1952)

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Watching Ikiru you get the feeling that Akira Kurosawa may not have been an optimist. The first 2/3 of the film are so relentlessly sad, so brutally, remorselessly defeatist, that it becomes difficult to bear—but the last act goes somewhere more hopeful.  That it's not a purely “uplifting” finale, and instead veers into more complex territory in its last act is a credit to Kurosawa's patience and strength of vision. To talk about the movie, you have to get a potential spoiler out of the way: the story takes an unconventional structure that follows the main character during the first two acts discovering that he has terminal stomach cancer and trying to make meaning of his life, after which we are made aware that he has died. The last part relates his final days through conversations between his colleagues that take place at his funeral.

I'll admit, the first time I saw the film—the only other time I've seen it—I thought that this final section at his funeral diffused the power of the story. It had the effect, in my memory, of a comedian explaining their joke after the audience has already laughed at it. For a story of such intense power and loneliness, what came off as an overly expository final act rang false for me. If you'd have asked me before re-watching it this week, my response would have been the only time I'd ever argue that a group of drunken Japanese businessmen flailing around and explaining events is not the best way to tell a story.

It turns out I was wrong, which is a relief—there should always be a place for roomfuls of drunken Japanese businessmen telling stories.

The plot establishes Watanabe—played brilliantly by Kurosawa regular Takashi Shimura—as a faceless bureaucrat in a government department whose sole responsibilities seem to be scrutinizing paperwork and sending citizens with concerns to other, equally useless departments. One early sequence shows with escalating humor and frustration the series of referrals a group of townspeople encounter simply trying to have action taken to clean up a hazardous cesspool in the middle of their residential space. Beginning with Watanabe, they are told to visit what seems like every other governmental department in turn, each claiming that the problem is the responsibility of someone else. Later in the film a character asks him for his stamp of approval on a project, to which he responds that she has brought him the wrong forms—he then reconsiders and approves it anyway, and we get the sense that even this act of ignoring such a petty bit of process is some sort of revolution for Watanabe.Hurtling him out of his role as a cog in a useless system is the news that he has cancer and only has a few months to live. This forces him to examine his life and purpose, which in turn throws him into an unrelenting depression. Early on is perhaps one of the most devastating sequences Kurosawa has ever put to film, as Watanabe returns home after learning of his condition only to overhear his son and daughter in law talking about using his savings to buy a house for themselves. To them he is just a fixture in the house—something to be used for their own needs rather than an important person in their lives. He sits alone in his room and recalls moments after his wife's death when he raised his son Mitsuo, and we see how much purpose this gave his life—that he's now faced with such thanklessness underlines his feelings of despair.

In a bar, he encounters a writer who, learning of his condition, tells him that he has a rare opportunity knowing that death is coming to make full use of his life. The writer's way of doing this is to rebel against those aspects of his life that are enslaving him. Instead of toiling away at his job and stockpiling his earnings, he'll start to do things for himself, enjoying life. “We've got to be greedy about living,” says the writer, who throughout their night together spouts pseudo-philosophical one-liners about how he is triumphantly taking his life into his own hands by placing his own immediate needs first. This character may be Ayn Rand in disguise.

This approach fails to restore any meaning or purpose to Watanabe's existence, however, and he begins spending time with a young woman from his department at work. “You're so full of life,” he tells her, trying to discover what it is that he could do to live just one day as he imagines she does. It's here, finally, that he realizes that while he may not have time to change his own life before he dies, he can still work to change the lives of others, and this is where his renewed purpose comes from. Embracing his job as a previously useless bureaucrat, he uses the position to affect social change by pushing forward a project to construct a park on the site of the cesspool brought up in the first scene—resulting in yet another use of a filthy, stagnating pool of water in the middle of a town by Kurosawa to literalize contemporary problems.A simpler movie would end here, with Watanabe having regained value and purpose in his life, promoting a general warm feeling about how people can change and work together for the common good, but Kurosawa shifts in the final act to a more cynical debate about how the system that initially trapped and subsequently was made to work at the service of Watanabe ends up taking credit for his final accomplishment. At his funeral, his colleagues debate how much credit he is actually due for completing the park—those who would previously have decried his efforts to reach outside the bureaucratically constricted realm of his own department now pat themselves on the back for doing their part in getting the project completed.

The emphasis here is still on individual worth and the implied recognition and reward that goes along with having built the park—Watanabe's colleagues are caught in the same spell as the annoyingly self-indulgent writer from earlier in the film. They are missing the point—his concern was not for himself (and therefore these last scenes are filled with irony, as their discussions of how much credit he is due would have been utterly unimportant to him in the first place), but rather for the general good that could result from efforts made in his own life. As the bureaucrats argue, get drunk, claim that they will aspire in their own lives to be like Watanabe, and then get drunker, Kurosawa makes the movie not so much about the main character's relatively simple and straightforward—albeit emotionally devastating—quest to return value to his life, and more about the question of what one should live their life for in the first place.

In a way, the structure of the film almost implicitly criticizes the viewer for investing so immediately in the process of Watanabe trying to feel good about him again. While this is nice—and it's clear from an iconic scene in the completed park that he dies happy and satisfied—it pales in comparison to object of real importance: how many others' lives were improved by his efforts. We feel a sense of injustice at his colleagues claiming responsibility for his efforts, and at a penultimate scene showing that the city department he ran is just as useless in his absence as it was before he finally turned things around, but the injustice is not that he was denied proper recognition—it's that more of his fellow workers have not followed his example.

By ending on a shot of the completed park, Kurosawa leaves the viewer with a less-than-subtle lesson that one's actions shouldn't serve to justify personal ends, even if those ends are regaining one's very sense of purpose and worth. What's important is how Watanabe used his power to create a force for common good that outlasts his own truncated life. Ayn Rand would have hated it. Which makes it excellent.God, Kyle, you’re only now getting that Kurosawa may not have been optimistic about things?  Even stranger, every time I’ve watched Ikiru I think that it’s his greatest memorial to the secular humanism he held to.  He made this film to deal with the act of disappearing, not from a crowd or the country, but the literal act of becoming nothing.  What’s so beautiful about it is that even in the face of absolute oblivion Watanabe hardly falters and walks on.

Kurosawa could not have picked a better face to go into death than Watanabe’s.  His performance is an impossible concoction of repression and hope, burning eyes and a deep frown, and that wonderful smile that he still manages to put on his face at the very end.  Shimura gave himself fully to the despair of Watanabe and because of that trust in the material delivered, without a close equal, the best performance of his career.  Kurosawa needed a trusting guide like Watanabe to get us through the worst of this otherwise the despair would be overwhelming far too many times.

I think of the scenes like when Watanabe is remembering his dead wife and goes through the major events of his son’s life.  I know you mentioned it briefly, but it is damn difficult to be prepared for the way Kurosawa assaults us with his despair.  The scene is edited like a nightmare as moments of triumph despair intermingle in fragmented memories while we hear Watanabe repeat his sons name endlessly on the soundtrack.  He wasn’t always a faceless government worker, and Shimura’s emotional fluctuations throughout the past keep a steady hand on what Watanabe is going through as evidenced by Kurosawa’s editing through his past.  It’s as the perfect scene for people who heard “Cat’s in the Cradle” at some point in their life and thought the song was just too happy.But happiness is still as much a part of Ikiru as the sadness, even in some of the parts you mentioned.  I love the relationship that Watanabe has with the friendly stranger who wants to treat him to a proper night out as he learns debauchery.  Kurosawa is clearly having fun with the editing here.  This is especially prevalent in the way he quickly cuts between a shot of Watanabe having his hat stolen by a woman in the red light district, him fondly getting a stylish new hat, and the way he protectively clutches it to his chest when a pretty bartender reaches for his hand.  Watanabe is going through the sins for the first time, lust, pride, greed, and finding out how wonderful they can be in the proper doses.  The writer is less a Randian figure and more someone who wants to be bad and finds himself sliding into goodness through depravity.

I can sit here and go on about the technique and the acting, but we’ve both done a fair share of that.

Ikiru is important to me in the way few films are.  I work in a job that I love dearly, but at any point if the system becomes too much or if I encounter the wrong manager again I could easily become broken like Watanabe.  I don’t want to, I love my job and it’s one of the most wonderful opportunities for genuine empathetic connection.  I’m shocked I was able to find something like this in the professional sphere, but there are people around me who have become like Watanabe or even less.The real sadness of Watanabe and his governmental friends, one that the movie points out in no subtle terms, is that they have always had the potential to do so much but decide to do so little.  This is what makes the montage at the beginning so funny at first until you realize the neighborhood mothers could get shuffled around forever.  They go through about seventeen different departments before arriving back at square one and deciding that being angry at the sky is better than staying the same in the building.  At least there someone might pay attention.

All this potential to be good and still people insist otherwise to maintain their anonymity in the system.  Watanabe was the first person to break the rule of conformity because his desire to be anyone was slowly tapered out of him.  He was a good father, scared when he and his son were separated by war, but we could see how his decisions eventually turned him into a government shell when he tells his boy he needs to go to work instead of stay for his surgery.  Even though Watanabe follows him in, it’s clear that moment never left his son, and long after his mom died Watanabe slowly curled into himself.

I’m scared that one day I’ll wake up and I’ll be in the same office with a plaque thanking me for forty years of service and - that’s it - I’m done.  There is nothing worse than going through the motions, because I’ve been in jobs where that finally happened, and I also know there’s nothing more painful and beautiful than when you realize you can step away and empathize.So when Watanabe begins to sing that goddamn song and no matter how many times I’ve seen it, I cry.  Both times.  It’s the most touching moment in a career filled with over-the-top emotions and careful violence.  But it’s not straining for the melodrama and staginess, that I really did love, of One Wonderful Sunday.  The first time the film asks the same thing of us as it does of the others in the bar, to sit back and allow someone the simple dignity of mourning for the passing of life in his own way.  But that second time, alone in the park, is so triumphant in the way he spreads the smallest bit of light before his own extinguishes, is what gives me hope.

The bureaucrats bicker, they salute, and ultimately they fall short.  But there’s Watanabe’s park, sitting there not as a mockery of their cowardice, just a reminder they could be more with minimum effort.  If there was no change I suppose this would be a cynical film, but we leave with children laughing and playing.  Even in bureaucratic hell, there’s hope.

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Posted by Andrew

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