Friday, November 12, 2010

Film #38: Ikiru (1952)

Title for Us English Types: “To Live”

Director: Akira Kurosawa

Initial Release Country: Japan

Times Previously Seen: none

Teaser Summary (no spoilers)

Crusty old bureaucrat is diagnosed with stomach cancer, seeks for ways to squeeze some life out of his remaining months.

Uncut Summary (the full plot, including spoilers; fair warning)

In a stuffy Japanese city hall building, the aging Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura) sits at his desk for the section chief within the massive bureaucracy. He does nothing more than robotically stamp forms, a task that he has done for over thirty years.

And then, a change. He learns that he has stomach cancer. This shakes him to his very fiber, as he begins to realize that he has done nothing of substance with his life. He begins to dwell on his relationship with his son, whom he lives with, and realizes that they are totally detached emotionally. This is clear through his son and daughter-in-laws' plans to edge Watanabe out of his own house and pension. This becomes known to the now-terminal man, but he is lost in his search for his soul. He decides to try and spend his remaining months living. The problem, however, is that after 30 years of being an automaton he doesn't know how.

Kanji Watanabe (left) beginning to realize his mortality & wasted life.

He begins by trying the hedonistic route. While drinking heavily at a local bar, he confesses his condition to a young pulp writer. The writer takes Watanabe out for a wild night of drinking, dancing, singing, and women. Watanabe begins by having some fun, but in the end is left with a hollow feeling of being unsatisfied with this definition of “living”.

The next morning, Watanabe runs into his co-worker, Sakai, a lively and friendly woman young enough to be his daughter. Watanabe becomes taken with her vitality and general happiness, and begins to spend time with her. Sakai is happy to oblige at first, and the two enjoy each others' innocent company, but Sakai eventually becomes nervous about Watanabe's obsessive fascination with her. In the end, she leaves her job at the city office to work in a toy factory. When Watanabe finally grills her on how she can always be so cheerful, she responds that making toys for children simply makes her happy. This is the small spark Watanabe needs.

After his two mysterious and unprecedented weeks away from work, Watanabe returns with a new mission: to make some kind of difference in the world before he dies. He reviews old cases in his stacks of papers and finds a past request to have a children's park built in a small, squalid neighborhood. He decides to finally stop the “pass the buck” system of his offices and take charge. He gathers his staff and heads out to the potential park site.

Flash forward five months. Kanji Watanabe has just died and the mourners are all at the wake in the family home. In attendance are several of the more prominent politicians from city hall. It soon becomes clear that the park of Watanabe's quest has not only been built to phenomenal success, but the credit for it is being taken by the mayor. This claim of responsibility, however, is up for serious debate.

As Watanabe's co-workers, family, and acquaintances pay their respects and recall the final months of the deceased's life, it becomes clear that Watanabe was, indeed, the singular force that led to the park's construction. Through sheer force of will and a quiet, unwavering refusal to take “no” for an answer, he got the plan passed through every stodgy section in city hall, even openly defying local gangsters and the mayor himself. After overseeing the park's construction, it was here that Watanabe chose to die on a snowy winter night, finally succumbing to the cold while singing the forlorn old tune “Song of the Gondola”.

In recounting their co-worker's tale of dedication, the still-living bureaucracts make drunken pledges to reform their ways and begin to perform their tasks with more active compassion. Of course, their talk is only so much hot air. In the end, nothing changes at the city offices. However, we are left with the joy of young children playing in the glittering new park that was left by Watanabe's iron will. It was here that he decided to pour all of his remaining life energy, and we are left with children's joyous laughter to echo the final acts of a man who, in the end, figured out some way to imbue his otherwise forgettable life with some meaning.

Take 1: My Gut Reaction (done after 1 viewing, before any research)

Ikiru is another great movie that I'll likely never watch again.

I came into this one expecting an outright depressing tale, based on the synopsis on the DVD cover, and that's what I got for a while. In the last 45 minutes, though, an interesting transformation took place within the film itself and in my connection to it.

For the first 90 minutes or so, things played out not unlike I expected. A man learns that he has 6 to 12 months to live, begins to seriously examine his life and try to find the vitality that he's let drain out of himself for the previous three decades. In going to the likely areas of first vice, then young love, there are no great surprises. Still, there is something there that sets Ikiru apart from other end-of-life, soul-searching movies. It has the gumption to stare the abyss right in its terrifying face.

Throughout the various episodes Watanabe experiences, he perpetually wears a haunting death mask. His distant, eerie gaze belies the fact that he has turned his sight inward to the extent that he becomes downright creepy. During most of these moments in the film, there is absolutely no music or sound. If you allow yourself to become lost in Watanabe's stare and try to ponder the existential questions that consume him, you may find yourself in the same very real place as this loosely fictional man. We all may end up right where he is, and what, exactly will you think of your own life when you can see the end of the road coming? I found myself getting quite pensive at times during the watching.

Here's a haunting scene from Kanji's night on the town, when he breaks into a forlorn love song from his youth:

Back to the narrative. The last portion of the movie took me by surprise, as there is a severely abrupt jump from a Watanabe newly rejuvenated by the new park project, to his funeral five months later (the narrator dedicates about 3 seconds to explaining this to us, the addled viewers). From there, the movie becomes a series of flashbacks that tell the rest of the tale. In that final 45 minutes, the movie says so much about the value of living personal dedication while condemning the ineffectiveness of stale, bloated bureaucracy. In watching all of Watanabe's coworkers lament Watanabe's death, we see nearly every possible facet of humanity. They all go through periods of reverie, nostalgia, sycophancy, guilt, defensiveness, and in the end, dedication that they will become true difference-makers in their offices. These final booze-drenched promises, of course, come nowhere close to getting fulfilled. This leaves us with perhaps the ultimate message of the film: why is it that only a person who has nothing to lose is the only one who helps others in need?

In this, you can see that the themes and narrative are the true strengths of the movie. Some other aspects of the film are not exactly world-beating to me. The acting is old-school. It's solid, especially for its era, but there were still some conventions that were prevalent in a lot of acting of the day that stand out to me in a negative way. Mainly is the very slight overacting at certain moments of higher emotion, especially laughter or sorrow. It's not enough for the actors to chuckle naturally – they have to erupt with ear-piercing cackles. They can't just cry – they have to collapse into a heap on the floor. It's not as bad I may make it seem, but a few moments stood out to me.

One thing I can't knock is, as you may imagine, the directing and cinematography. Akira Kurosawa was an absolute master. Before this film, I had seen many of his dozens of films, including epic action masterpieces like The Seven Samurai or Throne of Blood, more humorous adventure tales like Yojimbo, and the more measured psychological crime dramas like High and Low. Even though I already thought it before, the humane Ikiru confirmed my notion that Kurosawa was incredible at any cinematic story he decided to tell. Between the camera work and use of sound, the meditative, somber mood is set beautifully.

The movie is pretty long, clocking in at 2 hours, 20 minutes, and to be honest, it sometimes feels like it. However, it's clear that there is no wasted time. By the time you get the end, with the near-death but redeemed Watanabe gently swaying back and forth on the park swing, contentedly singing the lonely lyric, “life is brief”, you can't help but feel that you've joined him on a spiritual journey every bit as epic as Ulysses or Beowulf.

Take 2: Why Film Geeks Love This Movie (done after further research)

Wow. Researching this movie is almost akin to a religious or epiphanal experience, not unlike the film itself.

While not exactly opening my eyes to anything in the film that I didn't notice upon first watching it, the thematic depth is confirmed and expanded upon. In reading several different essays and reviews, it becomes clear that, among Akira Kurosawa's brilliant films, Ikiru is often cited as his true masterpiece. This undoubtedly is for doing something that writer Alexander Sesonske points out as being exceptionally difficult: create a film about death that carries very real emotional power from start to finish. In this essay, Sesonske agrees that Ikiru is a masterwork, but he feels that Kurosawa's sexier tales of the samurai still have an equal place among the great films of the world. I agree.

Writer Donald Richie goes deep into analyzing the film's place among great existentialist tales in history with this piece. He reminds that Kurosawa's favorite writer was Dostoyevsky, whose stories sometimes featured protagonists very much like Kanji Watanabe – those who need their death to become tangible in order for them to enact a meaningful life. One can endlessly debate what “meaningful” is, and Richie points out that this is a hallmark of great tales – that they can be interpreted differently throughout time and among different peoples.

I think that, of all of the different summations of the ultimate message of Ikiru, my favorite comes from the original TIME magazine review, written upon Ikiru's delayed release in the U.S. in 1960:

“To live is to love; the rest is cancer.”

Watching it in isolation robs it of its emotional punch, but here's the extremely touching and iconic ending:

That's a wrap. 38 films down. 67 to go.

Coming Soon: Ugetsu (1953):

The second of a cluster of three movies done in the Land of the Rising Sun in the 1950s. I'll see how this one does in the wake of such a weighty film like Ikiru.

Please be sure to pick up all empties on your way out.