The Criterion Collection website has its social element. Not a site forum that I can find, but you can set up your own account there, comment on the various Collection posts (I skip the comments, as is my habit. When I don’t, I am saddened that they usually run to the banal, like “Me wanty!” or posts about Dr. Dre’s Beats that haven’t been purged yet) and you can curate a thing called “My Criterion“. Now, while I don’t like making lists, I do love cataloging, so I had another place to post my discs besides the one on Letterboxd. You can also put together a Wish List, and the only failing there is Criterion didn’t provide a button for “Everything Not Already Owned”.
I bring this up because you also create a profile there, and one of the things displayed on your profile is, no surprise, Favorite Director. I’ve waffled a bit on that over time, but I started out with Akira Kurosawa, and after a while and some flirting with other directors, I’m right back at Akira Kurosawa.
It is, quite simply, hard to go wrong with Kurosawa. I can trace my current love of cinema, I think, to a series on PBS back in my youth, circa 1973 0r 74, that showed classic world cinema. One of the movies they showed was Seven Samurai, and my fate was sealed. The fact that they later showed Yojimbo was just to make sure I had stopped twitching. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen Seven Samurai; it’s the movie I trot out at least once a year for viewing, and I find something new to admire every time.
Kurosawa is so influential, that he birthed a cottage industry, and a secondary hobby of mine. I collect Kurosawa rip-offs, remakes, or homages if the budget is big enough. Seven Samurai and Yojimbo must be the most-remade movies ever, in various genres and locales.
But the point I am making, in a typically meandering and tail-chasing way, is that if your only experience with Kurosawa is his samurai movies, then you must see Ikiru. Frankly, I could have left it at “You must see Ikiru.”
Ikiru translates as “To Live” or simply “Living”. It stars the versatile Takashi Shimura as Kanji Watanabe, an aging bureaucrat who has spent the last thirty years advancing to the head of his department in city government by doing nothing. His life is incredibly nondescript, sitting at his desk, stamping papers, and overseeing his underlings continually shuttling complaints off to other departments.
Until his stomach pains become so great he has to take his first day off in 30 years to see a doctor, only to discover that he has terminal stomach cancer. In just one more layer of an astonishingly-crafted film, Watanabe is not told of his impending death by the medical bureaucracy at the hospital, that instead falls to a loquacious hypochondriac in the waiting room, who lists off all the symptoms of terminal cancer and the lies doctors tell to terminal patients. It’s a stark reminder that at the time it was common practice to not tell terminal patients of their plight, to avoid filling their remaining days with dread.
Watanabe finds himself falling into an emotional whirlpool. He finds he cannot bring himself to tell his adult son or his daughter-in-law about his illness, as his concentration on being un-extraordinary has also subjected his personal life to the same drab non-existence of his office. He withdraws a large sum of money from his bank, intending to blow it on debauchery, only to find to his dismay that he has no idea where to start. A chance encounter with a hard-drinking writer sets them onto a long night exploring the entertainment quarter – and you had no earthly idea the night life in Tokyo was so varied and so intense. Even that, though, fails to pierce Watanabe’s melancholy, and even the Writer finds himself sobered by the man’s fate, all his efforts to render life and death poetic crushed by the simple fact of Watanabe stopping their taxi ride to vomit his ailing guts out in an alley.
Watanabe is then smitten by Toyo (Miki Odagiri) the sole woman in his department, a young girl who is leaving because she finds the work “boring” and unsatisfying. The older man isn’t in love or even in lust with her – he is drawn to the fact that she is so alive, that she makes him laugh. Shimura is, in fact, capable of making the saddest, most hang-dog expression possible, and seeing that face transform when he laughs is magical indeed.
Watanabe’s son is certain that his father’s odd behavior is due to Toyo, and when the man tries to tell his son, finally, about his cancer, the son jumps the gun and completely chews his father out about hanging with a young girl. Toyo is also getting creeped out by Watanabe’s attention, and when she attempts to cut off all contact with him, he tells her of his plight and tries, one last time, to find out what it is about her life that makes it so vital, so attractive. Toyo feels it is because she is currently working in a toy factory, and she makes things. She puts one of the toy bunnies on the table. “I feel like I’m playing with every baby in Japan.” In his moment of greatest despair, Watanabe sobs he can’t make anything, not in his job… and as a party in another part of the restaurant breaks into “Happy Birthday to You”, he realizes he can, and charges out.
The narrator informs us that six months later Watanabe has died, and the rest of the movie takes place at his wake.
Since the movie is starting to play around with time, I’ll do the same and return to the beginning, where, in a darkly comic sequence, we are shown a group of housewives complaining about a cesspool in their neighborhood, asking to have it paved over and hopefully turned into a park for their children. They start at Watanabe’s department, then are shuffled from department to department to the deputy mayor and finally, back to Watanabe’s department. That, and the stacks of paper everywhere, reaching to the ceiling (Kurosawa’s art department apparently appropriated the studio’s paperwork for the past 40 years for these documentary vistas) artfully delineate Watanabe’s world.
As the attendees at his funeral talk, we begin to discover the particulars of the last six months of Watanabe’s life; how he used that time to successfully railroad through the creation of that park, and how he was found dead in that park the day after it opened. Through these stories, his co-workers and fellow bureaucrats – and his son and daughter-in-law – come to realize that Watanabe knew he was going to die, and utilized his final days for all they were worth. The increasingly intoxicated bureaucrats swear they will do the same, they will, like Watanabe, become firebrands of change. Of course, the next day, they all go back to their gray, do-nothing lives, leaving the one worker who attempts to follow their grandiose, drunken promises to ponder Watanabe’s park sadly as the sun sets. The change, when it comes, will not come as a sweeping wave, but as the work of individuals, like Watanabe, and like, hopefully, this one serious, concerned worker.
Ikiru is a surprising film, one that just when you think you have it scoped out, changes on you. We identify so strongly with Watanabe and his blind flailing to find something, anything to make his wasted life worthwhile, that it comes as a bit of a shock to find out he’s dead just when things finally seem to hitting a positive note. But that storytelling is incredibly canny because due to our identification with the character, we then get to attend our own funeral, and it is every bit as satisfying as we could hope. Not mawkish at all, but with heartfelt feeling.
Earlier in the movie, when the Writer is showing Watanabe through the underworld, there is a scene in a piano bar where the player asks what he wants to hear, and Watanabe requests “The Gondola Song”, which dates back to 1915, a song asking women to find love before they are too old. Some drunken couples get up to dance, but slowly stop and sit down, listening to Watanabe’s sorrowful singing. In the final portion of the movie, we are privy to Watanabe’s final moments, sitting in one of the swings in the new park, joyfully crooning “The Gondola Song” in the snowy night. I have tears in my eyes just writing about that moment. Hopefully the spellcheck will catch the typos.
So yes, Ikiru is a movie to be seen. It is emotional without stooping to manipulation, heartfelt without cheap sentiment. Akira Kurosawa was a humanist, and rarely was that humanism so moving and so affecting.
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