Sunday, June 10, 2012

Ikiru (1952)

Ikiru (1952)
Directed by: Akira Kurosawa
Written by: Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, Hideo Oguni
Starring: Takashi Shimura, Miki Odagiri, Shin'ichi Himori, Haruo Tanaka
(143 minutes, B&W)

Takashi Shimura as Watanabe, and Miki Odagiri as the young woman

People say all the time that the key to living life well is just to live, without trials and tribulations, distractions, or reservations. Life is tougher than that, however, and when people take the time to look back on how they've lived, they often discover that most of their lives have floated by without much to show for the passing. That's the situation Watanabe, the protagonist of Kurosawa's Ikiru, finds himself in.  In a slow shot unbroken by any edits, the camera eventually closes in on Watanabe's melancholy face in the waiting room of a hospital, as other patients shuffle around him.  As the movie opens, the old man discovers he has cancer and will die soon.  The doctor was callous, and the other men and women around Watanabe keep moving at a fever pitch, ignoring the pathetic old man on the bench.  Watanabe is forced to take a step back and examine the way he has lived: his countless hours spent avoiding hard work at his trivial, bureaucratic job, and lonely nights spent in his dark bedroom. His crisis isn't that he only has a few months left to live, it's that he has never really lived at all.

Thus begins Kurosawa's most intimate film, a small-scale wonder that is more brutally honest than most of the big-budget, "brooding" films of our time. Ikiru moves not at a slow pace, but a leisurely one. Kurosawa is content to take his time in showing us the structure of Watanabe's fruitless existence before he goes about changing it. Day in and day out, Watanabe sits at a desk piled high with papers that need to be shuffled around the city government. He is the chief of his section, so the job falls to him to distribute the workload among other departments. His job consists of avoiding work. He derives no pleasure from it. At home, his son and daughter-in-law find ways of avoiding him and deriding his supposed selfishness. At night Watanabe pulls the covers over his head, desperately longing for a reprieve that may never come.

The film opens when Watanabe receives his cancer diagnosis. His face is set in a forlorn frown. It doesn't change as the doctor delivers his fatal news. Watanabe retreats slowly from the office, unable to become emotional. "I can't die," he mutters one night over a drink. His dilemma is one of us all: he thought he would have more time. When it comes down to it, time is both the central question in Kurosawa's film, and it's answer.

Watanabe sets out to spend his last time in as painless a way as possible. "I have money," he whispers morosely to a kind bartender. "I don't know what to spend it on." So the bartender gives Watanabe a tour of downtown, with its raucous parties and clubs. The bartender is aglow with alcohol and enthusiasm. Watanabe looks deathly ill. At the end of the night, he requests a simple song from the piano player at a lounge: "Gondola no Uta." The patrons around Watanabe chuckle as the piano player sighs. "One of those old 20s ballads," he says.

He begins to play. Watanabe starts to sing. He barely whispers the words, which entreat beautiful young women to love before their lives escape from them. Gradually tears grow in Watanabe's eyes. It's the first real emotion we've seen from him. The scene comes a little less than halfway through the movie, but is Watanabe's pivotal moment. He has time left, and he wants to make it count.  He cannot turn to his son, or his work.  The job to which he has given all of his existence is now futile to him.

He soon finds his inspiration in a young government employee who stops him on the street, commenting that she hasn't seen him at work for a while. The young woman always smiles, and always laughs. Watanabe is drawn to her youth and zeal. She tells him that the nickname given to him at the office was "the mummy." "I became a mummy for my son," Watanabe recounts. "Now he doesn't appreciate me." Indeed. His son, having recieved the wrong impression from the relationship, condemns Watanabe for squandering money that should be left in an inheritance. In light of this reaction, Watanabe decides not to inform his son of his cancer, a decision he extends to others around him. Herein lies the key that makes Kurosawa's movie so effective.

Films about people trying to make limited time count are dime-a-dozen, and Ikiru is multiple cuts above the rest. It never resorts to melodrama, anger, or sappy subplots. Watanabe (Takashi Shimura) conceals his grief internally, and shares it with very few people, much like is cancer diagnosis. Shimura finds meaning in Watanabe by playing him with subtlety and a reserved silence. Watanabe's personality doesn't change over the course of the film. He never gains extraordinary strength or an emotional steeliness to safeguard him against death. At the end of the film he is, as when the film began, a simple man with a simple life. There is no yelling to be found, and very few tears. To resort to such measures would undermine the credibility of Kurosawa's fable, and he wisely avoids them.  Kurosawa's epic samurai films (Ran, The Seven Samurai) are amongst the greatest movies ever made.  Ikiru, a quieter but no less striking film, is often overlooked.  Here are Kurosawa's roots.

The movie's simplicity makes its message about time even greater: no matter how little is left, there is always potential to make it count. After the young woman from the office gives Watanabe inspiration, he begins to plod through the meaningless bureaucracy he created to accomplish something real for the first and last time in his life.  Watanabe decides that his legacy will be a playground for children.  He oversees the entire operation himself, tirelessly hounding those around him to accomplish different tasks, the complete opposite of his previous work.  The audience's perception of him has entirely changed by this point in the film.  No longer is he a pathetic, lonely old man.  He is an inspiration, a single driven soul amidst seas of confused and lost people.  We watch Watanabe, bent over and in pain but no less resolute, with loving admiration.

Watanabe's final night is spent on his completed playground.  He sits and gently rocks to and fro on a swing as it snows lightly around him.  He hums quietly.  He is finally at peace.  Kurosawa lets the audience know that this peace is genuine; not the peace that comes from ignorance or complacency, but a deeper, more sincere feeling that stems from accomplishment and pride.

The greatest emotional power comes in the final third of Ikiru, when Watanabe's friends and associates are at his wake. The puzzle about the man's sudden enthusiasm and indomitable spirit, even entertaining the question of whether he knew death was upon him. They argue and cry, and eventually vow to live their lives as Watanabe ended his. The next day comes, however, the spirit has passed. The paperwork piles up, and is passed to the next department.  One particularly plucky former co-worker of Watanabe's scolds those around him.  He is ashamed of their lack of resolve. In this we see the core of Kurosawa's movie: inspiration, and the effect it has peoples' reluctance to change.

Humanity works like that. Often we don't realize when inspiration strikes, it happens so often. By the time we move on to the next task, it's gone. Most people forget the inspiration, but for some it lingers. The one young man from Watanabe's office visits the reward of Watanabe's final dedication: a crowded park for children. He remembers. Kurosawa's masterpiece Ikiru makes us remember. It's a humble testament to every person's potential to inspire new life, even in the face of death.  We pass people on the street every day, and we judge them based on their appearance, the way they carry themselves, the way they speak, and so many other meaningless factors.  Watanabe is a man I would pass on the street without a second thought.  How long will it take before people are willing to truly see one another?

Ikiru is obviously unrated by the MPAA. A single subtitled profanity makes up all of its inappropriate content, but it's really a film for adults. Its messages will fly over the heads of most kids who try to watch.

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