Thursday, November 15, 2007

11/15: Ikiru

[This is a contribution to the Akira Kurosawa Blog-a-Thon hosted by Film Squish.]

Kurosawa's Ikiru is concerned with a seemingly counterintuitive idea: the poetics of bureaucracy. Its hero is a bureaucrat, and its central premise boils down to this man learning that he is going to die, and in response dedicating his remaining months to becoming a better bureaucrat. Veteran actor Takashi Shimura plays Watanabe, a career bureaucrat in a city Public Affairs department, who abruptly learns that he has stomach cancer and has only a few more months to live. His initial reaction is to sink into depression. He stops attending his job without even calling in, and drinks himself into oblivion in neighborhood bars — he seems intent on either forgetting about his plight or speeding it up to ease the burden on his self-absorbed son. A chance encounter with a writer at one of these bars proves to be the first step towards coming to terms with his illness, and this man takes Watanabe out for a wild night on the town, dancing, singing, gambling, and meeting young girls. This experience awakens Watanabe from his self-pity, making him realize that he should do something with his final months to redeem the wasted, routine life he'd been living since his wife died. However, he rightly rejects the hedonism of that one night as a long-term solution, recognizing it for the momentary pleasure it is.

As he casts around for a direction in his new life, a chance encounter again sets him onto a path, as he runs into his former employee Toyo (Miki Odagiri). Her youth and vitality enlivens her, but their initially carefree friendship quickly sours when Watanabe becomes clingy and desperate. She does, however, indirectly point him back towards yet another path: escape into his work, which is the path he decides on. He recommits himself to his job with a resolution to go above and beyond his duties to truly help people. It's at this point that Kurosawa makes the interesting decision to skip ahead five months, to Watanabe's wake. The remainder of the film is told in flashbacks by Watanabe's fellow employees, underlings, and bosses, revealing the misinterpretations and credit-stealing that go on even the night after his death. The bisected structure of the film allows Kurosawa to essentially create two films, one hopeful and one pessimistic. In the first half, Watanabe's realization of his own mortality initiates his examination of his life and what he's done with it. Even if his ultimate decision to turn back to his career is perhaps questionable as a means of fulfillment, it's still the first time in 30 years that he's made a positive decision for himself rather than just allowing his life to pass by. The first half ends with him actively taking on a new project that everyone else had dismissed, the creation of a children's park in a poor and neglected area of the city where a sewage pond was causing a health hazard.

After the first half of the film, the quiet optimism of Watanabe's mission isn't quite dissipated, but it is seriously dulled by the realization of just how little change Watanabe managed to effect in his surroundings. The second half of the film takes place entirely at Watanabe's wake, with his co-workers not so much mourning him as trying to figure out exactly what made him tick and what prompted the tremendous change in his personality in those final months. The first half of the film is defined by its transcendent quality: the sense, largely communicated by Kurosawa's sumptuous visuals, that we are observing more than just the external realities of a life in flux, but the internal qualities of the man himself. Shimura's amazing, wide-eyed performance goes a long ways towards establishing this spiritual closeness between the audience and Watanabe. His large, watery eyes practically bug out of his head on cue, and Kurosawa frequently allows his facial expressions to say it all in extreme close-ups. He emanates a sublime mix of melancholy, hopefulness, and quiet desperation, and his hunched, shuffling gait and murmured, halting speech only heightens the empathy for him.

In the second half of the film, with Watanabe's disappearance from the narrative except in the form of a photograph hung in the center of the room, this transcendent quality also largely disappears. The employees' squabbles have the quality of the multiple perspectives that Kurosawa had used in Rashomon two years earlier, but in this case they disagree not on facts, but on matters of interpretation. The palpable absence of Watanabe is a black hole in the film, especially since the periodic flashbacks in which he appears briefly restore that feeling of transcendence and emotional connection. The arguing employees are no substitute for Shimura's powerhouse central performance, and it's as though Kurosawa ended a perfectly good narrative film early in order to stage a debate. The employees' arguments spell out all too clearly the ideas that Kurosawa wanted to communicate, a prime example of a great director not trusting his own visual storytelling. This is especially apparent since the second half also contains a handful of the film's best scenes.

In one scene, perhaps the film's most potent, some women from the neighborhood that Watanabe helped show up at his funeral, interrupting at a crucial moment when the ambitious deputy mayor had been busily rationalizing his failure to give Watanabe proper credit. These women kneel in front of the altar and pour out their grief, weeping and crying over the kind, helpful, driven man who helped them so much. Kurosawa barely shows the women, though, instead keeping their cries on the soundtrack while he cuts around the room to close-ups of the politicians and public officials who have gathered for the service. Their uncomfortable expressions when faced with this wordless remorse say it all, and Kurosawa handles this moment with economical grace, indicting every man in the room without a word. The remaining hour of bluster and blather only confirms what's already implicit in this scene: these men don't understand Watanabe, and they don't get that his exceptional commitment to his job in his last months was his way of living his life to its fullest.

The other great scenes in the film's second half are both flashbacks, one in which Watanabe wistfully stares out at the work in progress on "his" park, and another from the night he died, as he sits on a swing in the snow-covered park, singing quietly into the night. These brief scenes — moments, really — are imbued with Watanabe's grace and poignancy, and they are gently affecting, getting at the man's core in ways that no amount of words ever could. Ikiru is the story of this bureaucrat's realization that life should never be accepted passively, but lived with vibrancy and energy. Its other characters never come to this same realization, making this film simultaneously optimistic and pessimistic. But if one broken and mummified man can learn to live his life actively, whatever that means for him, the same option must be open to everyone else too.


Noel Vera said...

Good stuff. Makes me have second thoughts about posting my years-ago piece on the same film.

DavidEhrenstein said...

I've always loved this film very much. In fact it's the beating heart of that which I most admire in Kurosawa.

DavidEhrenstein said...

As for the bi-partite structure it's why Kurosawa, far more than Ozo, is the "most Japanese" of his country's filmmakers. We learn what Watanabe did -- cut throught the red-tape to make the children's park possible. Then the overwhelming question is "Why?" And for that it's the others -- the people who lived and worked with him but never really knew him at all -- that must come to the fore.

In this section of the film Watanabe is represented most succinctly by his hat -- which makes a major appearance in it. If we neevr paid attention to the hat before we must do so now because it IS Watanabe.

Noel Vera said...

Hullo, David, never had an idea you read blogathon entries.

I remember writing a philosophy paper on Ikiru--how at one point you need to work with an institution to ever achieve anything significant, and on the other hand working with an institution often leads to compromise and corruption of your original vision/ideals, and how Watanabe overcame this contradiction (he ran circles around the institution and consequently ran himself to an even earlier grave). Wish I saved that paper...

Squish said...

Ikiru was the film that made realize how much I would love the rest of my study of The Emperor. It's the film that proved to me how important Kurosawa was because he was versatile, straight from medieval to post-war, and always so touching.