What can a heart filled with despair grab on to?
In Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru dedicated life long bureaucrat Watanabe-san gets stomach cancer, which spurs him to review his life. He soon realizes his dedication to his job has cost him his relationship with his son and marriage. Watanabe-san worked. He didn’t eat, drink and make merry. He didn’t form life-giving friends. He was more of a civil servant robot than anything else.
As was the custom in Japan, the doctor didn’t directly tell Watanabe that he’s going to die, but he could read between the lines and the news profoundly saddens him. He knows his son and daughter-in-law are money-grubbing and can’t wait to
A group of mothers faces the heartlessness, dare I say low-level evil, of bureaucracy, when they come to Watanabe’s office asking their government to take care of a neighborhood cesspool that’s causing illness and to turn it into a small playground. They’re pushed from department to department as the officials dodge actual work and responsibility. These mothers no doubt represent all the people who visit the office looking for help.
Kurosawa’s depiction of the inert, soul-sucking system is portrayed with genius in the dark, run down offices with piles of paper towering over the dour workers. The only sign of life is a young office lady who jokes, laughs and brims with life. Of course, her only hope is to succeed in exiting from this choking, albeit safe career.
Watanabe-san knows he’s lost and seeks pleasure in a journey led by a writer he meets at a bar. The writer sees his plight and promises to show him real life in Tokyo’s red light district and dance halls. Watanabe realizes that his real hope to discover life is through the young lady who’s now left the government and works at a toy company, which is monotonous but also allows her to make things that bring people joy. Watanabe becomes like an uncle to her taking her out at night and living vicariously through her. Soon enough she tires of the attention and questions what’s really going on. It’s getting rather creepy. Watanabe explains. She’s the only person who knows the whole truth.
Although the young lady refuses to go out on the town with Watanabe, she does cause him to find a new purpose, which gives him the joy he sought.
The film moves into its second act, with a novel division. We go from Watanabe’s life with cancer to his funeral. Half the film takes place with his colleagues toasting him as his son and daughter-in-law watching on. Puzzled by Watanabe’s dramatic change in his last days, they try to figure out why he pushed himself body and soul into seeing that the cesspool became a park. To see half a 2 hour 23 minutes film told in flashback is likely not to work, but with a genius like Kurosawa it absolutely does.
As the film’s long, I did watch it in parts. I found the commentary by
Though the theme of death may put some people off, this film, though certainly sad, is very powerful and positive. My heart was with Watanabe from start to finish. The masterful acting to the powerful use of music and scenery, Ikiru is a must-see classic.
The Criterion Collection DVD I had included a documentary on Kurosawa, which focused on the different aspects (e.g. music, script, storyboard, directing) of his filmmaking. It was full of information on what made him unique and much of it was Kurosawa describing his work and commenting on filmmaking at large. I learned things like Kurosawa would edit each day’s rushes that night so that the actors and crew could see how the film was taking form. This gave them a stronger sense of the film and meant that when shooting wrapped, there was only one day more to edit. I didn’t know that Kurosawa didn’t go to university and was selected from a very large pool of candidates from elite schools to enter Toho Studio’s training program for assistant directors. This program took 5 people the year he started and the other 4 were all from top colleges. Kurosawa also mused that today (2000) university students aren’t interested in becoming film directors. Manga (i.e. comic books) are the medium that gets one fame and fortune.