With every new batch of DVDs I get from Netflix, I always have one from Akira Kurosawa. I’ve seen all of his big classics already (and any good screenwriter should be able to easily list those titles). One of these days, I’m going to post an article announcing that I’ve seen EVERY SINGLE Kurosawa film available on DVD. Why shouldn’t I? He’s the greatest filmmaker to ever walk the earth. No human being has ever delivered more cinematic masterpieces than Kurosawa.
He died in 1998, sadly.
But I finally got to see Ikiru! This film completely broke my heart. It’s the story of a man who worked in Public Affairs for the government in post-war Japan and he learns that he has terminal cancer. He realizes he has squandered his life on meaningless red tape. He has no close family or friendships to lean on. And he resolves to use his remaining time to build a children's playground on a piece of land that had become toxic to a neighborhood, and he battles the government bureaucracy to get it done. (It makes me tear-up just explaining it.)
This brings to mind a quote from writer Stanley Elkin: “I would never write about someone who is not at the end of his rope.”
It’s 2 and a half hours. It’s a stunning picture. Criterion Collection is the only way to go. In 1960, Time Magazine wrote: “The great strength of the picture is the total seriousness and importance of what Kurosawa has to say: to live is to love; the rest is cancer.” Ebert wrote: “I think this is one of the few movies that might actually be able to inspire someone to lead their life a little differently.”
The protagonist, Watanabe, was played by Takashi Shimura, who many of you may recognize from Seven Samurai and other Kurosawa films. He’s a member of Kurosawa’s regular repertoire of actors, and the more films I see with Shimura, the more I’m impressed by his range. He may very well be one of the greatest actors who ever lived. And this character, this poor man, was at the end of his rope with a simple goal of accomplishing something meaningful and he faced a formidable opponent that we all know so well - government bureaucracy, which has many faces and not one single antagonist.
A few random thoughts:
- Consider how, in the Public Affairs office, all the stacks of papers illustrated how isolated and disconnected the people were.
- The party scenes illustrated loss of individualism.
- Wantanabe’s new hat signified a change in spirit.
- Wantanabe speaks so damn infrequently that when he does actually talk, you cling to every single word he mutters.
- We know his pain not because he verbalizes it but because Shimura shows us through brilliant acting. We can see it on his face.
- Notice at his home the cluttered goods of his son and wife (both materialistic) contrasted with Watanabe's sparse room.
- Consider HOW Wantanabe was told he had cancer. In the lobby, a man describes to Wantanabe his symptoms and explains how the doctor won’t tell him what he really has. (At the time, little was known about cancer and it was believed that if the patient knows that he/she has cancer, it’ll exacerbate the condition and they’ll die sooner. Thus, they wouldn’t actually give them the real diagnosis.) So anyway, this guy basically tells him, “if they say ‘it’s an ulcer, don’t worry’ - it’s cancer. If they say you can eat anything you want, that means you have less than a year.” When the doctor speaks the very words that were predicted, Wantanabe simply bows his head for what feels like an eternity and had me in tears. He then turns away from the room, so that only we can see him, and he looks so utterly forlorn.
- Also from Ebert: “In a scene that never fails to shake me, Watanabe goes home and cries himself to sleep under his blanket, while the camera pans up to a commendation he was awarded after 25 years at his post. It is not so bad that he must die. What is worse is that he has never lived. ‘I just can't die -- I don't know what I've been living for all these years,’ he says to the stranger in the bar. He never drinks, but now he is drinking: ‘This expensive sake is a protest against my life up to now.’”
- He spends time with a young girl, Toyo, which was a great scandal in his household. This was not a romantic relationship so much as Wantanabe was attracted to her love of life, and she WAS full of life. But I was also impressed by how they fully fleshed out Toyo’s character. She wasn’t some virginal exemplification of womanhood, but she was youthful, loving, full of life, and also a bit selfish, immature, and in a situation with a man dying of cancer, all of which was way beyond her comprehension or ability to deal with it.
- When they had the argument outside of Toyo’s manufacturing plant, notice how the vibrating glass adds to the tension.
- Consider the meaning of the visual symbol of the rabbit that Toyo gave Watanabe. Oh, to build something of value…
Now for something visual. Here’s a trailer:
Okay, let’s talk structure. Kurosawa worked with multiple writers. He liked to let them compete with each other in order to come up with the best ideas for his films. And this break in structure was suggested by Hideo Oguni who is still alive and still writing screenplays.
An hour and a half into the film, Wantanabe decides to build the park. In the very next scene, he’s dead. We’re at a Japanese-style memorial service. About a dozen men are in a room and at the end is Wantanabe’s photo surrounded by flowers and candles. We learn that the park has been built. The men debate if Wantanabe’s really to be praised for creating this park, because the Park Department actually built the park. And as all the men debate these issues, we discover through flashbacks just how Wantanabe did it. This is a very unusual structure, but it works, because this helps Kurosawa jump to the good parts of a storyline that would’ve been too complicated and difficult to tell in a linear fashion. By changing the perspective, by showing these events through the eyes of his co-workers and family, Kurosawa actually creates depth that he could not in a straight narrative. It also helped him to rise above cliché and sentimentality to create a genuinely moving masterpiece of cinema.
A few thoughts about this structure:
- The fact that Kurosawa took Wantanabe away from us so suddenly makes us want to see Wantanabe that much more, which set up the very moving ending. It turns everything into a sort of mystery. We wonder if he built the park. We wonder how he died. We wonder if he was happy or if the death was suicide. And we’re shown how his accomplishment has impacted the lives of those who knew him.
- Ebert makes another poignant point that is very true about this structure: “We who have followed Watanabe on his last journey are now brought forcibly back to the land of the living, to cynicism and gossip. Mentally, we urge the survivors to think differently, to arrive at our conclusions. And that is how Kurosawa achieves his final effect: He makes us not witnesses to Watanabe's decision, but evangelists for it.”
- Shan Jayaweera, for Senses of Cinema, had this to say: “In having his colleagues figure out for themselves the circumstances of his death one can really appreciate his final deeds and the fact that he did finally break out of his existence to enjoy his remaining months. But this one fact doesn't take away from the film's bleak outlook on humanity, and the really sad thing is that regardless of the different time and culture it is as poignant and relevant for an audience watching it in Melbourne today. It is a deliberately slow-paced film, and enjoyably so. If you stick with it you are in for a truly great cinematic experience but also a lot of personal soul-searching. You have been warned.”
- The point of the flashbacks was not to advance plot but to make us FEEL. We are moved by Wantanabe’s dogged determination and willpower and strength of character that got the job of building a park done. We are moved by his overly polite, super-subservient, and hyper-deferential interaction with others in government, which was done in long takes so that we could FEEL the power of his will.
- At times, you wonder, “why doesn’t he tell them he has cancer?” As you contemplate why he doesn’t tell them, you understand his wisdom and how he got the job done.
- Kurosawa always finds the most compelling approach to every scene. He allows for so many vertical moments in his storytelling. He lets every emotional moment play out fully for the audience to truly experience and FEEL before moving the plot forward. I’m thinking of the moment when, after the pompous bureaucrats practically congratulated themselves for building the park, the poor women from the neighborhood came into the memorial and burned incense and cried in gratitude to Wantanabe, which must’ve lasted at least one full minute, maybe longer. So moving. And Kurosawa cuts to close-ups of the faces of the men in the room, of their reaction to this touching moment that they are witnessing. Kurosawa proves that the most compelling image one can place on the screen is the human face. In fact, in the context of a compelling moment, one could argue that the more eccentric the face, the more interesting the shot.
Consider Kurosawa’s faces:
- Consider how Kurasawa doesn’t preach to us about living life to the fullest. He uses one song to convey that message, which was sung only twice. He allows the emotions of the story to impress upon you the meaning of the story without having to explain it.
- As we go through one flashback after another, one heightened emotional moment after another, and you start crying, you wonder how he’s going to top all that we’ve seen before with his ending. And he does top it in a scene that’s one of the greatest closings in the history of cinema. He tells us in advance the image that we’re going to see, that is, Wantanabe in his new park in the snow, dead, and then we’re surprised to see him alive in the park before he dies. And he’s in a swing. He’s swinging back and forth as it snows, and he’s happy. HE’S HAPPY! We spent all that time watching him in agony over his stomach cancer for two and a half hours and now HE’S HAPPY! And he’s singing that song of his… and it just broke my heart.
Life is brief, fall in love, maidens.
Before the crimson bloom fades from your lips.
Before the tides of passion cool within you.
For those of you who know no tomorrow.
Life is brief, fall in love, maidens.
Before your raven tresses begin to fade.
Before the flames in your hearts flicker and die.
For those to whom today will never return.