To this day, I still get e-mails about Kurosawa’s Ikiru and I never tire of talking about that film. It’s been nearly 10 months since I’ve seen that movie and yet the emotions, the imagery, and Kurosawa’s impeccable craftsmanship haunts me still. This is a film so powerful that 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.”
I have to share this with you. I discovered a recent, phenomenal, two-part analysis of Ikiru at Offscreen by Aryeh Kaufman. My meager notes really didn’t do the film justice and this extensive analysis opens the film up so beautifully. “Ikiru’s focus on the great loneliness of the individual and the struggle to achieve meaningful encounters with others,” Kaufman writes, “proves relevant to all.”
To appreciate how groundbreaking the film is, you first have to understand its context in the cultural and social history of Japan at that time. This film was quite revolutionary. From Part One:
Ikiru, meaning “to live” or “living,” was directed by Akira Kurosawa in 1952 under Toho Productions. Kurosawa, with the help of Hashimoto and Oguni, wrote the screenplay for the black and white film at age 42. The film, widely recognized as one of Kurosawa’s masterpieces, must be understood within its historical and cultural contexts. Ikiru emerged during Japan’s postwar reconstruction, as the country sought to adapt to its newly inherited capitalism and democracy. Calling for forms of cultural upheaval and self-scrutiny, the film may be viewed as political cinema. Specifically, Ikiru affirms the pride and power of the individual. It promotes breaking traditional ties to larger social groups, such as family and company, for the sake of personal achievement.
Quite powerful, too, was what Kaufman wrote about Watanabe’s broken relationship with Mitsuo, his son:
Ikiru explicitly reveals the unworthiness of family, and questions the importance of communal bonds generally. Most illustrative is the father-son dichotomy. Palpable distance exists between Watanabe and Mitsuo, increased by misunderstandings and a generational gap that recalls Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons. Mitsuo first mentions his father by calling him a “petty bureaucrat.” Respect is absent in his claim that “even Pop wouldn’t want to take all that money to his grave.” Watanabe hides in the corner of his son’s room, most likely intending to disclose to Mitsuo the fateful news of his cancer, until hearing Mitsuo and Kazue discussing him and his savings. He leaves claiming that nothing is wrong—his son is too selfish to consider alternative causes to Watanabe’s sadness aside from his eavesdropping and hearing their discussion. In fact, Mitsuo fails to take notice of his father’s agony and never learns of his illness. He is more interested in whether Watanabe squanders his savings. Ironically, through a chance misunderstanding, Mitsuo concludes that his father has taken a young mistress in Toyo, played by Miki Odagiri, and scolds his father for his “degenerate” behavior. Once again, such remarks prevent Watanabe from explaining to his son the true cause of his suffering.
Viewers learn, through Watanabe, that 30 years of continuous work and significant time spent unmarried as a widower were for the sake of his son. Still despairing from his recent lay-diagnosis, Watanabe hears the laughter of Mitsuo and Kazue upstairs. This worsens his despair, as it appears they laugh at him. Suddenly, Watanabe hears the call of “Dad” twice. Music stops before Watanabe climbs the stairs to his beckoning son, only to receive an order to lock the front door. Watanabe descends with head lowered; all hopes of reconnecting with Mitsuo have vanished.
A series of flashbacks demonstrates how far father and son have grown apart. These flashbacks prove to be the visual equivalents of Watanabe’s freely associated thoughts. A baseball bat used in locking the door to the house leads to the memory of Mitsuo playing baseball and hitting a single. Watanabe shouts “Mitsuo” in congratulation in the stands before the film cuts back to Watanabe’s room for a close-up. Here, “Mitsuo” sounds twice though Watanabe fails to move his lips—the call is internal and in Watanabe’s choked voice. Returning to the baseball diamond, Mitsuo is called out in a run-down. As Watanabe sits down in the stands we return to his room as he shrinks down into sitting position. The camera, however, moves upward, providing a greater sense of his descent. Immediately, Watanabe recalls his adolescent son on a gurney in a hospital lift, similarly descending as the camera climbs. After informing his son that he cannot remain with him for the appendectomy, Mitsuo is wheeled away. Cutting back to Watanabe’s room, “Mitsuo” sounds twice again. Mitsuo’s being wheeled away lends itself to the flashback of Mitsuo’s train-departure for war. Son holds father before jumping back onto the moving train. Now, “Mitsuo” sounds nine times, echoing off in a final call. These images, so varied and freely instigated, show the breadth of memory father holds for son. Though these memories hold meaning, they emphasize the absence of successful communication.
“I have no son. I’m all alone,” Watanabe explains to Toyo, the young worker who becomes quite important to him. “My son is somewhere far, far away—just as my parents were when I was drowning in that pond.”
I daresay this film possesses the best use of flashbacks ever.
Even more interesting for me was the way Kaufman illustrates how Watanabe fits the mold of a hero as defined by Joseph Campbell. This comes to us from Part Two:
Joseph Campbell explains the following:
Everywhere, no matter what the sphere of interest (whether religious, political, or personal), the really creative acts are represented as those deriving from some sort of dying to the world; and what happens in the interval of the hero’s nonentity, so that he comes back as one reborn, made great and filled with creative power, mankind is also unanimous in declaring.
Certainly, Watanabe’s transformation from servile worker to active public servant represents one significant “dying to the world.” “The mummy” has finally been laid to rest. In this sense, creative acts, encompassing the volitional drive to create the playground, recreate Watanabe. The act of creation not only results in something new being formed but also in the essential recreation of the creator. Furthermore, Campbell’s statement may be applied to Watanabe’s physical death. Watanabe’s “nonentity,” his absence between the first and second divisions of Ikiru, results in his spiritual return to those at his wake, in the form of his portrait, his hat, the toy-rabbit, and even a wind-up clock, all which have been transformed by Watanabe’s deeds.
And then there is that marvelous break in the structure, which I wrote about in my Ikiru article. I love these paragraphs:
Kurosawa further prepares viewers to internalize Watanabe’s life as an example by depicting various coworkers deliberating the meaning of Watanabe’s final days, his behavior, whether he in fact knew he was to die, and whether he “created” the playground himself. Viewers want the misunderstanding mourners to think as they do, to believe that Watanabe did in fact accomplish a worthy goal and transform his life and that without Watanabe the playground would not have been. Viewers are prepared to argue and preach to these mourners—to do so with force—influenced by the knowledge and insight gained from the first part of the film, which now stands as absolutely real. We understand Watanabe’s situation and that he suffered from the knowledge of his terminal cancer. The mourners know the events immediately leading up to his death but not his inner mind. Kurosawa depicts drunken mourners disparaging the bureaucratic system, usurping credit for the playground from Watanabe, and finally claiming superficially, “I’ll work at it like I’m a man reborn…sacrifice the self to serve the many.” However, the next scene presents a mirror image of the opening scene: the chief officer, sitting in Watanabe’s place, passes off a potential project to the Engineering Department. One man stands up in silent protest, only to be submerged behind stacks of paper. Such an explicit failure to internalize and act on Watanabe’s lesson provides the strongest incentive to viewers to avoid such similar fate.
The perspectivism of the wake scene serves not only to inspire viewers to actively support Watanabe but also to grasp the ultimate incommunicability of enlightenment. Everyone views Watanabe’s life and death through the lenses of their own particular life and belief system. Mitsuo believes his father’s behavior is attributable to his overhearing talk of savings and pensions; Watanabe’s brother believes his transformation is due to a mistress; the Deputy Mayor claims most of the credit for the playground for himself. Rashomon forces viewers to question the veracity of conflicting perspectives. Ikiru, however, provides viewers with flashbacks that are literal and accurate in the wake scene. Mourners respond jointly to the flashbacks as if they too were watching them on screen. Therefore, Ikiru may be interpreted as building upon Rashomon’s perspectivism. In Rashomon, viewers must choose to believe either that no single truth exists, only perspectives, or that one view is more appropriate or truthful than others. The latter view implies an active engagement with the film that is similarly featured in Ikiru. An omniscient narrator serves as a teacher of Watanabe’s lesson to viewers, who, though perhaps differing in terms of interpretations of what exactly transformed Watanabe, accept the hero’s version of events as opposed to those of the erring bureaucrats. On balance, in addition to supporting one perspective through the demonstration of alternative perspectives, Ikiru develops Rashomon’s perspectivism by promoting the moral approach that one must necessarily detach from others to find meaning in life. Personal enlightenment and transformation cannot be achieved through the complex differences inherent in alternative perspectives. Such a view conforms to Campbell’s theory that detachment from interpersonal bonds and social groups is essential to personal transformation. “The hero has died as a modern man, but as eternal man—perfected, unspecific, universal man—he has been reborn,” claims Campbell. “His second solemn task and deed therefore…is to return to us, transfigured, and teach the lesson he has learned of life renewed.” Watanabe, through his creative deeds, returns to society after despair and isolation reached a peak. His creative action helps form meaningful interpersonal bonds; however, his return does not entail submission or acceptance of social mores and guidelines. This is one of the key lessons of his life. Watanabe struggled with and threatened to undermine office culture. He defied the Deputy Mayor thereby “changing city hall” and brought meaning to his public servant position through such an overthrowing.
So check it out: Part One and Part Two, thanks to Aryeh Kaufman.