Saturday, January 3, 2009
The title of Akira Kurosawa's 1952 film Ikiru means "To Live" and it is about a man who is dying. If that sounds like a paradox, try this - Ikiru is on the surface a tragic story, but it is an optimistic and deeply life-affirming movie that never once relies on sentimentality or melodrama.
Ikiru is the story of Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura), a poor wretch of a government official who serves as the Section Chief of Public Affairs at City Hall. His wife died years ago, and although he lives with his son and daughter-in-law, they harbor no great affection for him. His life is lonely and boring, and as the narrator informs us, "This man has been dead for 20 years." One day Watanabe is diagnosed with stomach cancer, and he discovers that he has only six months to live. In an effort to make the most of his remaining life, Watanabe at first spends a night touring Tokyo's nightclubs with a stranger he meets at a bar, but he finds little happiness. Then he forms a friendship with a young co-worker, until she eventually deems him creepy. Eventually, Watanabe becomes determined to make something before he dies, focusing on turning a dirty neighborhood cesspool into a public park.
Akira Kurosawa is best known for his samurai epics, like Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, and The Hidden Fortress. But the story of Ikiru is decidedly more intimate. It proves that Kurosawa's talent extends far beyond depicting violence - he can also deliver meaningful stories about real people. Much of the credit, of course, goes to Takashi Shimura, who is perfect as Watanabe. Shimura was a well-known Japanese movie star, but he never feels like one. The movie never glorifies Watanabe - he is an ordinary, lonely man, and often seems rather pathetic. But Shimura makes him an incredibly endearing and likable character, and I felt great empathy for Watanabe.
One of the film's most moving scenes takes place in a Tokyo nightclub, where Watanabe sits alone while young couples dance happily around him. He requests that the pianist play an old love song called "Life is Brief." As the song begins, Watanabe starts to sing. All action around him stops, as everyone focuses their attention on this sad old man, who tearfully sings
"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."
Shimura's performance is magnetic in that scene. Towards the end of the song, Kurosawa focuses only on Watanabe's face, and that is all we need to see - the sad, tired old face of a man who has given up - at least for the time being.
But Ikiru is far from melancholy. There is great humor to be found throughout the film. One early scene satirizes the inefficient bureaucracy of Watanabe's workplace, as disinterested workers filter a public concern through at least a dozen different departments, accomplishing nothing. The nightclub scenes also have moments of great comedy, as Watanabe dances awkwardly with young women and looks grotesquely out of place. And there is a darkly funny scene in the doctor's waiting room, where a chatty patient unknowingly gossips with Watanabe about another patient's symptoms - the same symptoms that Watanabe is suffering from - and attributes it to stomach cancer. The film alternates between moments of great sadness and joy, much like life.
Kurosawa makes an interesting structural choice about halfway through Ikiru. As soon as Watanabe decides to build the park, the film jumps forward in time a few months to his wake, and the rest of the story is told in flashback. We see Watanabe's co-workers discuss his remarkable change in attitude, and we see his boss take credit for the construction of the park, even though the villagers insist that it was Watanabe's passion that saw the project through. Kurosawa provides no easy resolution here. Watanabe's son and daughter-in-law are heartbroken to reveal that Watanabe never told them of his sickness. The truth of Watanabe's achievement is distorted after his death. And even the few workers who claim to be inspired by Watanabe's altruism soon forget it, and go back to meaninglessly filing papers at work.
Yet Ikiru is an undeniably optimistic movie, and Watanabe's legacy lives on in his one great achievement. Interestingly, the park is never seen in full until the film's closing shot. When we finally do see it, the park is quite small, and even appears somewhat dirty. But that is part of what makes Ikiru so touching - everything about the film seems starkly realistic, and yet it still has the power to inspire. So many Hollywood endings are contrived and sugar-coated, and to see something like Ikiru is revelatory. I cannot fully explain why - that is waiting for you to discover.