by Shan Jayaweera
Shan Jayaweera is a film theory graduate from the University of Melbourne. He spends his time working on film and video projects as well as the occasional stand-up routine when he has the time for it.
Ikiru (1952 Japan 141mins)
Source: NLA/CAC Prod. Co: Toho Prod: Shojiro Motoki Dir, Ed: Akira Kurosawa Scr: Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, Hiseo Oguni Phot: Asakazu Nakai Art Dir: So Matsuyama Mus: Fumio Hayasaka
Cast: Takashi Shimura, Nobuo Kanko, Kyoko Seki.
Ikiru was directed by Akira Kurosawa in 1952, sandwiched between Rashomon (1950) and Seven Samurai (1954). While not as widely recognised as these two films, Ikiru is a masterpiece that revolves around a subtle but intense inner conflict.
In contrast to the samurai films, Ikiru takes place in modern Japan. It tells the story of Mr Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura), a senior public servant who finds out he has terminal cancer and only a short time left to live. Mr Watanabe comes to the realisation that he has become trapped in his life, and seeks to give meaning to his last few months. What differentiates this film from thousands of Hollywood telemovies on the same subject is Kurosawa's non-linear use of time, and the utilisation of different character perspectives. The title of the film comes from the Japanese word for living.
The film consists of two distinct sections. The first section starts by showing how meaningless Mr Watanabe's life has become, by following the misfortunes of a community group battling with government officials over a vacant block of land. Kurosawa uses his first manipulation of time in a series of shots showing the group being frustrated by the wheels of bureaucracy. Department after department shuffle the group along until they end up back where they started. The dissolves between each of these shots indicate time passing, and by the time they have gone full-circle Mr Watanabe is now out of the office and off to his fateful medical appointment. This temporal ellipse is the first of many that Kurosawa uses in the film.
Once the protagonist discovers his condition, Kurosawa further examines the futility of Mr Watanabe's life by exploring the relationship he has with his son. This involves the past and present seamlessly dissolving between the then and now. Kurosawa not only plays with the visuals of past and present but also uses the voices of Mr Watanabe and his son Mitso from his childhood and the present. Through the use of such techniques Kurosawa shows the awkwardness of the relationship and how Mr Watanabe has misread the importance of it.
Realising work and family have both been a failure to this point, Mr Watanabe begins his quest for fulfilment that sees a chance introduction with a novelist. He gets the novelist to show him a good time and is taken through the vices of modern Japan - pinball, alcohol, strip clubs and dance halls. But trying to drown himself in a sea of after-hours humanity proves less than satisfying, so his quest continues. The next phase involves the young girl who worked in his office. She has sought him out because she needs his signature to move from her current job to a different one. The encounter leaves him in a temporary state of infatuation; not on a sexual level, but that of an older person feeding off a younger vibrant energy. He has trouble expressing it himself:
Toyo: What help am I?
Kanji: You - just to look at you makes me feel better. It warms this - this mummy's heart of mine. And you're so kind to me. No; that's not it. You're so young, so healthy. No; that's not it either... You're so full of life. And me... I'm jealous of that. If I could be like you for just one day before I died. I won't be able to die unless I can do that. I want to do something. Only you can show me. I don't know what to do. I don't know how. Maybe you don't know either, but, please... if you can... show me how to be like you!
These scenes are extremely uncomfortable to watch as you can almost feel Mr Watanabe trying to drain the life out of his young co-worker. She misreads his sentiments as improper advances, while for Mr Watanabe the realisation that the company of a younger woman was not the answer he was seeking leads to his final enlightenment. He remembers his position and who he is: his quest for meaning must come through that. The final part of this first section gives us an inkling as to what Mr Watanabe's activities might be in his dying days.
The second section of the film cuts to the funeral as his workmates and remaining family try to piece together his last weeks. Much of this revolves around speculation about whether or not he knew about his condition. By changing the perspective, showing these events through the eyes of his co-workers and family after his death Kurosawa has risen above cliché and sentimentality to create a genuinely moving masterpiece of the cinema.
Along with the various uses of time and perspective in the narrative, Ikiru displays all the other hallmarks that make Kurosawa such an important and influential filmmaker. The framing, shot composition and editing techniques all beautifully work together to bring out the story the most dazzling of these being the sequence reminiscing about his son. The dissolves and the matching of shots past to present are used to such effect that the audience is left feeling his pain not of imminent death but wasted life. Special mention must also go to Takashi Shimura's beautiful performance as Mr Watanabe. Shimura and Kurosawa worked many times together, most famously in Seven Samurai where Shimura played the head samurai. As Mr Watanabe, Shimura's mannerisms and reactions take the audience into the inner most depths and thoughts of the character. His performance lingers through the second half even though we barely see him.
Having given us an insight into Mr Watanabe's search for meaning the audience is in a privileged position. At the funeral, the audience knows the circumstances but not the events leading up to it. The characters are in the opposite position, as they know the events leading up to the death but not Mr Watanabe's situation. 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.
© Shan Jayaweera, March 2001
Film Review of
Originally appearing in the Chicago Sun Times adapted from
The old man knows he is dying of cancer. In a bar, he tells a stranger he has
money to spend on a ``really
good time,'' but doesn't know how to spend it. The stranger takes him out on
the town, to gambling parlors, dance halls and the red light district, and finally
to a bar where the piano player calls for requests and the old man, still wearing
his overcoat and hat, asks for ``Life Is Short--Fall in Love, Dear Maiden.'' [Actually, the song is called Gondola no Uta or "The Gondola Song"]
``Oh, yeah, one of those old '20s songs,'' the piano man says, but he plays
it, and then the old man starts
to sing. His voice is soft and he scarcely moves his lips, but the bar falls
silent, the party girls and the
drunken salary men drawn for a moment into a reverie about the shortness of
their own lives.
This moment comes near the center point of ``Ikiru,'' Akira Kurosawa's 1952
film about a bureaucrat who works for 30 years at Tokyo City Hall and never
accomplishes anything. Mr. Watanabe has become the chief of his section, and
sits with a pile of papers on either side of his desk, in front of shelves filled
with countless more documents. Down a long table on either side of him, his
assistants shuffle these papers back and forth. Nothing is ever decided. His
job is to deal with citizen complaints, but his real job is to take a small
rubber stamp and press it against each one of the documents, to show that he
has handled it.
The opening shot of the film is an X-ray of Watanabe's chest. ``He has gastric
cancer, but doesn't yet
know it,'' says a narrator. ``He just drifts through life. In fact, he's barely
alive.'' The X-ray fades into his face--into the sad, tired, utterly common
face of the actor Takashi Shimura, who in 11 films by Kurosawa and many by others,
played an everyman who embodied his characters by not seeming to embody anything
There is a frightening scene in his doctor's office, where another patient chatters
mindlessly; he is a
messenger of doom, describing Watanabe's precise symptoms and attributing them
to stomach cancer. ``If
they say you can eat anything you want,'' he says, ``that means you have less
than a year.'' When the
doctor uses the very words that were predicted, the old bureaucrat turns away
from the room, so that only the camera can see him, and he looks utterly forlorn.
Kurosawa opens his story with a deliberate, low-key pacing, although at the
end there is rage against the
dying of the light. 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.''
His leave of absence at the office continues, day after day. Finally a young
woman who wants to resign
tracks him down to get his stamp on her papers.
He asks her to spend the day with him, and they go to pachinko parlors and the
movies. She tells him her
nicknames for everyone in the office. His nickname is ``the Mummy.'' She is
afraid she has offended him,
but no: ``I became a mummy for the sake of my son, but he doesn't appreciate
She encourages him to go see his son. But when he tries to tell him about his
illness, the son cuts him
off--insists on getting the property due him before the old man squanders it
on women. Later, on a final
outing with the young woman, he tells her about a time when he was young and
thought he was drowning.
He says, ``My son's far away somewhere--just as my parents were far away when
I was drowning.''
The word ``Ikiru'' has been translated as ``To Live,'' and at some point on
his long descent into despair,
Mr. Watanabe determines to accomplish at least one worthwhile thing before he
dies. He arrives at this
decision in a restaurant, talking to the young woman while in a room behind
them there is a celebration
going on. As he leaves, girls in the other room sing ``Happy Birthday'' to a
friend--but in a way they sing for Watanabe's rebirth.
A group of women have been shuttled from one office to another, protesting against
a pool of stagnant
water in their neighborhood. Watanabe becomes a madman, personally escorting
the case from one
bureaucrat to another, determined to see that a children's park is built on
the wasteland before he dies. It all leads up to Watanabe's final triumph, seen
in one of the greatest closing shots in the cinema.
The scenes of his efforts do not come in chronological order, but as flashbacks
from his funeral service.
Watanabe's family and associates gather to remember him, drinking too much and
finally talking too much, trying to unravel the mystery of his death and the
behavior that led up to it. And here we see the real heart of the movie, in
the way one man's effort to do the right thing can inspire, or confuse, or anger,
or frustrate, those who see it only from the outside, through the lens of their
own unexamined lives.
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. I think this is one of the few movies that
might actually be able to inspire
someone to lead their life a little differently.
Kurosawa made it in 1952, when he was 42 (and Shimura was only 47). It came
right after ``Rashomon''
(1951) and ``The Idiot'' (1952), which also starred Shimura. Ahead was his popular
classic ``The Seven
Samurai'' (1955) and other samurai films like ``The Hidden Fortress'' (1960),
the film that inspired the
characters R2D2 and C3PO in ``Star Wars.'' The film was not released internationally
until 1960, maybe
because it was thought ``too Japanese,'' but in fact it is universal.
I saw ``Ikiru'' first in 1960 or 1961. I went to the movie because it was playing
in a campus film series and only cost a quarter. I sat enveloped in the story
of Watanabe for 2 1/2 hours, and wrote about it in a class where the essay topic
was Plato's statement, ``the unexamined life is not worth living.'' Over the
years I have seen ``Ikiru'' every five years or so, and each time it has moved
me, and made me think. And the older I get, the less Watanabe seems like a pathetic
old man, and the more he seems like every one of us.
Copyright © Chicago Sun-Times Inc.
Steven Prince in his The Warrior's Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa (Princeton University Press, 1991) talks about the way that "perceptual tricks" utilized by Kurosawa "undermine a smooith, linear dissemination of narrative information. Instead, a sereies of perspectival blockages and misunderstandings occur. These, in turn, are absorbed by the film and become its overriding theme." (105) He goes on:
They are set out with particualr pathos during a long montage as Watanabe recalls raising Mitsuo following the death of his wife. The memories follow a fight with Mitsuo and Kazue, after they find him waiting in their room upon their return. They lecture him about the impropriety of his behavior. He says nothing but we know that he wished to tell them about his cancer. He silently goes downstaris where he sleeps. Watanabe, in fact, will never tell his son of his condition, and the young man will end bitter and confused, unable to understand the reasons for his father's silence and the part his own selfish behavior played in that silence.
From the downstairs, Watanabe hears the giggling and laughter of Mitsuo and Kazue which intensifies his despair. The montage that follows is among Kurosawa's supreme creations, structured by a series of subtle visual and aural conterpoints. Kurosawa moves in and out of the past, juxtaposing shots of Watanabe kneeling in front of his wife's shrine with the images of the earlier years, and counterposing the strains of the romantic pop song from Kazue's record player upstairs with a metronomic dirge accompanying the memory imagery. From a close-up of the wife's portrait, the film dissolves to a shot of the departing hearse carrying her body. Little Mitsuo, framed exactly as Watanabe had been framed as he gazes at the portrait, crites that his motheer is leaving them behind, and his father embraces him. The hearseturns a corner and disappears.
From this first memorty of separation, the montage traces a life full of other separations and emotional failures. Watanabe's brother tells him he is wrong not to remarry, that Mitsuo won't be as grateful as he thinks, that the father will simply be in the way as he ages. Within this flashback, as if in answer to his uncle's words, Mitsuo's voice is heard calling "Father," and it continues as the sequence switches back to the present. Mitsuo is calling from upstairs for Watanabe to lock up for the evening. [But we see Watanabe respond to his son's voice eagerly and emotionally, thinking, perhaps, that his son will apologize, or maybe ask for forgiveness, or express some concern for his father; but Watanable just hangs there on the stairs when he does not.] As Watanabe bars the door with a bat, as associative sound image cues the next flasback. The sound of a ball being hit precedes a cut to a ball game in which Watanabe watches Mitsuo round the bases and boasts to a man next to him, "That's my son." But Mitsuo is thrown out trying to steal second, and Watanabe slowly sits down in the bleachers with disappointment and shame. An extraordinary choreography of movement occurs. The camera tilts down with him, creating a displacement between Watanabe, moving down in the frame, and the background, moving upward in the frame. These conflicting planes of movement are extended into the next two shots. Inthe middle of the tilt-down, the film cuts to a shot of Watanabe in the present, framed frontally, looking at the camera, as it simultaneously tracks up and tilts down, so that Watanabe again appears to move down before a background that slides upward. He cries, "Mitsuo," but it is nonsynchronous: his lips remain closed. The cry, and the movement, continue over the next cut. Watanabe is standing beside Mitsuo in a hospital elevator, which is descending, displacing the background shaft upward. In these three shots, Kurosawa has used a tilt-down, track-up, and a descending elevator to obtain the same perspectival dislocation between Watanabe and his environment. He calls his son by name and tells him that an appendectomy is nothing to fear, but he can't stay. He must return to the office. As Mitsuo is wheeled away, a cut returns us to the present. Watanabe crosses the stairs leading to his son's room, as the nonsynchronous cry "Mitsuo" sounds again. Then a cut introduces another separation, this time as Mitsuo goes off to war, just before the train takes him away, he grabs Watanabe and cries "Father" and is answered by the nonsynchronous, ethereal "Mistuo," which continues to echo as the train departs and a dissolve returns us to the present.
Throughout this sequence, scenes of tauma, failure, disaapointment, and estrangement between father and son have petrified the past into a hardened fossil of what might have been. Ths past hangs like a heavy weight between them, sundering their current relations, yet the formal structure of the montage insists on the interpenetration of the temporal frames. Associative cutting and aural and visual links establish a continuum between past and present, even if it is a continuum of unreleived failure and despair. This, then, is the stark legacy that Watanabe overcomes during his transformation into a hero. The visual dislocation between the hero and his environment, repeated during the heart of the montage, characterize the terms of this spiritual journey. For Watanabe grows--and becomes an enigma for Mitsuo, Kazue, and his officemates--by separating from, rebelling against, and rejecting the institutional frameworks of modern Japanese society, that is, the family and the company. (105-107)
...Watanabe's example is a tiny ray of enlightenment in an otherwise forbidding world. Ikiru is one of the supreme statements of Kurosaw's herioc cinema. Yet, it seemd, the forces of darkness were getting ever more powerful. (113)