Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Ikiru (1952, Japan, Akira Kurosawa)

Although much of Kurosawa's reputation rests with his samurai films and Shakespeare adaptations, it's easy to forget that before he concentrated on these genres, he was quite an adept director of contemporary films with a human conscience ('Drunken Angel', 'Stray Dog'). The finest example of such films is 'Ikiru', which in my opinion is his most complete masterpiece along with 'Ran'. If you take the basic set up; a mid ranking civil servant who has achieved nothing in his life discovers he's dying and wants to undertake one task of communal benefit, with modern eyes it seems a bit contrived, with the potential to finish the wrong side of sentimental. However such is Kurosawa's sincerity and empathy with his subject that the film emerges as a genuine triumph of human endeavour and an affirmation of life.

Acted by Takashi Shimura (one of Kurosawa's most frequent collaborators), Kenji Watanabe is a "mummy", someone who's been more or less dead for thirty decades, living for the minor achievements he's managed to accomplish, namely never taking a day off sick. It's a powerful performance, rarely relying on speech for Watanabe communicates purely in mumbles - it's all in the facial expressions. And that's part of the joy of 'Ikiru', how human faces drive the film as if it could be a throwback to silent cinema. Note how a drinking companion of Watanabe himself barely talks, just throwing quizzical looks in his direction.

Kurosawa doesn't keep us in suspense about Watanabe's health, explaining through voice over before the man himself knows, that he's dying from stomach cancer. Maybe this fact is laced with irony given that he never sought medical assistance for any illnesses in the past because he was too concerned that taking time off work would somehow be a dereliction of duty. Kurosawa then shows how Watanabe has got to the stage he has with flashbacks to his past - his wife died moderately young, leaving Watanabe to raise his son alone as he never remarried. These memories are what first springs to mind upon finding out about his impending death when he embarks on a period of soul searching (which includes copious drinking and skipping work), which then finally gives way to a moment of self-realisation - that life is short and he has to rescue the abandoned plans to build a children's playground in a poor part of the city.

Watanabe is just one part of the bureaucratic minefield though. When the local citizens first petition the council for the playground, there's an amusing scenario in which they are passed from one council department to the next before finally ending up back where they started (Public Liaison, which Watanabe heads) several hours later. Even when the playground has been completed, council departments all claim responsibility, sidelining Watanabe's efforts, especially the cynical and unscrupulous deputy mayor who has one eye on his forthcoming election. At his wake, prompted by the local citizens who mourn him, comes an acceptance that Watanabe was chiefly responsible for the playground's construction, and inspired by his zeal, his colleagues vow to follow his lead. Of course nothing changes - people are shown being passed from one department to the next in the very next scene.

Much like in the later work of Ozu, tensions between parents and children in post-WW2 Japan are apparent. In 'Tokyo Story', when the elderly parents from the countryside visited their city dwelling children, they had no time for them and regretted this when they passed on. The same occurs here, where Watanabe's selfish son and daughter in law are interested solely in Watanabe as a source of money - he overhears them discussing his retirement bonus and he subsequently neglects to tell them he's dying. Respect amongst the younger generation for their parents and elders appears to be lacking in both films and continued to be an issue in the works of Ozu for instance.

As typified in the iconic scene of Watanabe sitting on the swing in the playground in the snow, cooing a 20s love song as he awaits death, 'Ikiru' is one of the most profound and moving films anyone is ever likely to see. Thanks to Shimura, Watanabe convincingly transforms from a man whose entire life had been meaningless and unfulfilled to a man whose death-inspired zeal and determination was able to achieve something positive for the common good. Kurosawa's empathy for the man is evident and its this which allows the film to remain honest and not feel forced or manipulative, as well as offer substantive insights into the human condition. 5/5

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