Thursday, March 26, 2015

Kurosawa Week: Ikiru (1952)

Without a doubt, Kurosawa’s Ikiru ("To Live") is my overall favorite Kurosawa film. There is just so much to love about this film. First, it is unique. There is nothing else like it on film. Secondly, despite poor film quality, the film is very well shot and perfectly acted. Finally, this film is intensely emotional. This film will fill you with rage at some points, pride at others, and make you cry, and it has an amazing and unique message.


Ikiru is the story of Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura), a middle-aged petty bureaucrat who learns that he is dying. The film is about him trying to find some meaning in his life.
Kanji tries to find meaning at home at first. He wants to tell his son and daughter-in-law, with whom he lives, that he is dying, and he hopes to become closer to them. But they won’t pay any attention to him. All they care about is his pension and what they will inherit from him one day. He quickly realizes that he will not find meaning here, so he never tells them that he is dying. Instead, he ventures out into Tokyo’s nightlife. Out on the town, he finds a novelist who guides him to a wild nightclub. He quickly realizes, however, that he will not find meaning there either.

The next day, Kanji finds himself drawn a young woman he meets at the office. She seems energetic and vibrant, and he starts to spend time with her. But she eventually begins to wonder what he’s after. He then asks her what makes her so happy and she tells him, but she also tells him that he needs to find a purpose in his own life; he can’t just take someone else’s purpose.
Kanji then finds a cause. He decides he will help a group of mothers build a playground. To do this, however, he must guide the project over a dozen insurmountable bureaucratic hurdles. I’ll let you discover for yourself if he succeeds.

In the ending, a group of co-workers, family and friends meet at his wake and they discuss, from their self-centered perspectives, how his behavior changed before he died. I have never wanted to punch a couple film characters more in my life.

This Is An Amazing Film

This is the only film I have ever seen that has received a 100% rating from Rotten Tomatoes, and it is well deserved. Once again, Kurosawa is at the top of his game in terms of storytelling and getting us to delve into what makes us who we are. At its core, this film is about how we live and how we find meaning in our lives, something we all struggle with. As if that were not interesting enough, however, Kurosawa also gives us so much more.

For example, the film criticizes the attitudes that most of display in our daily or professional lives. The film criticizes our penchant for being self-absorbed and ignoring people who we view as not important. It attacks the greed of Kanji’s family, which is a form of greed any lawyer has seen play out in thousands of families. It attacks bureaucratic laziness and fear. It attacks the “don’t make waves” attitude. And best of all, it tells us that if you truly understand what is important in life, then none of the things the rest of society values really matter.
Let me repeat that: if you truly understand what is important in life, then none of the things the rest of society values really matter.

This is a revolutionary message, particularly in conformist Japan, but even here. This is the message that tells us both how to change the world and why to change the world. It is that second part that you never see tackled in films and which so many people will never understand.

Indeed, the fact that many people will never get this is put on display at the ending, when Kanji’s oblivious friends and family and coworkers struggle to put Kanji’s life back into a box that they can understand rather than understanding why he really did what he did... a behavior that many of us will have seen by the oblivious people in our own lives.
It is this scene, by the way, which will fill you with rage, bring you to tears and fill you with joy. I can’t think of any other film that punches this hard emotionally, and yet Kurosawa does so with pure subtlety and without manipulation. There is nothing fake or heavy-handed here. There are none of the tricks Spielberg would use to manipulate you... just great storytelling. In fact, it is an awesome display of storytelling that in such a short film you can come to see Kanji as such a worthwhile character that you feel the slings and arrows of slander and misunderstanding lobbed at him even after he is dead. You will cry when he dies.

It’s amazing writing.

You need to see this film.


Kit said...

My favorite moment might be the "Happy Birthday" scene, when he has finally found his purpose. At that scene he is finally alive. Most people do a "baptismal" scene of him in the rain, instead Kurosawa has him running down a flight of stairs to the sounds of 'Happy Birthday." For a second you are actually tricked into thinking they are singing the song for him.

And him singing "Gondola No Uta" in the nightclub, the realization that he has led a truly empty life.

And him singing it at the end in the playground.

And the bureaucrat looking at the playground at the end.

And all the scenes of him with the girl.

Ok, there are a lot of great moments in that movie.

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, The Happy Birthday scene is excellently symbolic. It's his rebirth. :)

I love how the rest of the crowd looks on in horror as he sings "Gondola No Uta." It's like they see the problem and feel it themselves. Then they shake it off and happily go back to their empty lives. The film is full of people like that, who see the truth for a brief moment and then go back... and that's the real point to the film. Kurosawa is saying, "Sure, you see it, but can you really live it or are you just going to plug back into the Matrix?" (To borrow a modern idea.)

I actually thought the scenes with the girl were creepy, and that made them all the more intense and his portrayal as struggling to find meaning all the more discomforting.

ScottDS said...

Another one to add to the list. (I'm more or less copying and pasting that line at this point!) :-)

Sounds almost Bergman-esque at times, Wild Strawberries in particular, which deals with a dying old man who looks back on his life. Though that film touches on missed opportunities, this one apparently touches on opportunities yet to come.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I actually haven't seen that. I'll have to check it out. You definitely should check this one out.

Kit said...

A fine film.

Kit said...

I didn't find the scenes with the young girl that creepy. Maybe a bit, but not that much.

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