Saturday 14 February 2015

To Live (Ikiru) (1952)

Ikiru - At Leve
”Ikiru” is the second Akira Kurosawa film on the list (after ”Rashomon”). It is no secret that I was looking forward to this one with great anticipation. Kurosawa started strongly with “Rashomon, but according to the extra material on “Ikiru” Kurosawa said when he received the Venice golden lion for “Rashomon” that he could do better with a contemporary film and went on to make “Ikiru”. So. yes, staggering expectations indeed for “Ikiru”.

Is “Ikiru” then better than “Rashomon”?

The jury is still out on that question, but we certainly got something different from Kurosawa, or maybe not. There are structural parts that built onto the groundbreaking storytelling technique Kurosawa introduced with “Rashomon”.

“Ikiru” takes place in modern day (1952) Japan. We meet Watanabe (Takashi Shimura), a middle-aged town hall bureaucrat who has been swinging his rubberstamp for thirty years and not really much else. One day he finds out that he has stomach cancer and maybe half a year left to live. This is quite a shock and he realizes to his horror that he has wasted away a large chunk of his life on essentially nothing. His son is estranged from him and mostly interested in his inheritance and work at the town hall is about as unfulfilling as can be.

His reaction goes through three phases. First despondency. With his head bowed and an empty expression in his eyes he looks ready to jump from the nearest bridge. Upon meeting a younger writer of cheap literature he changes direction and seems hell-bent on wasting away as much of his savings as possible on entertainment. It is futile and does not change anything. It is not even fun, just pathetic. Watanabe then meets Toyo, one of his employees from the Public Liaisons office. That opens his eyes for what his life could have been. He clings to her, seemingly to get an answer to his own problem from her, but she is getting increasingly freaked out by this weird old man. Before they part however he has an epiphany and realizes there is something he can do. He returns to his office at Public Liaisons, grab the first petition from the stack and decides to do something revolutionary. Instead of the customary procedure of passing on the petition to another department, he decides to follow the thing through and actually make it happen.

At this point the movie changes character entirely and we are at the wake after Watanabe died. His family, colleagues and peers from the town hall are gathered in his memory and discuss the peculiar last half year of his life. His project, the playground, got built and at the outset there is general agreement that the deputy mayor is to thank for that. However as the attendants at the wake get increasingly drunk they remember details about Watanabe that places him in a different light. Their individual memories play out as flashbacks and soon Watanabe is the closest thing to a saint, a revolutionary who managed to challenge the system and get something done. They all promise each other to follow his example, but, alas, first day back in the office everything is back to normal.

This change in narrative is in itself very interesting. From a normally progressing narrative it makes the switch to something very similar to “Rashomon” and the story becomes very subjective. We do not know exactly what happened, only what different people think happened.

But there are other things that are interesting here. Kurosawa is trying to cope with one of the biggest questions of all, the meaning of life. Or maybe rather, what makes life meaningful. He is in a sense rebelling against the East Asian group mentality by saying that as an individual we have to make a difference. Being a keg in the wheel of the big machine that is civil administration is simply not enough. Watanabe only realizes this when he gets his death sentence and then he gets busy and manages to die content with his final achievement. This message may seem trivial in western eyes, but not in the east. This is quite revolutionary.

Then there is a critique of bureaucracy. Of course Watanabe’s life has to be described as totally useless, but the portrayal of bureaucratic inefficiency is a lot more than a tool. The office of Public Liaisons is straight out of Kafka with stacks upon stacks of documents and case files. The office is one big and seemingly chaotic archive and it is easy to see that a petition is essentially lost in this paper hell. In the opening of the film we follow a petition from a group of citizens being sent from department to department just to return to where it started. The very petition Watanabe decides to take up. Obviously Kurosawa see a parallel between useless living and bureaucracy and also want to show that this big monster may loose a battle but it will always win the war. A single revolutionary cannot change that.

A contemporary movie always has that added quality for me that we get some insights to life in general at the time of the movie. In this case Japan of 1952. It is interesting to see this country defeated in the war and now trying a new way heavily influenced by America. That creates that strange fusion of Japanese and Western culture that even today can be found in Japan and is described so well in “Lost in Translation”. It is so curious to see what they have chosen to adopt and what they discarded. I think you have to be Japanese to be able to fully understand it.

I always have that problem that although I have traveled a lot in the East I am constantly mystified by Eastern culture. I keep getting that feeling that I am missing details or maybe misinterpreting them. There are parts of the movie that seem almost comical, like the guests at the wake. As they get seriously intoxicated they sound like nothing so much as a group of wookies. The mumbling and cries and arguments… well, I got a lot of respect for the translators of the film. This cannot have been easy. I wonder what a Japanese audience would think of the late hours of a Danish corporate Christmas lunch… Same thing with family ties and social structures. I know these things are important and decides a lot of the actions and reactions of the characters, but I feel I am missing things.

“Ikiru” is a very slow film. At times it creeps along and at 2 hours and 17 minutes it is easy to make the argument that the story could have been told in an hour and a half. But Japanese movies tend to be slow, just think of Ozu and Mizoguchi, and I actually like that. It gives the movies an almost zen-like feel that allows you to get into the moment. In the case of the first half of the movie the pace underlines the futility of Watanabe’s life and his effort to cope with it. His depression is deepened by the long shots of him just doing nothing or staring at something. A clever move, but still a challenge for the modern viewer. You have to want to see it, but if you do you are also amply rewarded.

Okay, now, give me some Kurosawa samurai films! Yeah, it is time. I am ready.


  1. I have some problems with the meandering second half of the film, but I just love Ikiru. It's one of the few movies that I have found inspirational. Not so far as I have done anything like built a park. But it made me want to and that was something. Shimura is such a fantastic actor. Wait until you see him in Seven Samurai. You will hardly believe that he is the same actor.

    I recently decided to start studying Japanese on my own. Not to be able to speak it or anything but sort of to be able to get more out of the films. The culture is just so foreign to me. I'm at the very beginning. When you introduce yourself to someone, you say something that literally translates into "Good to meet you. I am (name). Please be kind to me." I find that quite wonderful.

    1. Curiously I found the second much more interesting and engaging than the first half.
      Japan and japanese culture is amazing. I once took a half year language course in Japanese, but my laguage skills were unfortunately not up to the task. Two years ago I went to Japan for work and while I did not have near enough time there it was enough to know that I would be coming back.
      You could hardly have chosen a more interesting culture to study. Did you ever get the chance to go there?

    2. I've never been to Japan unfortunately. I lived in Papua New Guinea for three years but the only Asian country we got to was Singapore. Now I curse myself for not taking the opportunity. We spent our holidays in Australia or New Zealand.

      I don't know how long I am going to last with the Japanese myself. My brain seems somewhat resistant. I am trying to learn the Hiragana alphabet and it is painfully slow going. Makes me really appreciate Spanish.

    3. That is a very exotic location indeed! I doubt it gets more special thant that. I can certainly understand why you would prefer to go south rather than north in that light. I spent only half a year in China and that was enough to make me miss western life.
      Still Japan is only a flight away and I was surprised to find that it is actually relatively cheap to get along there. I can definitely recommend it.

  2. This is one of my three favorite Kurosawa films (with Seven Samuarai and Throne of Blood) and I find it to be very touching. The capper is the ending that you mentioned, though, where everyone promises to use him as an example, but then no one does. It's very realistic.

    1. Indeed.It is a great conclusion: You can make your life worthwhile, but you can never hope to change bureaucracy.

  3. Of all the Kurosawa films I've seen, this one was the most surprising. No samurai? Really? And yet this is a story that I think is timeless and beautiful. It's such a strange combinations of emotions. There's triumph here, but also defeat.

    I also like that Kurosawa went with such a strange narrative structure. Not many films can get away with killing off the main character that long before the ending.

    1. It just shows that Kurosawa did not need samurai to make great movies. Yet, there is something of a samurai in Watanabe, no? He dies with honor and when he dies he is okay with it.