Saturday, December 26, 2009

Ikiru - To Live (1952)

Director: Akira Kurosawa
Japan 1952
143 min
Starring: Takashi Shimura, Shinichi Himori, Miki Odagiri, Yûnosuke Itô, Haruo Tanaka and Minoru Chiaki, among others.

I hope everyone had a great Christmas. I now feel ready to move on with my regular blogging, and what could be better than the following:
A tremendously beautiful life and death drama about a regular middle aged man who suddenly realizes he has only months left to live due to terminal cancer.

The world of a movie transcends reality.
- Akira Kurosawa

Ikiru is another one of Akira Kurosawa's highest praised works. The title translates directly to "To Love", and that is exactly what the film is about.
The main character Kanji Watanabe (played by a Kurosawa favorite, Takashi Shimura) is presented to the viewer in the brutal manner of an X-ray of his stomach. A narrator tells us the following:

This stomach belongs to the protagonist of our story. At this point, our protagonist has no idea he has this cancer...

The narrator then goes on and introduces us to the character Watanabe. He is a middle aged man, working at City Hall since 30 years - never had a sick day. We are also told by the narrator that Watanabe is of no interest to us at this moment since he has been dead for 20 years, going as far as calling Watanabe "almost a corpse". He doesn't live: he does not know how to.
We get a brief guided tour through the bureaucratic office environment, witnessing people getting shuffled around between departments and never getting an answer to their problems (à la Kafka's The Trial, as was my spontaneous connection). A group of angry housewives complain about a filthy dam that draws mosquitoes, shouting to an office worker that this is "a mockery of democracy!"
This incident will have greater relevance later on.

After seeing Watanabe in his natural habitat at the office, we see him exiting an X-ray room at the hospital. In the waiting room he engages himself in a friendly chat with another patient, who however seems more delighted in talking about more morbid matters.
The patient points out a man in the room with stomach aches, who just was told by the doctors that he has a minor ulcer:

But trust me, it's stomach cancer. [...] The doc usually says it's just a mild ulcer, and that there's no real need to operate. And that you can eat whatever you want as long as it's easy to digest. If that's what he tells you, you've got a year, at most. But if you've got these symptoms you won't last a year:
First, the pain is kind of heavy.
Second, if you can't stop burping unpleasantly.
And your tongue's always dry. You can't get enough water and tea.
And then there's the diarrhea. [...] Your bowel movements go black.
And then... that meat you used to love so, you can hardly touch it anymore. And whatever you eat you vomit half an hour later. And when stuff you ate last week comes up when you vomit, well, then you're done for.
You've hardly got three months...

As the pictures above tell, Watanabe is not too encouraged by that discussion. When he finally meets his doctor he says that he has a minor ulcer, but that it will heal by itself. No need to operate.
At that moment Watanabe's reality starts to fall apart, and the knowledge that he is dying is the turning point of his currently meaningless existence.

Watanabe does not return to work, but instead finds himself drinking sake in a dark little joint. It is there he meets the first person that will motivate him to do something about his last time on Earth - a friendly stranger I will call the Novelist (Yûnosuke Itô). When he hears about Watanabe's doom, he decides to take him around town to enjoy himself. And to realize the wonder about buying a new hat.

Strolling around in a day-after-the-night-before daze, Watanabe runs into a young girl who works at his office - Toyo (Miki Odagiri). Toyo is a vivacious, happy young lady who hates her job at the office and her boring co-workers. When she meets Watanabe with his new hat, and hearing that he skipped work for the first time in 30 years, she suddenly becomes interested in knowing him.
Toyo's presence has a positive effect on Watanabe, who almost becomes hypnotized by her vibrant youth. It is however first when she becomes suspicious about why he spends so much time with her that he confesses about his terminal cancer. Her advice to him to do something meaningful becomes the second turning point in Watanabe's life, and the day that he decides that he will break free from his quiet, meaningless being once and for all.

He goes back to the office, much to the gossiping co-workers' surprise, and starts working the slow, slippery machine of bureaucracy to get rid of the mosquito dam and make a children's park and play ground of it.

When I describe the film with words, the plot sounds like it could have been taken from almost any 180-degree-personality-spin Hollywood movie, that ends up showing the pure soul of every man. That is however not the case with Ikiru, though the dramatic vs. comic elements are existent in both types of films.
For one thing Kurosawa makes the unique move of killing off his protagonist after just a little bit past the first half of the film, just when Watanabe has decided to change the course of his life. The rest of the film takes place at Watanabe's wake, full of Japanese character actors who portray his co-workers.

The park has been now been built, and Watanabe was obviously found dead in the very park he worked so much to get built. Surprisingly enough, the people at the wake are not full of awe and respect, but instead try to reason their way to claiming that it was actually their efforts the people were to thank.
Through their discussions about Watanabe, we get familiar with the missing time gap through flashbacks. It is worth mentioning that this scene contains magnificent acting and brilliant character development, which must have been hard to achieve considering the length of the scene and the restricted area.

They say that this was the role of Takashi Shimura's life. I can understand that - I still can't believe how he managed to create his character as he did - with those teary eyes and the weak, raspy falsetto voice that makes you feel that he breathes cancer. He is unbelievable, and at the same time too believable for me to feel entirely comfortable. And yet, the he is such a heart-warming character.
(Can anyone give me a logical equation on this?)

Ikiru is a fantastic film in many ways. The characters are realistic and genuine, and when they are combined with high class camera work that lets you in on the most vulnerable, intimate moments and allows you to share genuine happiness and beauty... that results in a magnificent film experience.
As you can see from my screenshots, the camera is almost always in eye level with the characters, something I would like to consider being Ikiru's motif. A good example is the waiting room scene in the beginning, where Watanabe moves closer to the camera (which remains in the same position, eye level) the more terrified he gets of the things the other patient tells him.
Simple and brilliant! As is the movie in whole.

I watched an interview with director Kurosawa talking about the making of Ikiru. Listening to his insightful bulls eye remarks about how a film is supposed to be done, I just couldn't help myself from picking up a pen and paper and quote him:

"Preaching to the public is out of the question. If you want to express people's suffering, then just show it honestly. If you do it in an overbearing way, it will turn people off."
"Even in tragic stories there should be some happy parts, so that the audience will have a certain emotional experience. That's what a movie should do."

Yes, there will definitively be more Kurosawa detective work for me. I'd like to end this review with the probably most famous scene from Ikiru, namely a scene at a night club where Watanabe sings a Japanese song from 1915 called "Gondola no uta" (Engl. title: "Life is Brief"), a song about capturing life before it's too late. Takashi Shimura (a talented singer) was instructed to sing in an "otherworldly way", which he did. Notice the light reflecting in Watanabe's eyes - I suddenly feel like someone is stabbing me in the chest.
The clip has English subtitles.


Darsh said...

I know you're busy with Kurosawa at the moment, but I'm curious what you think of Yasujiro Ozu. EARLY SUMMER is probably my favorite film of his.

Mykal said...

”He is unbelievable, and at the same time too believable for me to feel entirely comfortable. And yet, the he is such a heart-warming character.
(Can anyone give me a logical equation on this?)”

Lolita: I know what you mean. I think the equation is that great "acting" is fun to watch. Moments of actual vulnerability and intimate revelation are not. I can barely watch Kietel in Bad Lieutenant as a case in point. His performance is not comfortable to watch. It is like opening a closed door in a house and catching someone in a humiliating moment. In the film under discussion, Shimura’s performance seems more a moment of personal humiliation than acting, uncomfortable to watch, but it absolutely bonds you to the character because he has become completely, disgracefully human. Maybe something like that? – Mykal

Victor said...

Borta hela helgen? Försökt få tag på dig sen jag kom till Norrköping...

Lolita said...

Thanks for the tip! I will look into Ozu since you recommend him :)

Spot on! Jesus, this movie was great.

Du är tillbaka i Norrköping?? Min mobil är försvunnen, kommer få en ny om ett par dagar. Skicka ett mail så kan du få mitt tillfälliga nummer ;) Kram

Chris Edwards said...

I'd say two things endear Shimura to the viewer. First, he is sad and unfulfilled, which most people (even ostensibly successful people) tend to identify with. Secondly, he's able to effect change--resulting in absolute good--without abusing anyone. He just sits there, until others are overtaken by their own guilt.

It's certainly nothing inherent in the actor. Shimura is 180 degrees from this role in Seven Samurai.

Chris Edwards said...

By the way, I second the motion for Ozu's Early Summer. I think the closing scene, cutting from the parents to the field of barley, is one of the finest ever filmed.

Late Spring and Tokyo Chorus are also great, great Ozu films. And Tokyo Story is the acknowledged masterpiece of masterpieces.

Lolita said...

Chris Edwards:
I agree with Shimura - what an actor. But I believe Tatsuya Nakadai is my Jap favorite for the moment ;)
Okay, if two people recommend Ozu, I will check him up immediately!