The Kurosawa Odyssey
Studio: Toho Studios
Screenwriter: Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, Hideo Oguni
Cast: Takashi Shimura, Miki Odagiri, Nobuo Kaneko
Cinematographer: Asakazu Nakai
Music: Fumio Hayasaka
“Ikiru” is about the most important part of a person’s life…the part so many are afraid to talk about or engage in. A part that rarely is touched upon seriously in filmmaking because it hits too close to home.
No, I’m not writing about death.
I’m writing about living…about accomplishment.
The fact that the old man at the center of our story dies is almost beside the point – the movie is about the idea that he actually lived.
And in focusing on that, Kurosawa takes us on a journey to look at the difference between fact, truth and interpretation. The fact is that Watanabe (Takashi Shimura) has stomach cancer. This is irrefutable – we see the x-ray in the first image of the film. The truth is that Watanabe made the decision to use the final six months of his life to create a park and change the world around him for the better. The interpretation is how much he actually had to do with the accomplishment, discussed by small men after Watanabe’s death.
His physical death, anyway. Kurosawa and his co-screenwriters Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni give us our first impression of Watanabe by having a narrator tell us that “This man has been dead for over 20 years.” Spiritually dead – trapped beneath a literal mountain of paperwork, his only apparent job is to be stamping each paper before sending it off. He has a vast savings and lives with his son and daughter-in-law, both of whom do not respect him and have long since stopped trying to connect with him.
Shimura is incredible as Watanabe. The character has shades of the guy Shimura played in “Scandal,” but the actor goes to a more subtle place here. Watanabe shuffles, his back always hunched and his shoulders always slumped. We only really see him sitting up straight in the photograph displayed at his wake, and it’s important to see it there to understand how much life has worn him down.
Oddly, we don’t really get to know Watanabe for the first 40 minutes of “Ikiru.” We watch him at his job, see him realize he’s going to die in six months and quietly break down that night…but he’s really a cipher. Part of this is because of what I wrote above – he’s not really “alive,” but the other part is because Kurosawa and his co-screenwriters give the viewer time and space to contemplate death ourselves. A character overtly states (not to Watanabe) “What would you do if you only had six months to live?” and as the old man processes the information, we think about how we would process the information. How we would react. What we would do…who we would tell? This is important, because in giving us the time to personalize the situation to ourselves, we become more emotionally engaged with Watanabe’s decisions later.
And then we do begin to invest ourselves in Watanabe. He contemplates suicide, but it’s not for him, and then befriends a man at a bar (Yunosuke Ito) who promises to show him a good time. The man takes him to an arcade, a strip club, a night club… and I’m pretty sure prostitutes become involved at a certain point. Watanabe has “fun,” I suppose, but it wears him down. The sequence is incredibly long, but purposefully long in the same way that the similar sequence in “Scandal” was, or the long sequence of the cop searching for a gun dealer in “Stray Dog” was purposeful. It shows that, while these fun and games might be meaningful on the surface and make you happy for a few hours, there is no lasting effect and it gets tiring quickly. It tees up Watanabe’s decision to want to do more with his life just as much as his relationship with the young woman from his work (Miki Odagiri) does.
Enabled, Watanabe finally makes the decision to do something with the little time he has left – and that is to use his job to ensure a cesspool in a bad part of Tokyo is drained and replaced with a beautiful children’s park. The metaphors in this section are a bit on the nose, even for Kurosawa – his young friend tells Watanabe that his nickname at work is “the Mummy” (get it? Living dead!) and when the old man makes the decision to do something, in the background a group is singing “Happy Birthday” (get it? He’s being born again!). But any creakiness in the metaphor territory is immediately forgiven by the ballsiness the writers pull next – Watanabe makes the decision to build the park, puts on his hat and rushes out the door…
…and then we jump six months ahead and he’s dead.
That’s right, we don’t see his decline and we aren’t treated to sad bedside treacle – he’s just gone and we are at his wake. In doing this, Kurosawa simply avoids being saccharine or elevated. Watanabe may be gone, but the park did get built. In fact, he died one snowy night in the park, singing as he swung on the swingset. All of his fellow employees are at the wake, as are his family. The Deputy Mayor dismisses Watanabe’s contributions to the park, giving himself all the credit. But once he leaves, the remaining employees begin to discuss what really happened. Others don’t want to give Watanabe the credit (they did, after all, help out too), but a few employees sternly refuse to back down.
This is the section where the truth of the movie becomes open for interpretation, at least for the movie’s characters. As an audience, we saw how keen Watanabe was on creating the park before we flashed forward, and through small flashbacks in this final hour we see the lengths which he went to ensure it was built.
Watanabe did what so few people can – he created something extraordinary. We know how difficult it must have been… not just from the flashbacks that show the death threats or his declining health, but because Kurosawa sets up right at the beginning the amount of red tape that exists in Watanabe’s office. And yet he pulled off the impossible.
As humans, when we see something extraordinary, our first reaction is to rationalize it. It’s a horrible trait, but one we’ve done all throughout history. Because if we have to deal with the fact that a person is capable of doing something so impossible, then we also have to make peace with the fact that we did not. So we minimize the accomplishment. Diminish it. Do anything we can to make it less extraordinary than it is. But that’s the great thing about the extraordinary – do all of the above and it’s still there, still being extraordinary. The little men in the wake can hem and haw all they want about how much or how little Watanabe did to get that park created, but it does not matter – because in the end the park is still there.
Just like “Ikiru” is still here.
In Roger Ebert’s wonderful Great Movies essay on “Ikiru,” he writes that it is one of the rarest of movies in that it could actually inspire someone to change the way he or she lives. What an extraordinary legacy. Watanabe would be proud.
- Speaking of Roger Ebert’s essay, he chose this movie as his second “Great Movies” entry, after only “Casablanca.”
- Kurosawa would revisit “Ikiru’s” themes again and again throughout his filmography, and notably his last film, “Madadayo,” is a sister to “Ikiru.” That movie follows the life of a retired professor who is beloved by his students, and how the small eccentricities of everyday life build up to a legacy. It’s not as good as “Ikiru,” but a fitting end to the master’s career.
- Kurosawa would also use the image of the playground later in his career, purposefully echoing it in “Rhapsody in August” when some children stare at a warped, melted swingset that was directly under the atomic explosion in WWII.