Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Akira Kurosawa | Ikiru (To Live)

the mummy
by Douglas Messerli

Shinobu Hashimoto, Akira Kurosawa, and Hideo Oguni (screenplay), Akira Kurosawa (director) Ikiru (To Live) / 1952

It may seem strange that on Christmas Eve I sit writing about a film in which the major character, Kanji Watanabi (Takashi Shimura) discovers that he has stomach cancer and is about to die. In fact, the film ends in his death and funeral and much of the movie is concerned with Kanji's learning how to die. It some respects, however, I cannot imagine a more appropriate work to mull over on the holiday, for Kurosawa's moving and brilliantly conceived film is really about a rebirth, about a man who suddenly comes to life.

     As his female assistant, Toyo (Miki Odagiri) tells Kanji later in the film— after admitting that she has created imaginary names for each of her co-workers—she has dubbed her boss, "The Mummy." Through voiceover and brief snippets of past history, the director lets us know that Kanji, who works at a government agency, may have begun his life with the energy and belief of possible change, but after his wife died, gradually let himself fall into the bureaucratic mindset of nearly all the post-World War II governmental agencies of Japan. Partly, in an attempt to support and educate his beloved son, he has allowed himself to become one of the living dead.

     It is only the discovery that he has stomach cancer with a short time to live that suddenly wakes him up and forces him to face his previously empty life. This very subject, obviously, could be played out with lugubrious pathos, allowing the audience immense pity and sorrow. There is certainly, at least for this viewer, plenty of room for tears, but Kurosawa punctuates his fable with humor, which only adds to the poignancy of events. Even the way Kanji discovers his illness shares something with black comedy, as another patient, eager to gossip about doctors, reveals that when a patient has just a short time to live, they will announce that he only has an ulcer, and send him on his way without really declaring his condition. The nasty patient goes on, however, to list the symptoms of stomach cancer, as we observe, one by one, Kanji ticking them off. By the time he enters the doctor's office, to be told precisely what his fellow patient has predicted, Kanji has been able to self-diagnose: one year to live at most.

     Falling into despair (he later describes the experience as like the feeling of "being drowned"), Kanji returns home, refusing even to turn on the lights. His son and his wife return, confused to find the house open and no lights on, presuming that the father has forgotten to lock up and is unexpectedly late from the office. Their discussion, that of any young couple, is about the future, particularly her desire to be able to move into a modern house, away from her father-in-law. The son reveals that soon his father will be soon retiring and they can draw on his pension and the money he has saved. When they discover the father in the house the whole time, obviously overhearing their greedy conversation, the two are a bit chastened, but still resolved.

    So, it becomes clear, after all his sacrifices—years of simple, repetitive existence—he does not even matter, so it appears, to his loved ones. That discovery and Kanji's inability to sleep send him onto a wild night trip that might be described as the Japanese version of Stephen Dedalus' Nighttown journey. Certainly it is as breathtaking and hallucinatory as Joyce's fiction. Meeting a young novelist (Yûnosuke Itō) in a bar, Kanji tells his story. The sympathetic writer, who recognizes "How tragic that man can never realize how beautiful life is until he is face to face with death," becomes determined to take his new-found friend on an all-night spree through Tokyo.

     The journey includes numerous seedy, red-light neighborhoods, some filled with geisha, others with Western-style prostitutes, and a number of clubs, some obviously gay, others simple strip-clubs or pick up bars. The dizzying night trip sickens and yet enlivens Kanji, who has been completely unaware of the existence of such an incredible world. At a bar where more traditional Japanese songs are sung, Kanji sings an older song of carpe diem:

                              Life is so short
                              Fall in love, dear maiden
                              While your lips are still red
                              And before you are cold.
                              For there will be no tomorrow.

One might describe this as the film's theme song.

     The fact that he has not returned to his office, after years of not missing a single day, and that he has returned home with new, white, hat, distresses both his family and employees. One young woman, Toyo, bored with her job, wants to move on to another, but needs Kanji's stamp of approval before she can do so. She seeks him out on the street, determining that she get his stamp of approval, he taking her into his home to sign the documents. Her appearance in the house, and a later friendship between them, convinces Kanji's children that he has, shockingly, taken up with a mistress who is siphoning money from Kanji's account.

     Even that innocent friendship is stolen away from him, as the young girl, unable to explain Kanji's attentions, demands her freedom.

     Slowly, Kanji becomes aware of a group of neighborhood women seeking to have a nearby lot filled with sewage water cleaned up and turned into a children's playground. Kanji's own office, when approached earlier, had shuffled the woman to another office, who, in turn, did the same, each office following the same pattern. Well experienced with the system in which he has worked, Kanji takes on their cause, patiently waiting outside the various government offices through which the plea must pass, cajoling officials, refusing to be sent away.

     The accomplishment of the park might have been a joyful ending to Kurasowa's otherwise bleak work. But here again, the director shifts the tale to another perspective, where we must move beyond Kanji's death. The funeral party for Kanji is attended even by high government figures, who boast of their achievements in creating the local park. But as they leave, the lower officials begin to discuss the strange series of events leading up to Kanji's death and his own advocacy of the park, allowing both the family and the viewers to recognize that it has been Kanji, alone, who is responsible for this now important public facility, that for the first time in years Kanji ceased being passive and forcibly made something come into existence.

     We never know whether the family, son and daughter-in-law and Kanji's brother, truly come to perceive their father and brother's achievement, but we do comprehend the grace in Kanji's end: observed swinging through the night on a children's swing in the new park, Kanji sings, as the snow falls, his song of "seizing the day." In the morning he is discovered frozen to death.

Los Angeles, December 24, 2011

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