Friday, March 17, 2017

Ikiru (1952)

Japan, 143 minutes
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Writers: Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, Hideo Oguni
Photography: Asakazu Nakai
Music: Fumio Hayasaka
Editor: Koichi Iwashita
Cast: Takashi Shimura, Nobuo Kaneko, Kyoko Seki, Miki Odagiri, Yunosuke Ito, Nobuo Nakamura

"Ikiru" is a Japanese verb that means "to live, to be alive, to exist," but somehow that translation has only occasionally been tried for the title of one of director and cowriter Akira Kurosawa's greatest movies. Perhaps Kurosawa's status as the most Westernized of Japan's famous midcentury film directors, with Kenji Mizoguchi and Yasujiro Ozu, had to be compensated with the most Japanese-sounding titles in the West—Rashomon, Yojimbo, and Kagemusha are among his most famous.

Ikiru is also something of a departure in that, as with most of Ozu's work, Kurosawa has set the action of this picture in modern-day rather than historical samurai times. Long-time Kurosawa trouper Takashi Shimura takes the dominating lead role of Kanji Watanabe, a middle-aged widower and Japanese government bureaucrat for most of his adult life, who has learned—well, figured out really, as the Japanese medical system as shown was remarkably evasive about it—that he has inoperable stomach cancer and at most a year to live. It might be Shimura's greatest role, bearing the largest burdens of a man in extremis, facing down his own death. The picture follows the arc of his coming to terms with his condition, with the last hour reserved for an unusual show of consequences.

It is a longish movie that takes its time with developments, and still feels almost a little inadequate to the story. Watanabe has been a civil servant for nearly 30 years, and with perfect attendance until he learns of the cancer, but little is offered about the tumultuous changes he must have seen in that time, from approximately 1925 to 1950. Instead, it's simply treated as a given that Japan is now a democracy and that's the way things are—perhaps that's something to do with censorship standards of the time.

As it is, democracy appears to have only the slimmest chance of changing the ponderous bureaucratic ways of any government of size, certainly 20th-century Japan. The movie's secondary theme, after all, is exactly the deadening absurdity of that bureaucracy and how it only offers meaninglessness to its workers and the public. "We have to act like we're doing something while doing nothing," is how Watanabe describes it at one point (I know the feeling, and not just in government work). So on learning of his cancer, his first impulse is to simply leave the job behind him. He disappears without a word for days, while the people he supervises worry about him and carry on, scheming for their own advancements.

Watanabe disappears but we find him drinking stuporously at night in a shady tavern from which a freelance writer in his 30s sends off pages to be published. The writer befriends Watanabe, learns of his situation, and vows to show him how life is lived. They go out on the town, to jazz clubs and such, with boozing, boogie woogie piano music, and general howling at the moon. At a strip club, both of them raving drunk, the writer tells Watanabe: "That's not art. A striptease isn't art. It's too direct. It's more direct than art. That woman's body up there? It's a big juicy steak. It's a glass of gin. It's a hormone extract. Streptomycin! Uranium!"

On the bender we also first see Watanabe adopting his haunting, beautiful theme song, an oldie from "the nineteen teens," "Life Is Brief," which he belches in an inhuman yet affecting croak: "Fall in love, maidens / Before the raven tresses / Begin to fade ... For those of you / Who know no tomorrow." Gloomy stuff for sure, and Shimura's doleful weepy mug is no help. It's tremendously sad, but overdone, but tremendously sad. Finally the power of Shimura's face and gravelly voice become undeniable and completely carry the picture, along with the intricacies of his situation. What will he do? What can he do?

The last hour of the picture answers the questions, along with detailing the results of the apparent epiphany we witness when we last see Watanabe alive. It takes him some time to reach the point—he has to endure complete alienation from his only son and his son's wife, who live with him, and some creepy twists and turns of a relationship with a coworker (Miki Odagiri) who is much younger. It's never exactly a sexually charged affair, but it leaks with weird emotional energy. We see his desperate epiphany from the outside, in humiliating circumstances. It could be just another bad decision, because he's been making a few of them.

The last hour focuses on his funeral wake, attended by his son and daughter-in-law and a good many officials and coworkers from his office. Formally, it's an interesting and somewhat jarring shift. He's dead now. He went back to work, as it turned out, and dedicated himself to getting one particular civic project done, taking a wasteland parcel of property in the city, more or less an open cesspool when he begins, and converting it into a children's playground park. Getting it done was something Watanabe chose to make a life's work in the end, and he succeeded—even though most of the high-ranking officials in attendance are taking most of the credit for it.

This section shows conversations and various testimony by wake attendees, many of their revelations a surprise to his family and coworkers, alternating with flashback scenes from the previous five months, including the moment of his death. It's simple, profound, and moving, a nice show of how one life can touch so many others. Watanabe is a deeply universal everyman, plucked from the masses of the rest of us, living lives of quiet desperation, and we see him facing death, much as most of us likely do or will. He doesn't always act with grace. We must often cringe at his decisions and behavior. But he works through that to come to his own kind of compromised but undeniable victory, and dignity. Ikiru is probably Kurosawa's best picture not set in samurai times, even rivaling some of Ozu's best, such as Tokyo Story and Late Spring. It leaves a mark.

Top 10 of 1952
1. Ikiru
2. Singin' in the Rain
3. The Quiet Man
4. The Bad and the Beautiful
5. Clash by Night
6. High Noon
7. The Narrow Margin
8. Sudden Fear
9. Macao
10. Monkey Business

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