Wednesday, 9 December 2015

The allure of Akira Kurosawa's film Ikiru

Watching Akira Kurosawa’s unusual movie Ikiru is a fascinating experience. I love the film and offer it to my fellow Buddhists, thinking many of you are likely to find it amazing, as well. The film was made in 1952 in Tokyo and is in Japanese. All parts, including those by many hundreds of extras are played by Japanese actors.

The movie opens with a picture of an X-ray. We are told by an opinionated narrator that the X-ray is that of our protagonist’s stomach which shows that he has an aggressive cancer that will kill him. [The screenplay leaves viewers with the certain knowledge that death is in the offing. There will be no switched X-ray ruse. The main character will be dead in five months. Absolutely!]

This protagonist is a middle-ranking city official, Mr. Wanatabe [played by Takashi Shimura] who’s about 55 years old, I’d say, with the title Public Affairs Section Chief.

Wanatave and the piles and piles of papers.
We first see him at his desk stamping documents. Behind him and all around the walls and blocking windows and around the desks and walls of his subordinates are stacks and stacks and piles upon piles of loosely bound papers.

The narrator tells us:
Ah, here is our protagonist now. But it would only be tiresome to meet him right now. After all, he’s simply passing time without actually living his life. In other words, he’s not really even alive. … In fact, this man has been dead for more than 20 years now.
The narrator is speaking metaphorically, of course. He’s setting up the situation which is one perhaps many of us can relate to: our life is a drag; we’re only just sleepwalking through it, following our routine which prepares us to follow our routine without let up.

Wanatabe playing pinball with a young co-worker
Wanatabe is just a player in a mindless bureaucracy where departments pass work to other departments and fop off encounters they should be having with citizens off on other departments, endlessly, such that citizens give up on getting a problem fixed. Paper piles up endlessly and it is extremely rare for something meaningful to ever get done.

The tone of the movie is an important element. It is a serious film with conversations most of which are serious. But there is always, just out of reach, this world of absurdity. The piles of papers. The do-nothing bureaucracy. The acclimation of the workers to their world of madness.

These are things all of us can relate to, at least a little bit. After all, the backdrop to our lives is that Donald Trump may be our next president and if he doesn’t kill us, ISIS might, and if we survive that, climate change will finish off the last of us.

We can all come to be comfortable in a world of meaningless madness and never know how to get off our duffs to do something about it. [And we can fail to think of something to do once we’re off our duffs.]

Terry Gilliam used Ikiru as an inspiration for his comedic film Brazil in 1985. Brazil is brilliant, about being trapped in bureaucratic madness. Ikiru, superior in my opinion, includes an element about finding a path out.

Another thing I have to emphasize, that dazzles me, is how well done everything is in Ikiru. The acting is consistently superb. And there are scenes where an awful lot is going on, including in the background.

In the early part of the movie, Mr. Wanatabe befriends a mediocre novelist who pulls Wanatabe out of his deep depression and shows him how to have fun. There’s then a succession of wonderfully filmed scenes of drinking and women and playing with Wanatabe getting some relief from his depression. In one scene, they go to see a striptease where, as the stripper’s clothes come off, Wanatabe lets out a satisfied yowl.

Wanatabe: So happy. On a swing in the snow.
One interesting thing I noticed: During the sequences of gaiety, the music is American, sung in English. On walls, some English-language words can be seen: “Beer” “Cabaret” The movie was made seven years after WWII. I suppose the reality is that Americans were in Japan affecting the culture. Still, no non-Japanese persons are seen.

Despite these diversions, Wanatabe is vexed with dread, at times. His life was a waste; he is just waiting to die. But a ditzy young woman he works with says some things that sparks an idea.

I didn’t find the back-half of the film to be as intriguing as its first half, but is it where Wanatabe figures out what to do. Not wanting to spoil things any further, I will leave things at that except to say that it seems clear that the message that comes from Buddhism plays a vital role in the movie, even as there is no mention of Buddhism in the film.

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