To live with Kurosawa's Ikiru
Ed. note: Frank writes about film quite a bit at his blog, Frankly Curious, but we don't usually feature his film writing here, preferring to stick with his more political posts. But I couldn't resist this one, an excellent examination of Akira Kurosawa's Ikiru (which is actually quite political, as is Frank's post).
Ahead even of Ozu and Kieslowski, Kurosawa is my favorite director. He made what I think is the greatest movie ever made, Seven Samurai, and the list of his masterpieces is a long one: Ran, High and Low, Yojimbo, Rashomon, and Throne of Blood lead the pack after Seven Samurai, for me, but The Hidden Fortress (the basis for Star Wars), Sanjuro, Kagemusha, and Stray Dog, to name but four others, are also excellent. And then there are the many great "minor" films that deserve greater attention, including his early and post-war work.
Anyway, suffice it to say I absolutely love Kurosawa, and while I wouldn't put Ikiru among his very best, it's certainly a wonderful film, and the iconic scene of Watanabe (the great Takashi Shimura) on the swing ranks among the most powerful of Kurosawa's entire oeuvre. -- MJWS
After many years, I watched Akira Kurosawa's Ikiru. It is the story of a man who learns that he is dying of stomach cancer and so decides to use his life to do something meaningful. You can well imagine what kind of sentimental claptrap this would be in the hands of Hollywood. Ikiru -- which means "to live" -- is not at all sentimental. In fact, the main character dies halfway through the film. But that doesn't mean it isn't inspiring. It shows how one man decided to change his life for the better without any of the cheap movie tricks that I so despise. (Think: Beaches.)
The film is a product of the post-war period in Japan and focuses on a bureaucrat, Kanji Watanabe, who follows the tradition of doing as little as possible. This is highlighted at the beginning of the film when Watanebe uses pages from a document titled, "A Proposal for Increasing Departmental Efficiency." This is followed by the narrator telling us, "The best way to protect your place in the world is to do nothing at all." This goes along with a quote provided in Stephen Prince's excellent commentary from Masao Miyamoto, "The three great principles of Japanese bureaucracy are: don't be late; don't take time off; and do no work." Watanabe wasn't always like this, but he certainly is at this mature point in his career.
At the same time, we are introduced to a group of local women who want the government to fix a problem. Where they live is an open sewer that is making their children sick. They want it to be remediated and turned into a park. So they go to the government and end up being sent from one agency to another. They stand as the opportunity that Watanabe needs to find redemption and his pathway "to live" -- even if it is for a short time.
(As a political matter, I have a problem with too much focus on governmental bureaucracy. Bureaucratic obstruction in the government was a big problem and still is in many places. But at least in this country, it has gotten much better. Now, the "run around" is much more common in dealing with corporations. A couple of years ago, Paul Krugman noted, "I've recently had fairly extensive dealings with both our health care system and with the New Jersey DMV. In one case, I encountered vast amounts of paperwork, mind-numbing bureaucracy, and extremely frustrating delays. In the other, my needs were met quickly and politely. So far, then, it's DMV 1, private health system (and I have very good insurance) 0." That's my experience.)
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