only watched this twice now, but it’s in the running for my top 25. while watching it i was trying to think of another director who has five films as solid as kurosawa’s top five: yojimbo, sanjuro, rashomon, ikiru and seven samurai. i couldn’t come up with anyone else, which is probably why i have him listed as #1 on my favorite directors list. i haven’t seen any of his films in a long time and i shouldn’t let that happen again.
“to give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.” – steve prefontaine
the film is about an old man who discovers early in the film (and we’re told in the film’s opening frames) that he has stomach cancer and doesn’t have long to live. so, yeah, it’s a tearjerker, but it’s one of the best. it also benefits from possibly the most perfect casting of all-time in a lead role. takashi shimura isn’t a household name, but he’s completely brilliant here and is as good as it gets in other kurosawa films like seven samurai, rashomon and stray dog.
the conceit isn’t an entirely new one, there are probably a few hundred films that feature a dying character. however, kurosawa’s worldview, direction and storytelling make this one unique. the cancer that is in shimura’s character is the physical manifestation of his mental state. he’s beaten down by bureaucracy and mundane existence. he lives more for his unappreciative son than anyone else and is trapped in a dead end government job. when the doctor goes over the symptoms of his stomach cancer they all have corollaries to his mental conditions – throwing up (he can’t take his mundane life anymore), a heavy feeling in his gut (sadness and regret), always thirsty (not just for water, but for life too). i prefer these more literal symbols to the abstraction you might see from more “intellectual” directors.
as usual, the music here is quite good. kurosawa, like kubrick, had a good hear for music.
beyond the personal story of shimura’s character is the story of post-war japan. the country is in a state of transition and is still experiencing the growing pains of democracy and a different form of government. this is best exemplified in an early sequence which shows a group of mothers petitioning the city to clean up a cesspool in the neighborhood. they go to public affairs which directs them to health and sanitation, which directs them to the engineering dept., which directs them to animal control (because there are too many mosquitos), which directs them back to public affairs, which directs them to the mayor, who directs them back to engineering. you get the point. this is bureaucracy at its finest and it’s also a sign of the modern condition, which is another theme.
in the middle part of the film shimura’s character tries to connect with a young female co-worker. he wants to feel young again and wants to have some connection. we all strive for connection in life and that’s another motif in the film. regret for not having used your time well, for not connecting with people on a more intimate level. it reminds me of the citizen kane scene where everett sloane is talking about a woman he saw on the street one day, but never spoke to. he thinks about her on an almost daily basis and wonders what could have been. ikiru is a noir in a way. the character is dead from the very beginning, there are visual motifs of confinement and near imprisonment. it also reminds me of it’s a wonderful life which is about regret and the human condition, but ultimately a hopeful film. capra, kurosawa and i are similar in our worldview, so far as a i can tell. we all feel that the world is a shithole, but we somehow hold out hope.
probably the best part of the film is after shimura dies, somewhat suddenly in the storytelling. the first half of the film has a particular pace and then, suddenly, the protagonist dies. at his wake the story of his final few months are told, not in the omniscient point of view of the first half, but through the point of view of his co-workers attending his wake. it reminds me of 12 angry men – his co-workers judging him after his death in this instance. one remembers him fondly, but the rest don’t. they say he got too much credit for the playground he helped make a reality in the spot where the group of mothers were complaining was a cesspool. they speak of him jealously, and selfishly state that they had more to do with the project, or that it was luck, or (once they discover he knew of his impending death) that they would have done the same thing if they were facing certain death. it’s some of the worst of human behavior being very truthfully committed to the screen. this is how people are; selfish, petulant, jealous, petty. after telling stories to each other of shimura’s final months, their collective knowledge of his final months leaves no other option than to conclude he did what he did for completely good reasons. it’s rashomon-esque – each co-worker telling a different anecdote from a different perspective to come to some idea of the truth. they come to the realization that his actions were inspirational and that his example should be followed for a better, more responsive government and a better life. the scene ends with them inspired, for tomorrow is a new day when they can begin to change the world.
the next scene has them back at work with yet another citizen complaining about some public nuisance. instead of taking the project by the horns as shimura would have, they quietly pass the complaint onto another department. one co-worker stands up in disgust, but is stared down by his superior whose inspiration probably wore off in his sleep. it’s about as true a statement on human nature as i’ve seen in film. we can be so incredibly inspired one night and so utterly unchanged the next morning when reality settles back in. i think back to the night obama was elected or the afternoon of 9/11 when we all felt united. where has that inspiration gone? in the end nothing changes except that which is left behind by a truly changed person who does everything he can to change the world for the better. shimura’s character may not have inspired the next generation to be better, but he left his own little thumbprint on the world in the form of a playground where there was once a cesspool, and i guess that’s all we can hope for sometimes.