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Posts Tagged ‘Miki Odagiri’

There is a class of film which is well-known and highly acclaimed, but not necessarily especially widely watched. The result of this is that it’s possible to become more-or-less familiar with the story and themes of the film, along with any other points of particular distinction about it, without having actually seen more than a handful of frames of it. One runs the risk of being spoiled, of course, but also completely wrong-footed when the realisation of the film turns out to be much subtler and more surprising than the study notes cut-down version has implied. I certainly found this to be the case with Kurosawa’s Ikiru (E-title: Living, or To Live), which is usually described as the story of a terminally-ill civil servant’s battle to construct a children’s playground. Saying ‘it’s actually nothing of the sort’ is probably overstating things, but there is a lot more going on here.

ikiru

The protagonist is Watanabe (Takashi Shimura), a middle-ranking bureaucrat at the public works department in Tokyo. A dispassionate voiceover informs us that Watanabe is already dying of stomach cancer, but it is also scathing in assessing him as a man: he is not alive, he simply persists – he has done nothing, felt nothing, for the last thirty years. To his subordinates he is a grey nonentity, while to his son and daughter-in-law he is simply a source of an inheritance-to-come.

Then Watanabe discovers his disease – in a slightly startling scene, the doctors fob him off with claims that it’s just a small ulcer, despite the fact they know full well it’s terminal cancer (the reasons for this are never made entirely clear), but Watanabe works it out for himself – and, inevitably, everything changes. He reassesses his life, remembers his dead wife, realises the degree to which he does not connect with his son or daughter-in-law, and contemplates how to spend the short time remaining to him.

At this point, being aware of the plot synopsis for Ikiru, one of course expects the playground-building plotline to kick in – it is foreshadowed from the start of the film, when a group of housewives from the neighbourhood turn up at Watanabe’s office trying to launch the project – but it doesn’t. Instead, Watanabe, quite naturally, abandons his usual sobriety and embarks on a whistle-stop tour of the fleshpots of Tokyo with a novelist he has befriended, hoping to find some sort of hedonistic solace. And when that doesn’t work he finds himself drawn to Toyo, a vivacious young woman who used to work in his office (played by Miki Odagiri), simply for her sheer love of life. Their relationship is noted and misinterpreted by his family, amongst others.

Toyo’s new job is as a toymaker and she suggests that it’s from this she derives her sense of fulfilment and engagement with the world. It strikes Watanabe that perhaps he can achieve something similar, by using his remaining time to create something positive – and it’s only now, past the half-way point of the film, that he embarks on the playground-building mission.

And then the film abruptly jumps forward in time and the narrator announces that Watanabe died five months later. The final act of the film is Watanabe’s wake, a long, complex, and to be honest rather stagey scene in which various characters from his life gather in remembrance of him and try to come to some understanding of the odd behaviour which characterised his final months. As they recall him and his somewhat quixotic quest, we see flashbacks of Watanabe (there are distinct shades of Rashomon about this, not surprisingly as it was Kurosawa’s immediately previous film), but these scenes are disjointed and there’s no real sense of a narrative. But then this is as it should be, as it’s clear none of the mourners really understand the man they have gathered to remember.

So most of the actual playground-building quest happens off-screen. What, then, is Ikiru actually concerned with? It seems to me that there are a number of things going on here – not least of them being Kurosawa’s intention to put something of then-contemporary Japan on screen. To this day, it’s probably the case that it’s Kurosawa’s samurai movies which are best-known and best-loved (and rightly so: they’re wonderful), with his present-day movies more obscure. Of these, Ikiru is almost certainly the best-known, and it does feel like it’s showing something of the birth of modern Japan, with a deeply traditional society beginning to be obscured under layers of American-influenced culture. Kurosawa identifies a sense of urban alienation – a lack of empathy and communication between the generations – which also features in similar films from this period like Ozu’s Tokyo Story.

But then again it is also a personal story, built around the question of what makes life worth living. Asking the question is of course Watanabe, played by Takashi Shimura, perhaps Kurosawa’s most brilliantly versatile collaborator. Arrestingly sagacious and invincibly capable as the leader in Seven Samurai, here he is equally persuasive as a man undergoing a profound existential crisis, teetering on the edge of ultimate despair. Shimura wrings every ounce of pathos from Watanabe’s plight without ever becoming too sentimental. Watanabe has allowed himself to be obliterated by his job, in the belief it was the best thing for his son – but his son has grown to be selfish and materialistic. Was it worth it? Either way, the first two thirds of Ikiru are about Watanabe’s attempts to realise himself as a person again.

The third act, though, raises different, but equally profound questions. The playground has been built, true, but swarms of bureaucrats and minor politicians are jockeying to take the credit for it: Watanabe seems to have been written out of the official history, and it’s clear that his colleagues have only the faintest glimmer of understanding as to what actually motivated him (much time is spent pondering whether or not he even knew he was ill). But to suggest that Kurosawa is saying that Watanabe devoted his last days to a folly seems to me to be mistaken. Watanabe’s colleagues’ declaration that they will honour his memory by following his example may come to nothing, but the people using the playground still hold him in high regard, the playground itself still exists, and Watanabe himself appears to have died in contentment. Perhaps here we can see Kurosawa’s prizing of the individual above wider society most clearly: a very un-Japanese sentiment, but this may explain his popularity in other countries.

There’s clearly a lot of depth to Ikiru, with many big universal themes touched upon. It’s certainly not Kurosawa’s most accessible film – the oddness of the structure sees to that – and it may not have the energy and pace of most of his period films from around this period of time. But it is a deeply thoughtful and quite moving piece of work, and quite probably Takashi Shimura’s best showcase.

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