Ikiru (1952): Loving and Living

ikiru takashi shimura

“This man bears a cross called cancer. He’s Christ.”

Ikiru is instantly a tale of dramatic irony as we see x-ray footage and an omniscient narrator tells us matter-of-factly the signs of cancer are already obvious. Our protagonist’s work life hits hard as he’s a public affairs section chief — dangerously close to my own title — thoroughly buried in the bureaucracy of Japan.

The great tragedy is how he’s never actually lived. He’s killing time, stamping documents with his inkan (official seal). I know it well because I sat at a desk in Japan watching others doing much the same. There were fewer teetering paper mountaintops around me, but the sentiment holds true. All his will and passion evaporated over the past 20 years. How this happened is made quite clear. We are once again privy to the dizzying circular bureaucracy that I’ve been subjected to in my own lifetime, from college campuses and also living abroad in Japan.

Even as he portrays a man of such a sorry constitution, there’s something instantly endearing about Takashi Shimura. In fact, he has been a friend of mine for quite some time. Aside from Toshiro Mifune and Setsuko Hara, he might be one of Japanese cinema’s most instantly recognizable icons. There’s a glint in his eyes of warmth that so quickly can turn to melancholy. It serves him well in Ikiru as do his distinguished features and graying hair. The dejectedness up his posture, the glumness in his being, verges on camp but it never loses its purpose.

The greatest revelation is the composition of the film itself in the hands of Akira Kurosawa and his editor Koichi Iwashita. I never recalled the editing of the picture, cutting and shifting between time periods. The delight in his son Mitsuo’s athletic prowess only for it to be crushed seconds later on the basepaths. Then, there was the boy’s appendix operation, an event he was not able to stay around for. It paints the relationship with his son, drifting through time, as the world spins around him, and Kurosawa follows the motion to find the heart of his picture.

As Watanabe sinks lower, taking an unprecedented leave from work, leaving all the underlings to surmise the reason, he meets a lowly fiction writer in a bar. The man’s occupation gives him a bit of license to wax philosophical, and he’s more forthcoming, more whimsical than we’re accustomed to coming across, especially in Japanese culture. He tries to empower the dying man to live it up.

After all,  greed is a virtue, especially greed in enjoying life, and so they take to the night scene with reckless abandon blowing Watanabe’s savings in the process. For a night he tries on the life of a profligate and a drunkard with middling results. There are light-up pinball machines, rowdy smoke-filled beer halls, and lively streets overrun by women of the night. They proceed to make their way to every conceivable bar imaginable. As the montage and music roll on and on, I couldn’t help but recall The Best Years of our Lives.

It was a celebration under very different circumstances. A soldier comes back from V-J Day ready to live it up. But much like Watanabe-san, Al (Fredric March) is looking to put off the inevitable for a bit longer. It’s a lot easier to face this heightened reality than the morning after. It’s a diversion tactic.

In one space the two merrymakers totter up the stairs as couples dance cheek to cheek. Their destination seems to be the lively piano bar jumping with tons of western-infused honky-tonk rhythm and blues. But Watanabe-san subsequently brings the mood to a standstill as the house stops to watch him sing a melody born out of the melancholy of the past — reminding us life is brief.

To this point, he feels pitiful almost laughable, laid prostrate by his very drunkenness, and gallivanting around the streets to the sidewalk symphony of honking taxi cabs and the distinct notes of “Bibbity Bobbity Boo.”

The morning after is what we expect. Not only a hangover but real-life sets in and the baggage that comes with it. He realizes his son and daughter-in-law are completely absent. Not only absent; they are indignant about his behavior. Because of course, they don’t understand. He hasn’t told them anything.

Screenshot 2020-04-03 at 65225 PM

Instead, he gravitates toward the youth of his garrulous young colleague (Miki Odagiri) bursting with untapped spunkiness. The key is how she makes up for his lack of both humor and energy. She somehow uplifts him with her very spirit — teaches him what it means to really live — what it is to have giggle fits. From the outside looking in, without his context, it looks like a sordid romance or some odd preoccupation. It’s more innocent than that.

He recounts how when he was a little kid, he was drowning in a pond; everything was going black as he writhed and thrashed around in the deep void around him. He felt the very same sensation when he found out about his illness — all alone in the world — his son as distant as his mother and father were when he was in the water. Full stop.

Ikiru and the act of living life are split into two distinct segments. Much of it is expounded upon after the inevitable happens and Watanabe-san has passed away. It’s one of the most abrupt deaths in film history. But that was never the point. Death was inevitable. What mattered is how he used the time before. How he lived it out. This tangles with the existential questions of life itself with all its subjectivities.

It sounds callous to say Kurosawa uses the motif, but what unfolds, in narrative terms, is like Rashomon meeting an abridged Citizen Kane. It’s artful and extraordinary taking the recollections of all the observers in his life to try and make sense of this man’s final hours.

The extended scene that follows almost plays out like a parable for me; it makes the dichotomy so apparent even as it expresses so much about these human beings. His fellow bureaucrats shed no tears at his wake. They have no gifts or kind words for him. And yet a host of working-class women, women who only knew him for a very few hours, anoint his burial with tears and burn incense for him.

The rich and well-to-do have no humility, no need, no appreciation because they’ve allowed themselves to be insulated — they believe they’ve brought every good thing on themselves. Revelation falls to those who are less fortunate, who have spent their whole lives impoverished and low. They can appreciate how a simple action by a simple man can be ripe with the kind of profound meaning these men sitting around idly by will never comprehend (much less believe).

It’s admittedly out of left-field, but one of the songs I was taken with last year was COIN’s infectious pop record “Cemetary.” Its most gutting line goes, ” Never made time for the family but he is the richest man in the cemetery.” The words terrify me to death, and they inform how I think about Ikiru — its purpose — the meaning of Mr. Watanabe-san’s final act of unswerving resolve.

It’s a warning and a cry, a pronunciation and a prayer for all those who are willing to pay it heed. What is life but to be lived out? There are only a finite amount of hours and days between “In the beginning” and “The end.” There’s no hitch on a hearse. All we can take away from this life is that which is given away. Ikiru must only be understood out of this profound paradox.

Because these men — these acquaintances sit on their duffs partaking of his family’s hospitality — trying as they might, to make sense of the mystery of his transformation. How could this be? What would cause a man to be so radically different even cavalier with both his time and his resources? They quibble about it incessantly as Watanabe-san’s actions making fools of the wise.

It’s really very simple. He says it himself even as he’s half doubled-over with pain, his voice on its last rasping legs, constantly being humiliated. “I can’t afford to hate people. I haven’t got that kind of time.” What if that was our mentality? When I look around me, who is my neighbor? It is anyone and everyone. Not just my friends but those ones who ridicule me — those ones who are hard to live with. What if spent less of my time criticizing and hating and more time loving and living. After all, aren’t they one and the same?

5/5 Stars

Review: High and Low (1963)

highandlow1High and Low (or Heaven and Hell in the original Japanese) is a yin and yang film about the polarity of man in many ways. Gondo (Toshiro Mifune) is an affluent executive in the National Shoe Company. He worked his way up the corporate ladder from the age 16, because of his determination and commitment to a quality product. Now his colleagues want his help in forcing the company’s czar out. They come to his modernistic hilltop abode to get his support. Instead, they receive his ire, splitting in a huff. What follows is a risky plan of action from Gondo that is both fearless and shrewd. He takes all his capital to buy stock in the company so he can take over, but his whole financial stability hangs in the balance. He knows exactly what it means, but he wasn’t suspecting certain unforeseen developments.

Then in a matter of moments, everything changes. Gondo gets a menacing phone call claiming that his young boy is kidnapped and an astronomical sum of money is expected in return. Gondo and then his wife are instantly horrified by the news only to be relieved when their boy winds up unharmed. The same’s not true for his chauffeur’s boy Shinichi. The mistake in identity is obvious, but it makes no difference to the perpetrator because he still has leverage. He wants to make Gondo sweat since this is more than an isolated incident. He wants to make the man suffer – bringing him down to the level of all the unfortunate souls who live in the wasteland down below.

highandlow2At this point, the police are called and they arrive incognito, ready to stake out the joint and do the best they can to get the boy back safe and sound. This section of the film almost in its entirety takes place within the confines of Gondo’s house and namely the front room overlooking the city. It’s the perfect set up for Akira Kurosawa to situate his actors. He uses full use of the widescreen and his fluid camera movements keep them perfectly arranged within the frame.

Although the number of bodies also increases the anxiety in the space with Gondo at the center of it all trying to figure out what to do. Moral issues begin bubbling up that no man would have to deal with and yet they end up right in his lap. His whole business empire that he’s given his heart and soul to hangs in the balance of this decision, but he must make it nonetheless. Make the difficult choice to pay the ransom and do what’s moral, or not pay it and maintain his financial stability. For once in his life, their’s a hesitancy.

It’s as if he’s getting pulled back and forth with his wife chiding him, “Success isn’t worth losing your humanity,” while his opportunistic right-hand man is chomping at the bit to get a move on. He’s not going to allow his superior to sink all their prospects at financial gain.

As things progress, we finally move from the living room to the train where Gondo prepares to make the drop, but his adversary has planned out everything and has a clean getaway. The money is gone and now the police double their efforts. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, his backers are prepared to push Gondo out, because of his inability to pay them. Public opinion soars for the selfless act, and we finally meet our protagonist’s unknown adversary.

Really this second leg of the film is mostly about the procedural aspect as they begin hitting the pavement canvassing and trying to close in on the culprit. This section intercuts the reports going on at headquarters with actual police work on the streets and it’s strangely engaging.

highandlow3Finally, with the help of Shinichi, they make a startling discovery that ties back to the kidnapper. And the boy’s drawings along with a colorful stream of smoke help them move in ever closer. What follows is an elaborate web of trails through the streets as they work to catch the culprit in his crime, to put him away for good. And it works.

highandlow5But High and Low cannot end there without a consideration of the consequences. Gondo has been brought low. He’s losing his mansion and must start a new job on the bottom of the food chain once more. His enemy requests a final meeting as he prepares for his imminent fate, and this is perhaps the most grippingly painful scene. Gondo’s face-to-face with the man who made him suffer so much. Toshiro Mifune’s violent acting style serves him well as he wrestles so intensely with his own conscience. And yet at this junction, he is past that. What is he to do but listen? In this way, it’s difficult to know who to feel sorrier for — the man who is resigned to a certain fate passively or the one who goes out proud and arrogantly against death. Both have entered some dark territory and it’s no longer about high or low or even heaven and hell. They’re stuck in some middle ground. An equally frightening purgatory.

Yes, this works as an indictment of the justice system and even the capitalistic framework of an industrialist post-war Japan, but it’s even more so an acknowledgment of man’s own morality and mortality. We are far from indestructible, unfaltering beings.

4.5/5 Stars

High and Low (1963)

Directed by Akira Kurosawa and starring Toshiro Mifune, the film opens with a wealthy shoe company executive as he tries to struggle for control of the company. He makes a big gamble, waging everything he has to try and succeed. However, things take a bad turn when he believes his son has been kidnapped and the culprit wants an enormous payoff. It turns out that the son of Mr. Gondo’s chauffeur was taken but that makes no difference to the kidnapper. Mr. Gondo finally resolves to make the payoff and then the police who have been advising him take it from there. They work diligently to gather all the evidence they can and the net slowly begins to close  The police finally find the culprit, catch him in the act, and recover most of the money. However, in a meeting with Mr. Gondo the man who is about to die wants no pity at all. Despite the relatively long length of this film, it held my interest. All I had seen of Kurosawa before this were samurai films and so this gave me a different look at his work.

4.5/5 Stars

Seven Samurai (1954)

fde86-seven_samurai_movie_posterDirected by Akira Kurosawa, this is often considered one of the greatest films of all time. The story begins in a small Japanese village that is constantly being tormented by marauders. The bandits are about to strike again but decide to return after the harvest. The village elder advises the people to find some samurai in the time they have. Although they have no money, several men go to a town to look for help. There they witness the skill of an experienced samurai. He agrees to help them and also gathers five other skilled men who have no allegiance. They are followed by a seventh, wild samurai. The rest of the film follows the difficult relations between the anxious villagers and their protectors. The samurai fortify the village and also train the farmers for combat. Three samurai make a raid on the enemy and then later the bandits attack. They are hindered by the fortifications but still wreak havoc. The following day the climatic battle takes place. After the showdown, the village is safe but only 3 of the 7 are still alive.

4.5/5 Stars

Ikiru (1953)

4b946-426px-ikiru_posterDirected by Akira Kurosawa and starring Takashi Shimura, this drama is loaded full of irony. As the film opens, right away we learn the protagonist has stomach cancer, except he has yet to find out. He has spent 30 years of his life working at a monotonous job as a bureaucrat. Only after he discovers that he barely has 6 months left does Watanabe-san actually begin to live his life again. He tries the night life of Japan and it does not satisfy. Then he starts spending time with a lively, young worker that he used to know. All the while he thinks about telling his son about his condition but he cannot bring himself to do it. However, Watanabe-san finally finds a way to leave his mark on this life. And yet 5 months later he is dead and his fellow bureaucrats seemingly dismiss his accomplishment  Through a series of flashbacks they ultimately realize what he really did. I found this film to be powerful because this idea is so powerful. It makes me question if I am really living my life to the fullest extent.

5/5 Stars

Rashomon (1950)

Directed by the famed Akira Kurosawa, the film starts off with two men eventually joined by a third. Both seem very melancholy and they explain this is because of something that happened three days earlier. Apparently a bandit met a husband and wife on the road and raped the wife with the husband being killed. However, this event is shown in four different accounts all varying greatly and we never learn what is fact and what is actually fiction. Because of this horrible event, one of the men who is a priest loses faith in mankind. The film ends just as it began with the two men alone under a pagoda watching the driving rain. However, an act of kindness quickly renews the priest’s belief. Kurasawa’s film certainly has an interesting plot device and camera work. Historically, it is also important because it introduced the world to Japanese cinema

5/5 Stars

Stray Dog (1949)

Directed by Akira Kurosawa and starring Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura, the plot revolves around a rookie cop who has his gun swiped on a trolley in Tokyo. The young man is obsessive about getting his weapon back and after reporting the missing gun, he walks the streets looking for answers. His searching leads to a gun racket and after a crime is committed the rookie partners with an old vet on the case. They eventually wind up at a baseball game and begin searching for a man named Yusa. Another crime is committed and now the pair question a reluctant show girl. The older Sato follows the trail of Yusa and meets with trouble. Finally, the girl talks and the desperate rookie searches for the mysterious Yusa. In their final showdown he rights everything and retrieves his gun. I found this film-noir very atmospheric with post-war Tokyo and heat and humidity that you can almost feel. The two main characters have a solid chemistry because only together can they catch the Stray Dog.

4/5 Stars