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film, music, text, city, spectacle, pleasure

Life in the Dark: Kurosawa’s “Ikiru”

Ikiru (Akiro Kurosawa, 1952) at Pacific Film Archive, Berkeley – June 20 at 7:15pm

It’s odd what you remember about movies.  I recalled the events of Kurosawa’s Ikiru quiet well, since last seeing it 10 or 15 years ago, but I hadn’t remembered the carefully disjointed way in which those events unfold.  Which is central to the movie’s power and appeal. And I had completely forgotten the voice over—a strange aspect of the movie and clearly important to its storytelling, but about which I am going to have to think a bit and get back to you. (I’d also forgotten the clearly gay colleague who sticks up for the protagonist at the funeral/wake, but that’s a minor matter.)

The movie opens with an x-ray image, which we are told by that voice over is of the protagonist, who has stomach cancer but doesn’t yet know it.

No, that’s not strictly true. Strictly speaking, the movie begins with the credits—with the Toho Company logo, and then the credits proper, the names of cast and crew (in Japanese) over a plain background. With a not so plain musical accompaniment by Hayasaka Fumio, who worked on a number of Kurosawa’s fims. Indeed, the score here suggests to me that we’re in for a samurai movie, or perhaps even Godzilla (released by Toho two years after Ikiru), rather than a modern character study, gentle, humorous at times, sad at times, bittersweet and nuanced, with just an edge of social commentary.

Was that deliberate? These days people pretty much know exactly what they are going to get when they go to a movie. Indeed, in the previews they may have already seen every action set piece and heard every joke worthy of the name. But that wasn’t always the case, and perhaps the score over the credits here is a sly and funny bit of misdirection, setting up the audience for a very different kind of movie than they are actually going to get. And that would certainly fit with a lot of what goes on in the movie proper, once the credits finish.

Once the credits end, the movie begins somewhat in media res (with the x-ray), then jumps back to the beginning, after which there are a number of flashbacks that are crucial to our understanding of the protagonist. Then, near the middle (in terms of running time), it skips to the end (in terms of plot/events) and tells the latter half of the story in flashbacks and reminiscences. I don’t want to be mistaken as making some sort of claim for the movie as engaged in some postmodern project, a story about telling stories, self-reflexive, but Kurosawa is always powerfully intelligent about and aware of telling stories, and tells his stories with great care—and seldom more so than in Ikiru. He doesn’t play with the narrative structure to be cute or to show off, nor out of some postmodern set of engagements, but because this is the best way to tell the story that he wants to tell. Not just to convey what happened, the brute facticity of events—which is generally most easily served by a straightforward linear narrative—but to convey what these events mean, how it felt.

So the first thing we get is that clinical diagnosis of the x-ray image, and the voice over telling us about the protagonist, and also telling us, obliquely, something about how we are to interpret and experience what is to come.

Then we meet the owner of the stomach in that x-ray, Watanabe san, Section Chief in the city Public Affairs office.  I’m not sure we are ever told Watanabe san’s first name, or what city the film is set in (presumably Tokyo), though those details might be readily apparent to a Japanese viewer. But they aren’t really important. We’ll always be at a slight distance from Watanabe san even as we are deeply drawn into his emotional life—the x-ray and that voice over helped set it up that way—so the formality of the name is not out of place. Similarly, the anonymity of the town adds to the “everyman” nature of the social critique.

The concern with how stories are told, and experienced, and how they shape our perception continues throughout the movie.

Perhaps the first obvious instance is the joke which the young female worker in the office is made to read aloud. It’s about a city functionary who has never taken a vacation—not because he’s worried the office couldn’t function without him, quite the opposite. He’s worried that if he ever goes on vacation, the office will realize that they don’t need him at all, that he really does nothing. The other office workers clearly don’t find this joke in the least funny. And we will come to see this joke as really a story about what goes on not only in the Public Affairs section, but throughout City Hall, and also specifically about Watanabe’s career, and the waste his life has been, sitting at that desk stacked high with paperwork he mindlessly stamps all day. That joke is in some respects the story of his life, in fact, or at least of what his life had become after the death of his wife, until that x-ray and its diagnosis of stomach cancer began a new chapter.

The next story we get is of that diagnosis. It’s told in the waiting room at the medical clinic, by one of the other patients, who explains to Watanabe that the doctors routinely give false diagnoses of ulcers to people with terminal stomach cancer, presumably as a kindness. This other patient then goes on to regale Watanabe with a description of the symptoms of stomach cancer, but breaks off when he catches a glimpse of Watanabe’s ashen, terrified face.  This other patient’s account of the false diagnoses ends up matching, almost word for word, Watanabe’s encounter with the real doctors when he is finally ushered in to the examination room, confirming what the discussion of symptoms had hinted at: that Watanabe does indeed have stomach cancer, regardless of the doctor’s reassurances, and has only a few months or a year to live.

Struggling with this death sentence, Watanabe goes on a bender, in the course of which he encounters a novelist working in a bar late one evening. The novelist agrees to be his Mephistopheles and takes him out for a debauched evening of drinking and dancing, hot jazz and loose women, that although it has moments of pleasure and release leaves him even more wretched than before. Then he meets that young woman from his office and this marks the beginning of the shift in how he views himself.

Somewhere around the midpoint of the film (in running time), Watanabe dies, off-screen. The movie skips from the beginning of his campaign to transform a fetid vacant lot into a park, all the way to his wake, after the park the has been completed.

The story of his struggle with the city bureaucracy—of which he himself has been a part—to get the park built is told through flashbacks as his colleagues reminisce at his wake.

It’s a brilliant device. The flashbacks are roughly in order, chronologically, so that the sequence of events is not too scrambled, though the mourners themselves become increasingly scrambled on sake during the course of recounting these flashbacks. Through their reminiscences not only do we witness Watanabe’s efforts to build the park, to do something with his life as it draws to a premature end, but we also see his colleagues come to an understanding of what he was doing and why. This understanding is not without its pain. While his colleagues are increasingly moved as they discuss Watanabe’s dedication, his son is deeply wounded by the realization that his father had known he was dying of cancer but chose to keep it a secret from his family.

Kurosawa is not just a master storyteller. He is crucially a master teller of stories in film—and just as the structure of the film, with its flashbacks and so on, is crucial to conveying his meaning, so too are the visuals.

Has there ever been a Kurosawa movie as small and close and tight as this? While at the same time so large and deep? The movie doesn’t feel pinched or claustrophobic, really, but it is composed so much of very tight shots of faces filling the screen—focused with an at times alarming intensity on Watanabe, his face regularly dominating the screen alone, or in incredibly tight two shots with one or another of the other key characters, particularly the author in what may be the most over-wrought section of the film.

For me, the key moment in the film and one of the most beautiful shots in all of Kurosawa’s work (and that is really saying something) occurs near the end, in one of the flashbacks during the wake. Watanabe collapses while visiting the construction site where the park is taking shape. The local women help him up and over to a platform at the edge of the site. As he sits there, recovering, one of the women brings him a ladle of water. He takes it in his hands, bends his face down to it and drinks. Sunlight bounces off the surface of the water in the ladle and dances across his face, which fills the screen. He lowers the ladle and raises his face, which is now seen in bright sunlight, for what feels like the first time in the film, The colourlessness, ash, mummification and shadows gone. And he is at peace, content—happy.

The cover of the Criterion Collection edition of Ikiru shows Watanabe on a swing in the finished park. It is an arresting image, and the scene in the movie from which it is drawn, where we see him singing his sad love song while swinging on that swing in the snow, is clearly meant to be a high point, perhaps the high point of the film.

But for sheer beauty, and a sense of the epiphanic moment, I will take that earlier shot, of the sun dancing off the water, and of Watanabe looking up into the light.

For more…

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zerode by nick chapman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

Oh - and hello to Jason Isaacs.

The 400 Blows


is an over-caffeinated and under-employed grad school dropout, aspiring leftwing intellectual and cultural studies academic, cinéaste, and former poet. Raised in San Francisco on classic film, radical politics, burritos and soul music, then set loose upon the world. He spends his time in coffee shops with his laptop and headphones, caffeinating and trying to construct a post-whatever life.


What's in a name... The handle "zerode" is a contraction of Zéro de Conduite, the title of Jean Vigo's 1933 movie masterpiece about schoolboy rebellion.

tweeting my mind



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