As promised to you and myself in myÂ last post, I have returned on the other side of my first complete viewing of Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru–my first Kurosawa film ever! My Flixist friends, Alex and Toby, said that Ikiru was a great place to start, and it truly is. The themes are heady and the delivery, dramatic, but now having seen the second act of Ikiru, I know that Kurosawa is a master of the bittersweet bisect, magnificently captured in the retrospective style of the latter half of the film. My thoughts after the break! There be spoilers, but you can’t really spoil a movie whose art is more in the film’s execution of the narrative, than the narrative itself.
As promised to you and myself in my last post, I have returned on the other side of my first complete viewing of Akira Kurosawa's Ikiru–my first Kurosawa film ever! My Flixist friends, Alex and Toby, said that Ikiru was a great place to start, and it truly is. The themes are heady and the delivery, dramatic, but now having seen the second act of Ikiru, I know that Kurosawa is a master of the bittersweet bisect, magnificently captured in the retrospective style of the latter half of the film. My thoughts after the break! There be spoilers, but you can't really spoil a movie whose art is more in the film's execution of the narrative, than the narrative itself.
When the second act begins, Kanji Watanabe has passed away and his co-workers and family are gathered in mourning. We learn that Watanabe relentlessly pursued a project to build a park in his last few months of life (an influence on NBC's Parks and Recreation if there ever was one), but no one seems to know that he was sick, or what motivated him to act with such dedication. Already, it's clear that Watanabe will emerge a martyr figure, though, the funeral attendees are at first more concerned with self-worship than reflecting on the deceased. The first act's commentary on the state of bureaucracy reaches fruition in these moments, as several department heads debate who really deserves credit for the park, since a lowly Public Affairs clerk like Watanabe could never achieve the feat on his own. The hypocrisy of the department heads' back-patting, which goes on uncomfortably long for the sympathetic viewer, is finally silenced when several woman arrive at the memorial, representing the public at large, and weep at Watanabe's shrine, clearly the man they credit with giving them the park.
Kurosawa juxtaposes the love of the public, strangers, for Watanabe with the dry eyes of his family and friends–the people who supposedly knew him–to emphasize the many ironies of the civic service. The Deputy Mayor, despite being elected by the people, and those around him being employed by the people, states that the public just doesn't understand how bureaucracy works. He and the other department heads hold themselves in high esteem even though they achieve nothing for the people they are meant to work for. Furthermore, the Public Affairs department, the most direct line between the civic institution and the people, occupies the lowest rung on the bureaucratic ladder. Sounds a$$ backwards, if you ask me. Any effort to transcend that low position is considered an act of subordination, if not insanity.
Shamed by the women's display of grief, the Deputy Mayor and his lackeys leave the memorial, and honest retrospection begins. It is known that Watanbe-san died in the winter-frozen park he lobbied to have built, but assumed that the old man did not know he had cancer. The revelation that he must have known, that Watanabe's impending death led him to act selflessly, for good, is visibly disconcerting to both his friends and family, especially his son, Mitsuo. We now see the painful repercussions of Mitsuo's irritation with and ignorance of Watanabe's tortured state from the first act. Mitsuo's replenished grief is truly heartbreaking for the same reason I found Watanabe's contest with time so affecting: it is the knowledge of all the opportunities passed, the availability of truth when it wasn't looked for, that one mourns the most.
Watanabe's active end also bears heavily on the minds of the attendant civil servants who continue to do nothing for the public, despite being alive and able. The penultimate scene of the film provides the bitter conclusion that (no) work goes on as usual at the Public Affairs office despite Watanabe's legacy, while the concluding scene brings a sweet end to the viewer who witnesses a flashback of Watanabe in his final, peaceful moments on a park swing. Even with the knowledge that his actions did little to change bureaucracy going forward, we can rest assured that Watanabe found his own meaning and lived once more through the construction of his beloved park. He gave the people a site of activity and vitality, a place entirely different from what we have seen at City Hall, Kurosawa's last point of contrast between the public world and the public service.
In conclusion, I knew as soon as I entered the second act of the film, that Ikiru is a beautiful work of non-linear story-telling. The first act is deliberately future-forward and has an air of impending doom; but we rejoice in the second act, despite Watanabe's death, because it shows us that he ended well, having served a purpose. For me, the scenes where the correct responses to Watanabe's death are illustrated by strangers–the weeping women, and the police officer–are probably the most affective for realizing the overall message of the film and signifying Watanabe's redemption. The memorial service causes some frustration in viewers, who followed Watanabe through his earlier suffering, but also reinforces their own sympathies for the man, since their sensibilities can not help but be offended by the ignorance of Watanabe's acquaintances. It is true for me, since I found that I didn't empathize as much with the meek Watanabe from the first half of the film, but was filled with emotion when my assumptions were correct, that Watanabe would break free of that meekness only by being active in his civil service.
As a sidenote, I watched The Fountainhead (1949) last night, an adaptation of Ayn Rand's 700 page defense of creative independence. The architect Howard Roark (Gary Cooper) represents the idea that you should love and live your work, the same conclusion Watanabe belatedly comes to. He's also a Randian hero and raging individualist, in other words, not the giving type. Altruism and government are demonized in The Fountainhead, in fact, though it shares Kurosawa's resentment for hypocrisy. Watanabe is criticized for being an individual in a conformist organization, but alone embodies the true principal of community service that the institution fails to give.
That's it for my take on Akira Kurosawa's Ikiru. 1/30.