The Year of Akira Kurosawa: update

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Last week on Get Your Flix, our emergent podcast, I suggested that some of us cinephiles make New Year’s resolutions to help us round out our movie to-do lists. Maybe you love cinema but haven’t seen as many classic American films as you’d like, or you always heard about that Fellini guy but haven’t got around to seeing his work; maybe you have a Netflix queue as long as there are days in a year. Whatever they may be, we all have big goals when it comes to consuming all that the film world has to offer, but making a small resolution in 2011 could help you realize part of that goal by giving it limitations and focus.Â

That is my intention, at least, in declaring this year to be The Year of Akira Kurosawa, whose work I have shamefully never seen. Beating out my desire to take in either all of Katherine Hepburn’s or Ingmar Bergman’s filmographies, Kurosawa will fill my spare moments and thoughts until I have watched as many of his films as I can get my hands on, which amounts to a possible 30 titles. To get this party started, I picked up the…

Last week on Get Your Flix, our emergent podcast, I suggested that some of us cinephiles make New Year's resolutions to help us round out our movie to-do lists. Maybe you love cinema but haven't seen as many classic American films as you'd like, or you always heard about that Fellini guy but haven't got around to seeing his work; maybe you have a Netflix queue as long as there are days in a year. Whatever they may be, we all have big goals when it comes to consuming all that the film world has to offer, but making a small resolution in 2011 could help you realize part of that goal by giving it limitations and focus. 

That is my intention, at least, in declaring this year to be The Year of Akira Kurosawa, whose work I have shamefully never seen. Beating out my desire to take in either all of Katherine Hepburn's or Ingmar Bergman's filmographies, Kurosawa will fill my spare moments and thoughts until I have watched as many of his films as I can get my hands on, which amounts to a possible 30 titles. To get this party started, I picked up the Criterion edition of Kurosawa's Ikiru. The 1952 film is an interesting place to start, since it apparently was overlooked by North American audiences in its day for bearing so little resemblance to Kurosawa's samurai dramas. However, the modern setting and style of the film is perfectly suited to the existential reality Ikiru's protagonist faces.

When long-time bureaucrat Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura) learns that he is dying from terminal cancer, it is only then that he decides to live, which is, as Kurosawa fans probably know, the English translation of the film's title. At this point in time, I have only watched Act 1 of Ikiru, which was still enough to fill me with the sort of questions only a film this focused on the subjects of life and death can inspire. The film has a natural break in the narrative events that allowed me to leave the story without sacrificing flow or context, so hopefully you can forgive me that. I will return with a complete reflection on the film and Kurosawa once I've viewed the second act, but for now, you can check out my initial impressions after the break.

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Just minutes before I popped the DVD into my player, I watched a segment of a satirical Canadian news program that criticized our government for being ineffective, and largely, absent. I thought, "They are just professional time-wasters, aren't they?" which, yes, they are. Bureaucracy gets a bad rap for being bloated, self-satisfied, and often useless, which is just the picture Kurosawa paints of the civil service in Ikiru. Poignant probably goes without saying when it comes to Kurosawa, but the scenes of banal, bureaucratic impotence truly capture the criminal nature of the status quo. It is not until Kanji realizes that he is dying (a fear humourously amplified by a blunt companion) that he knows that his life has been hitherto spent uselessly and without joy.

Time is a force that we as mortals endure only as long as we're living. Relatively speaking, time is primarily a human affliction, for it has never mattered more to an animal than it does to us sentient beings. Still, however aware we are of our limited time on earth, we yet doddle and delay in our lives, as Kanji discovers, until it is too late. This conscious agony is beautifully represented in the scene where Kanji, struck with the realization that time is against him, casts his alarm clock to the ground. What was once a simple instrument used to wake him for the day, is now a loathsome device that sounds his demise with every rotation of the minute and hour hands. Moments like these, I found, pained me more than Kanji's interaction with his emotionally-estranged son because the hard truth was always available to Kanji, as it is to everyone, but we fail to acknowledge it. 

Even as Kanji approaches an understanding of his life, he still chooses wrongly in his relationship with the young woman, Toyo (Miki Odagiri). Toyo appeals to Kanji because of her youth and vitality, something the dying man man had lost long before he was diagnosed with a terminal illness. The intensity and pathos of the scene where Kanji begs Toyo to share her vibrancy with him is overwhelming. Most will understand Toyo's bewildered reaction to Kanji's obsessive attention, but will still have empathy for the man, who experiences no relief from this relationship. Indeed, the triumph of the first act of Ikiru, is Kanji's return back to the site of his former failures, the Public Affairs office to which he gave all of his precious time. Even in the presence of Toyo's light, Kanji's head hung low; the lesson is that, in these last moments of life, Kanji cannot achieve happiness vicariously, but needs to act himself, thus breaking the cycle of dulldrum his life had so far represented. How beautiful to see a smile break on the old man's face as he looks up from his work, knowing he has found the answer where it always was, even if he couldn't see it.

To be continued…