Many call this tale of an aging bureaucrat who takes one last stab at living a masterpiece, a startling affirmation of life through death, and they may be right, but hyperbole does nothing justice. A plot synopsis of this reveals nothing, sounds very banal and does the film and prospective viewers a disservice. Kurosawa layers his story and its ready emotions in interesting, and sometimes powerful ways. And the printed word is simply insufficient for much of the film’s power derives from the technique of cinema: camera placement, montage and cut-length, scene transition, pictorial and musical irony, etc. By 1952 Kurosawa’s technical arsenal was immense and he employs just about every method imaginable in order to realize this picture. In particular he insists upon the reality, the presence of the main character through a variety of methods. Like High and Low and others Ikiru is divided in two: the first half concerned with reality, with Kenji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura) moving from vice to vice in search of meaning, in search of life itself; the second half taking place entirely within the room for his wake—he is dead and now we hear of his final months through others (his co-workers), along with their jealous delusions and conjecture, cut together with flashbacks of what actually took place.
There is a great film in the first half trying to get out. It’s mostly there, in fact technically everything is superb. So much craft on display every moment. The problems are narrative. The voice-over narration is absolutely redundant, describing things to us that have already been shown or shortly will be, or that could be gleaned visually. Then Kurosawa’s attempt at visual signals of Watanabe’s thought processes means he opts for a few too many pained, starry-eyed closeups of Shimura, as if this is enough to get the point across. In the dance-hall scene and elsewhere this would be the director’s first experiment with lighting the eyes—something utilized many times over in later work—to indicate an emotional change in character. The problem is there is too much of it and it doesn’t make up for a lack of development elsewhere. The first stab at identification is the scene where Watanabe leaves the hospital having just learned of his affliction, his head down, his body moving silently along the sidewalk. Suddenly a truck blares its horn and nearly runs him over. The scene roars to life as we, along with Watanabe, realize that all was silent despite the bustle of traffic and the ear-splitting sounds from a construction site. It is one of the more successful devices used to have us view things from his perspective.
This has probably the most extensive use of close-ups this side of The Passion of Joan of Arc, but unlike Maria Falconetti, Shimura doesn’t emote, looking less spiritually stirred than surprised. Shimura also adopts a raspy falsetto and a stammer and generally comes off as a child in an old man’s body, pitiful rather than pitiable. Interesting to note that Kurosawa essentially blamed Shimura in interviews, saying Shimura’s vision of the role was not his own. You’d think the director would be able to assert his own vision then, or at least pare down the portrayal in the editing room. Either way, this is not proper character development. All of this gets old very fast.
Fortunately then there are some very brilliant scenes. Watanabe’s brief flashback holding his son in a car that is taking them away from the wake of his mother, of his son later playing baseball, contracting illness and going off to war is very moving. This is folded into a still more brilliant scene showing Watanabe’s return from the hospital, where he comes to realize that his family and his work are equally devoid of meaning as he is unable to express himself to his son and daughter-in-law who are only concerned about the state of their inheritance. He prepares to sleep but ends up weeping under a blanket as the camera pans up to reveal the unadorned plaque he received for decades of service. The night scenes where Watanabe descends to the underworld under the guidance of a deadbeat poet who calls himself Mephistopheles are well cut together. The apogee of this interlude is a scene in which our inebriated protagonist sings his soul out to a song he requests to be played, one he recalls from youth, called Gondola no Uta:
[pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Life is so short
Fall in love, dear maiden,
While your lips are still red,
And before you are cold,
For there will be no tomorrow.
Life is so short,
Fall in love, dear maiden,
While your hair is still black,
And before your heart withers,
For today will not come again.[/pullquote]
Shimura sings this tune in a deep, otherworldly voice, tears streaming from his eyes, silence falling upon all. This is one of the most cinematic sequences in the film and perhaps one of the most affecting. But Kurosawa’s treatment here and elsewhere can be so direct and mawkish that our “hero” almost becomes unsympathetic, a tall order for a character with a terminal illness. There is some nice ambiguity because the dance-hall patrons like we the audience don’t know whether to be disgusted at the banality of it all or to be moved by it. The girls have looks on their faces that seem to say, “who is this old fart trying to kill the mood?”.
One of Watanabe’s subordinates, a young girl named Toyo (Miki Odagiri, who totally outclasses Shimura here) tracks him down because she wants to resign and she needs the approval of his rubber stamp, his instrument of choice. Watanabe seems to find a brief happiness with this young girl whom he asks to spend the day with, though he has to buy her affection. This indicates that, like his midnight escapes, his relationship with her too is an empty pleasure. She eventually has enough of his sullen demeanor and tells him in a restaurant that he gives her the creeps. If there’s a bit of self-reflexivity here this line makes Kurosawa’s devotion to Shimura’s puppy-dog antics seem intentionally over-the-top. There are some good narrative ideas in the first half, unfortunately squandered under the crushing weight of Shimura’s portrayal and Kurosawa’s tendency to take the easy way out in developing it.
Thanks to a consistently strong second half, what we have is a far more intelligent film than is generally given credit. The second half repeats, deletes and reconfigures everything witnessed in the first half when Watanabe was still breathing. The overused and over-emoted close-ups that dominate the first half are repeated on Watanabe’s effigy as his coworkers try to unravel the mystery of his death. Watanabe’s repugnant, stilted, stammering speech—phrases that so often go nowhere, such as “what I mean to say is…” or “in other words…”—is repeated by his coworkers at the wake as they try to express how they feel about the man or how his extraordinary behavior uplifted them. Watanabe’s realization of death-in-life is imitated in the gradual hold that drink takes of his coworkers. Sake is a clarifier; it strips men of their social inhibitions and brings them closer to both being and non-being, exactly where Watanabe was and is. Then there is the policeman’s sharing of Watanabe’s song heard in the first half; before, it was doleful and now almost optimistic. The irony of his travails comes full circle during the wake as the bureaucrats argue about how much Watanabe accomplished, who or what was actually responsible for the park’s construction, whether or not he had knowledge of his illness, etc.
The moral Kurosawa seems to be suggesting in the second half that life is truly meaningless, save for the meaning we choose to apply to it ourselves. The question of whether Watanabe’s mission boils down to a vanity project or not, a question the audience must surely be asking themselves, is duly answered in flashback if you pay close attention. Watanabe had known nothing of life, and once he recognizes that he had indeed been a walking corpse for 30 years he resolves to impose his own meaning. What is said of him, what is remembered is beside the point. Life alone is enough for it is all we really have. We are born naked and alone and so we will die. It is ironic that Watanabe should be more alive after death than before. His future lay in the playground he built, and in the generations of children who will enjoy it.
The coda finds an unexpected and elegant affirmation of life and art. The bureaucrats have an alcohol-fueled epiphany at Watanabe’s wake, affirming to emulate his works and to never forget this night that so shook them of their wonted attitudes. Of course they go right back to doing what they did before, and the new section chief who seemed so moved has assumed Watanabe’s office with the same dereliction and non-feeling. This is exactly what all of us do. We witness something moving, say a transcendent work of art or the birth of a child, momentarily feel the weight of the heavens and then we forget about it and carry on with breathing, eating and sleeping. This is expected. The bureaucrats can be thought of as a single organism, any one of us. They sometimes have pangs of conscience, but mostly push things down into manifold chasms of subconscious. One of these men rebels, he is appalled at his coworker’s lack of sincerity. This man is us too. Sometimes, we remember those things that stirred us, sometimes we feel called to action, sometimes we are appalled and, when this happens, we find that symbol that so moved us before and, for this man, it’s the park that Watanabe has become. And the sunset. And children playing. Kurosawa puts an exclamation point on it with Watanabe’s song in orchestra over the waning moments. It can take something like a song to remind us of that feeling of death-in-life; indeed, Ikiru swims in the mirror between the two.
Overall, this is a great work. And a huge maturation in narrative quality for Kurosawa. It is only obvious after the hiccups of the first half, but if you look back you’ll see that narrative ideas permeate the entire running time. The second half works only because of the first, not in spite of it. I think Shimura can be forgiven for this film and his hunchbacked portrayal really does grow on you if you let it. I’m not fond of his work in Drunken Angel either. I think his best was yet to come with Seven Samurai, an understated performance that totally meshes with the role as it was conceived. It’s a bit of a mystery why Mifune was not cast in this film because he wasn’t really working with other directors at the time. His fire would have been welcome, perhaps in the role of Watanabe’s son, and for once it would have been a good thing that Mifune upended his costar who is playing a character who is supposed to be an invisible, unappreciated force anyway.