Friday, September 25, 2009

#459: Ikiru (1952)

Director: Akira Kurosawa
Cast: Takashi Shimura, Miki Odagiri...

Kanji Watanabe is in a waiting room when another patient tells him what symptoms characterize stomach cancer, and what the doctor always says to cover up this fact: "it's a mild ulcer" and "eat whatever you like as long as it's digested easily". Watanabe is ashen-faced as he listens, hearing his very own symptoms listed. When the doctors tell him it's a mild ulcer, Watanabe knows he only has a year left to live.

His work at Tokyo's town hall consists of stamping files without looking at them to prove that they've been examined. Nothing is ever done, and nobody seems to want to change this. Watanabe has worked there for thirty years, and only now realizes that though he is going to die, he's been dead his whole life. He encounters a fellow employee, Toyo, who hates working at the office, which doesn't match her vibrant personality. Watanabe is inspired by her energy, though he can't seem to find any for himself. When Toyo explains that she keeps her energy by doing something that she loves and helps others in doing so, Watanabe is determined to make changes at the office.

The second act of the film takes place at Watanabe's wake. The employees are pondering Watanabe's change in personality in the last few months of his life, unsure what caused such an abrupt turn of character. Through flashbacks, we see Watanabe's trials to make a change in the office, and the impact it made on his co-workers as well as the residents of Tokyo.

This is an incredible film. It's the first on the list that received 100% on RottenTomatoes, and there's no doubt why. The film is like a combination between Citizen Kane, Atlas Shrugged and It's a Wonderful Life. Although it's apparent how far behind Japan was from Hollywood at the time as far as the quality of the image goes, this really deserves to be better known.

One of the things that is just mind-boggling about the film is its place in a historical perspective. This was made just seven years after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and in those few short years the country made huge strides towards the empowerment of the individual. Ikiru's story must have simply melted hearts - even more so than it does today.

The great thing about the acting is how ordinary Watanabe is. He could be just about anyone, and that's what makes this film so strong. Watanabe is in no way extraordinary aside from his extreme desire to be useful to the community. Any one of us could be that, and in doing so, we have the potential to inspire others. However, this takes a surprisingly realistic twist. A description of the final scenes, starting at Watanabe's wake, from the fantastic analysis by blogger "Mystery Man on Film":

The mourners know the events immediately leading up to his death but not his inner mind. Kurosawa depicts drunken mourners disparaging the bureaucratic system, usurping credit for the playground from Watanabe, and finally claiming superficially, “I’ll work at it like I’m a man reborn…sacrifice the self to serve the many.” However, the next scene presents a mirror image of the opening scene: the chief officer, sitting in Watanabe’s place, passes off a potential project to the Engineering Department. One man stands up in silent protest, only to be submerged behind stacks of paper. Such an explicit failure to internalize and act on Watanabe’s lesson provides the strongest incentive to viewers to avoid such similar fate.

I'm extremely excited to watch more of Kurosawa's films, which allegedly are all just as brilliant. Two huge-ass thumbs up.

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