His name is Kanji Watanabe, a longtime bureaucrat, a widower and a father of a married son. Watanabe has gastric cancer. In six months, he’ll be dead.
The cause of Watanabe’s sheer agony is not death per se. The fact of the matter is, Watanabe hasn’t accomplished anything of true significance in his life. “In fact, he s barely alive, the narrator says.
In almost two hours and a half, legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa chronicles Watanabe’s tumultuous journey to realize one last good deed in 1952’s “Ikiru, his most moving, heartbreaking and inspiring film in his long, highly prolific career.
“Ikiru is screened next week at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina as part of a film week dedicated to Kurosawa. The eclectic program is comprised of Kurosawa’s most famous works such as “Seven Samurai, “The Hidden Fortress (better known as the film that inspired “Star Wars ) and “Rashomon.
Kurosawa garnered both critical acclaim and box-office success with his Samurai pictures like “Seven Samurai, “Yojimbo and “Ran. His works varied in themes, visual structure and tones.
What characterizes this particular selection is the sense of congenital hope inbred in all chosen films. Even “Rashomon – the story of a rape incident told from four different perspectives – with its dismissive stance against the concept of truth, ends with a hopeful note.
In search of life
“Ikiru – translated to “To Live – have always stood out in Kurosawa’s oeuvre. It’s one of these rare films that can actually propel you to examine your life, take a different life-course or at least impels you to seek the kind of fulfillment Watanabe eventually discovers.
“Ikiru opens with an x-ray of Watanabe’s chest. Watanabe is still unaware of his condition, entrenched in the meaningless, monotonous routine and paperwork that have swallowed him for the past 30 years of his life.
He goes to the clinic, encounters a patient who accurately describes the symptoms of his pain. He tells him the physicians will refrain from telling him the truth; that he has nearly six more months to live.
Crushed and withered, he goes home, overhears his ungrateful son, ignorant of his illness, contemplating with his wife the fortune he will inherit when his father passes on, and cries himself to sleep.
The next day, he hits the streets of Tokyo. He randomly searches for anything that could ease his pain. He meets a second-rate writer who regards him as a great tragic literary figure. Watanabe tells him he has lots of money to spend, that he wants “to have a good time but doesn’t know how.
The writer takes Watanabe to gambling parlors, strip clubs and dance halls, indulging him in the kind of utterly futile and vacant after-hour existence most of us continue to drown ourselves in.
In one of the several poignant, emotional scenes of the film, Watanabe asks the piano player to play a melancholic 20s’ song called “Life is Brief. As the player begins to play, Watanabe, with eyes dripping with tears, starts to recite the lyrics in a club that suddenly goes hushed.
The next day, he bumps into a young sparkling woman from his office. He warms up to her and decides to spend the day in her company, hoping her happiness would rub on him.
Their relationship soon grows dire. While the young woman bluntly demands him to stop clinging to her, he can’t seem to let go. “You re so kind to me.
No; that s not it. You re so young, so healthy. No; that s not it either . You re so full of life, Watanabe explains. “And me . I m jealous of that. If I could be like you for just one day before I die. I won t be able to die unless I can do that. I want to do ‘something’.
On his way to the restaurant, where he meets the young woman for the last time, he decides to accomplish that one last worthwhile feat. As a group of women sing “Happy Birthday for a friend of theirs in a restaurant, Watanabe is reborn.
The second half of the film takes a jarringly different direction from the first linear part. The narrator announces Watanabe’s death as Kurosawa positions his camera at his protagonist’s house where his friends and coworkers have arrived to pay their final respect.
In a series of flashbacks that recall both Welles’ “Citizen Kane and Kurosawa’s own “Rashomon, Watanabe’s colleagues and friends summon a loose account of his relentless endeavor to help a group of mothers from a poor district build a park for their children; an achievement he was never officially accredited for.
Against the grain
Partially influenced by Leo Tolstoy’s novel “The Death of Ivan Ilyich (Kurosawa was a great admirer of Russian literature), “Ikiru could’ve easily been turned into the kind of mawkish, feel-good trifles Hollywood, Bollywood and Egyptian cinema have so expertly suffocated the world with in the past 100 years.
Instead, Kurosawa has created a story that refuses to arrive to easy conclusions or grant the audience simple gratifications. It’s sad yet heartwarming, harsh yet hopeful. It’s not a crowd-pleaser and the film ends on a realistic note some may find somber.
Kurosawa paints an unkind picture of a postwar Japan, of a decadent bureaucracy and dying traditions and principles; an urban space that shares eerie similarities with the present-day society of ours.
Watanabe – played magnificently by Kurosawa regular Takashi Shimura – starts out as pathetic creature of no importance you can’t help but sympathize with and ends as an unsung hero most of us emulate. In a global culture and age itching for petty idol-seeking and worship, Watanabe stands tall as a different kind of hero.
With an arched back, a slow gait and an anguished gaze divulging his increasing physical suffering, Watanabe fearlessly fights his superiors literally till his final breath, sacrificing his dignity and comfort. His work is falsely accredited to the mayor, and even after his death, some of his colleagues dispute his accomplishment. I doubt Watanabe would’ve cared though. He knew he finally did something of real value, that his life wasn’t entirely wasted, and moments before his death, he finally got the chance to experience the awe-inspiring ecstasy of his work.
In one of the most iconic, most heartbreaking closing shots in all of film history, Watanabe, sitting on a swing at the newly-constructed park, sings the same song he recited earlier, in the pouring rain; this time though, with a big smile on his face. “Life is brief, he sings; “Fall in love, dear maiden / Before the crimson bloom / Fades from your lips / Before the tides of passion/ Cool within you/ For there will be no tomorrow.
I tend to watch “Ikiru every few years, and every single time, this scene leaves me in tears. I’ve been reluctant to watch the movie with others, intimidated to shed my guise and disclose this vulnerability.
As much as I was deeply struck by Watanabe’s final triumph, I couldn’t help but yearn for that one pure moment of joy he managed to ultimately experience. I’m not certain if this moment could be realized in this current world of ours. What I do know is that I haven’t arrived there yet, that I’m no different than his colleagues, who have continued to be sucked away with the trivial consuming details of daily life; who have failed to break the mould and change despite vowing to do so following his death. Perhaps it’s still possible to be Watanabe, but there’s a long way to go.
The Akira Kurosawa film week kicks off at the Bibliotecha Alexandrina’s Main Library on Sunday with “Rashomon. “Ikiru is screened on Monday, 7 pm.