This week marked the 200th film in Cinema 1544 history. With the milestone in mind months in advance, I identified exactly the short I wanted to accompany the 200th film with: Donald Duck in “Tea For Two Hundred”.
So, naturally, I forgot to show the short.
Well, here it is in all its glory anyhow – think of it as Cinema 1544’s first web-only bonus content!
Happily, I did NOT forget to show the film I had selected for the evening, one of my all-time favorites – a simple story told flawlessly. That film is Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 masterpiece Ikiru (“To Live”). Ikiru is the third Kurosawa film to have been presented at Cinema 1544, but oddly enough the earlier two (Seven Samurai and Yojimbo) were both shown about 7 months apart in ’07 and ’08. After a 5-year hiatus, it’s definitely time for some more Kurosawa, and this time, a film that’s NOT a samurai film.
Kanji Watanabe is a 30-year career bureaucrat who has made his way up to section chief of his city’s Public Affairs department, and, like most other Japanese government employees, he’s never really done a damn thing in those 30 years except show up and brand reams of paper with his approval stamp.
The red tape inherent in post-war Japanese government is illustrated by a group of women who wish to have a swamp drained and a children’s park built up on the site. Every department pushes the responsibility on to Engineering, Education (you know, for kids!), Public Health…until finally the frustrated women are sent back to the Public Affairs department where they started. Getting anything done in this culture is clearly hopeless.
The other thing that is hopeless is Watanabe’s stomach. He has developed untreatable stomach cancer, and his doctor privately gives him 6 months to a year to live.
Kurosawa makes an interesting decision in that the doctor doesn’t tell Watanabe of his diagnosis – he lies and says his troubles arise from a small ulcer, not worth treating. Watanabe only divines that he has cancer from the advice of a fellow patient (e.g. “If they tell you it’s OK to eat anything you want, you’ve got less than a year to go.”) In a film whose main theme is that of a dying man trying to find meaning in a previously unlived life, the fact that Watanabe by all rights doesn’t really know he’s dying should complicate things – but he never doubts it, and the doctor’s private chat with his assistants removes all doubt from our mind. The movie might have been a different experience if either Watanabe or the audience had some doubt about his fate.
As it stands, the widowed Watanabe, who feels that he has sacrificed his life for the sake of his son is rudely greeted by his son and daughter-in-law scheming over his pension while he is still in shock from his newfound mortality.
Rather than tell his son about his illness, he goes to soak his sorrows in sake, where he opens up to a writer who is terribly impressed by his story. The writer offers to show him how to live, even shamelessly calling himself Watanabe’s “Mephistopheles”, and he takes Watanabe out for a night of debauchery on the town. Gambling, dancing in clubs, geisha girls, the whole nine yards.
At one piano club, the pianist calls out for requests and Watanabe orders up Gondola no Uta, an old tune from the 1910s. The guests start slow dancing to the song, but when Watanabe starts pitifully singing the lyrics (“Life is brief, fall in love, maidens…”) the entire club puts all eyes on him, and with good reason – it’s an incredibly moving scene.
But by the end of the night (or, technically, the beginning of the morning) Watanabe has left his Mephistopheles – seizing the day is not what he is looking for in his final months. While wandering the street, he bumps into an employee from his department who needs his stamp in order tender her resignation, but his stamp is at home. The coincidence of Watanabe staying out all night combined with arriving home early in the morning with a young woman in tow leads his son to suspect that he has taken a mistress.
In some ways, his suspicion is not far off the mark – Watanabe begins to spend a lot of time with her because he feels that her vibrancy is the one thing his life is lacking. Eventually this kind of creeps her out and she cuts off the relationship, but he does finally manage to confide to her his cancer, and the passion that feeds her (making toys for children) gives him a hint of what he might spend his last days doing – facilitating the children’s park from the beginning of the film.
And here at the third act is where the film takes a beautiful left turn. Mere moments after we see him return to work and set out upon his task of getting that park made, we are jerked ahead five months to his wake. Watanabe had died the night before of internal bleeding while sitting alone on a swing in the newly completed park.
Instead of seeing Watanabe complete his magnum opus, we instead see only snippets of it in flashback as the attendees of his wake try to make sense of his final months. It is a poignant glimpse into human behavior. Aside from the family, the wake is mostly attended by two classes of Watanabe’s coworkers – the rank-and-file employees and the muckety-mucks. But when a small media contingent suggests that the public credits Watanabe for building the park, the muckety-mucks, including the Deputy Mayor, reject that idea and take credit for themselves before leaving in apparent discomfort.
The rank-and-file stay, and drink, and reminisce, and drink. It eventually becomes clear to them (partially due to one Watanabe champion in particular) that Watanabe was the single driving force that got the park started and pushed it through red tape and resistance into reality. They themselves are stunned that anything could get done in their progress-hostile environment and drunkenly resolve to change their ways for the betterment of humanity.
Although neither is the final shot, the film leaves us with two iconic images.
One is Watanabe, dying on the swing in the park that he built, jerking your tears with having one last go at Gondola no Uta and we know that he has found meaning to his life, however small, and peace.
The second comes in a scene back in the Public Affairs department. Promises notwithstanding, the new chief is allowing the old ways, the old bureaucracy to continue. When Watanabe’s champion from his wake stands up to object, he is cowed down by the rest of his coworkers, he sits back down, and the camera drops to hide him, obscured by paperwork.
To some extent, Ikiru is a bitter indictment of the bureaucracy that plagued post-war Japan. Obviously that facet of the film has a bit less resonance for us than it did for the original viewers. For us, it’s a caricature, something with no real correspondence to our experience, and while we recognize the frustration of dealing with red tape we can only wonder how accurate the portrayal is and how much is exaggerated for effect.
What is universal in this film is the fear, not of death, but of having wasted one’s life. Unlike Watanabe, most of us do not have an expiration date and the challenge is to fill our lives with purpose when we seem to have so much time left to procrastinate. Fall in love, maidens indeed.