Sunday, June 20, 2010

Just Watched: Ikiru


After suffering through Avatar I felt the need to watch something with potentially more redeeming value.  I recorded Ikiru a couple of months ago when AMC was honoring Kurosawa with a movie marathon to coincide with what would have been his 100th birthday.  Today seemed like as good a time as any to watch it.

Going in I knew only two pieces of information about this film.  First, I knew it was directed by Kurosawa and second that it involved an old man facing his mortality.  What I didn't know was that it stared the same awesome actor who played the lead Samurai in Kurosawa's arguably most famous film 'The Seven Samurai' and that rather than being a medieval period piece (as have been all the Kurosawa films I've seen)  this one took place in 1950s Japan.

The plot is simple.  The protagonist, Kanji Watanabe, a senior government bureaucrat learns he has stomach cancer and only months to live.  The news of his impending death forces him to take a fresh look at his repetitive existence and he finds it wanting.  He tries drinking and he chases a young lady whose youth he envies but neither can dispel the shadow death has cast on his thoughts.  Finally he realizes that he needs to do something that will have a lasting impact and he decides to use his government position a to help push through a park project that's stuck in bureaucratic mire.

The final quarter of the film takes place at his wake and consists of family, fellow bureaucrats and elected officials debating whether Watanabe deserves credit for the park project of whether he was just a cog in bureaucratic machine that would have created the park with or without Watanabe.   

As I watched Ikiru I kept thinking about Bergman's 'Wild Strawberries' and 'The Seventh Seal', two other great existential films from the same period.   In the end I did not enjoy Ikiru as much as either of those films but found it interesting contrasting the Japanese perspective on death with the Scandinavian.   I grew up watching WWII movies and they usually depicted the Japanese as strict Bushido followers who had no problem being a Kamikaze or gutting themselves with sword if their honor was impeached.  This more nuanced and less enthusiastic approach to death and dieing was interesting to see and much more in line with how I imagine most humans feel.

The production values of Ikiru are very simple compared to the big battle scene's Kurosawa is most famous for.  Personally, I love how Kurosawa uses weather: rain, wind and fog are common elements of his films, however given the propensity of internal locations in Ikiru, weather didn't play a big part.   There were two small but important scenes that had weather elements.  The first has Wantanabe visiting the location where the park is to be built.  It's pouring rain and he walks out into the middle of the storm while most of his fellow bureaucrats huddle beneath umbrellas.  The last directly precedes Wantanabe's death and finds him sitting on a swing in the completed park singing a sad song as snow falls.  Both work well, I only wish there had been more like them.

As much as I enjoyed this film it's not something I'd recommend to anyone but a film buff.  Between the Japanese subtitles, slow pace and dark subject matter this isn't a film for the simple entertainment seeker but I certainly found it a nice balm for the Avatar blues.

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