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Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru is one of the most heart rendering movies I have ever seen. It’s a wonderful movie where you see the master at the zenith of his craft. This is well illustrated by the fact that this movie is released in 1952 between Rashomon (1950) and Seven Samurai (1954). In my book these three are the greatest of the master’s works. What is even more endearing about this movie is that this is not as dark and hopeless as the master’s subsequent works near the end of his life.
The first shot of the movie is that of an X-Ray showing of a patient suffering from gastric cancer. The patient’s name is Mr.Watanabe, a government bureaucrat. He is infact the public relations section chief whose actual job is to address the complaints of the common man. But in reality what he does is just glance through piles of paper work and stamp his seal on them to show that he has handled the case. He is someone who has been busy all his life without having done anything fruitful.
When he discovers that he has gastric cancer, he begins to have a new perspective on his life so far. He realizes that he actually wants to live now that his days are numbered. He also begins to see his relationship with his son in a new light. He had spend his whole life living for his son whereas his son has become too self centered to care about his father.
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Watanabe who has never missed a day in office for the last thirty years begins to skip office for days. During one of these days he meets a novelist who takes him on a trip to all the bars, strip clubs and other places of revelry to show Watanabe how to live life to the fullest. Watanabe then meets a young female co-worker who is just fed up with the drudgery and boring work back at the office and wants his seal on her resignation. Watanabe tries to cling on to her and spends as much time as possible with her. He wants to live off her youthfulness and energy.
However she as well as everyone else in his family mistakes his feelings for the girl as an old age infatuation. But when she tells him about her work at a local toy factory and the joy of her work there Watanabe realizes that in order for him to be truly happy he will have to find joy at his workplace itself and do something useful. He takes up the issue of building a park for children over a waste yard.
From then on the story takes place after 5 months where we see how Watanabe, who is dead now, lived the last few days of his life as well as how he managed to get the park built. We get an idea of this through the accounts of his colleagues and friends who had gathered at his house to pay their last respects.
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What I liked the most about this movie is its narrative style. It’s absolutely amazing. In the beginning, the director gives us a sense of the bureaucracy’s inefficiency where a group of women seeking a park to be build over a wasteland (the same park Watanabe helps get built later on) are send to various departments with nobody willing to take the responsibility to help them. All the departments pass the job on to another which is shown by the director shows this with a sequence of fading shots.
Another memorable sequence is when Watanabe looks back at his relationship with his son. Again through a series of fading shots the director shows us how Watanabe comforted his son after his mother’s death, how Watanabe decides not to marry again, how felt while watching his son play a baseball game and how he felt when his son left to join the military.
But they all fade in comparison to the master’s brilliant narrative of how Watanabe triumphed in his ordeal to build the park in the end. Normally in a movie we would have seen the protagonist after undergoing a similar transformation, heroically and sometimes over dramatically going about achieving his goal. But Kurosawa wouldn’t be regarded as a genius today if he had done that. Instead he introduces a revolutionary narrative where he shows to us through other’s perspective of Watanabe how he manages to build the park in the end.
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Till the point of his starting off to build the park, the audience is very much intertwined with Watanabe’s feelings and his desperation for life. We feel every pain, desperation and loneliness of the man who knows that he has only a short while more to live. But after he starts off with his mission, the next thing that is shown to us is a group of people talking about him while paying their last respects to him.
We, the audience, are made to feel detached from the conversation that is going on and are forced to look upon the conversation from Watanabe’s point of view. Since we know more about Watanabe than any of the people assembled there we sometimes feel compelled to correct or contradict the men’s speculation about Watanabe. It’s almost as if the master wants us to feel like Watanabe is looking down on their conversation from the havens.
The acting by Takashi Shimura is top notch. I have seen him in Seven Samurai and his acting in this movie is completely opposite to the vibrant and energetic character that he played in Seven Samurai.
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Kurosawa is a master at making thought provoking movies. In this one he asks us the value of the rat race that we are involved in even today. We are so immersed in our daily routines that we forget to enjoy our precious gift called life. We forget to live while immersed in mundane pursuits. The master does this and at the same time is realistic about it all. This he shows when the Watanabe’s colleagues, even after vowing at his funeral to change their way of working, goes back to their old ineffective ways the very next day. That is the touch of a genius.
Reviews of Akira Kurosawa's Major works
Rhapsody In August (1991)