Saturday, December 19, 2009

Ikiru--"to live"

Akira Kurusawa made this film at the age of forty. Since it is one those rare movies which examines the experience of a person facing imminence of death ( Wit, Cries and Whispers, Dead Man Walking, I Want to Live,Decalogue 5  are  others). Leo Tolstoi's novella Death of Ivan Illyich is a wonderful account of a similar situation where a perfectly ordinary person is plunged into this extra-ordinary situation, and in fact is the direct inspiration of the present movie . It occurred to me to question what experiences in Kurosawa's own life led him to make a film about this topic. One of eight siblings, he had lost all three of his brothers by the time he was in his twenties and one of his four sisters, had experienced a devastating earthquake first hand,  and  made some films during the war under the watchful eyes of the militaristic government.He thus brings to his work an adequate equipage of the realities of life.

Death is the most mysterious of all phenomenon because it is "the bourne from which no traveler returns". It's something which always to the other guy and we are incapable of conceiving of our own demise. The brain just refuses to accept this reality. It is the ultimate challenge for a human being to come to grips with this most devastating of realities. In a way all religions and philosophies exist for this purpose.

Watanabe is a superintendent in a government office. He has been working in the same office for thirty years. He lost his wife when his now grown up and married son was in infancy. His job involves virtually nothing more than applying a rubber stamp to a succession of documents. He and his half a dozen junior colleagues, including the charming young girl, spend listless days, passing their time in bored, empty talk. This routine might have continued indefinitely. But Watanabe is diagnosed with stomach cancer and given only months to live. As is natural, this bolt of lightening finds him rudderless and unprepared. He recalls a drowning experience as a child. He found himself alone as he sank, with no parents there to listen to his cries for help. Similarly, now as he faces the abyss, he finds no solace forthcoming from his son, for whose sake he has allowed his life to petrify into the "mummy" ( his nickname in the office behind his back) through the routine of  bureaucracy. He realizes that all his life, he has been alive, but never lived. He can't bear to die without ever having experienced life.

There is something I seem to lack the means to understand. I cannot empathize with Watanabe's state of shock as he emerges from the clinic, having heard the pronouncement. Nor can I truly understand the valley of the shadow of death into which his life descends afterwards. I find myself a blank when I try to identify with this situation. Does Kurosawa? Kurosawa later attempted suicide. His last movies ( which I have yet to see), are pervaded by these concerns.

Apart from the philosophical tone and message, it is immaculate cinema. He is a sensitive observer of human behaviour in it's kaleidoscopic shifts from moment to moment. The encounter with the young girl who is his ex-office assistant shows this small drama in which the ebbing life draws solace from the company of the vivacious youngster. And then, the get together after the funeral, turning into a drunken symposium where his life is thread bared. The lead actor gives a restrained but powerful performance.                                
Roger Ebert's Great Movie Essay
Criterion Essays, Hanske and Ritchie


Ronak M Soni said...

Every essay I've read about this movie is... so emotional, so emotive...

I cried during Ebert's, and might have during this if it hadn't got over so quickly.

S M Rana said...

At least it didn't have you laughing!