Dir: Akira Kurosawa
AK channels Frank Capra in this story of a bureaucrat who, upon learning of his impending death, decides to live life to the fullest. The praise for this film is effusive, with some claiming it among the director's masterpieces. I was not quite that moved by it; this is no "Red Beard" in my mind. But still, it's Kurosawa.*
*This is one of the few times where I have stopped a review half-way through in order to sleep on it. This film is better than I thought right after viewing it.
The first half of the film tackles Watanabe's realization that he has wasted his life in the crippling and heartless bureaucracy of modern Japan. He surrounds himself with youth and revelry, trying to recapture joy in life. But throughout this first act, the failure of such proxy living is apparent. Takashi Shimura's Watanabe is perpetually hunched over and wears of look of abject shock, unable to fathom how we got to this state and what to do now in order to reclaim his life. It was this first act that failed to click with me, coming off as a really depressing verison of "Lost in Translation." I have to admit I found it rather boring, as we take a long time to come to the conclusion that we have been barking up the wrong tree.
*But after reflection, I think AK is actually strongly committing to his point. I have seen, countless times, the Scrooge-esque elements of the first half. I thought it was nothing special. But all along, AK was refusing to redeem his character this way; among the parties and the revelry, still that skeletal hollow look, the hunched shoulders, the barely audible speech from our protagonist. I was not ready for the movie to critique this type of redemption so strongly, so it failed to resonate with me. AK has another solution, and must eliminate the competition before laying it out.
Then, Watanabe dies. And from here on out, the movie is quite strong. The rest of the film is in flashback (real, real nice touch). At his wake, his family and co-workers gather together and remember him. As the sake flows, it becomes apparent that Watanabe's strange dedication to the construcion of a park on a filthy patch of land, a park that the neighborhood had been unable to get built due to the indifference of the bureaucracy, was his real life mission. The increasingly drunken civil servants lament their own intransigence. The hero worship of the ordinary people, inspired by Watanabe's dedication to their needs, prompts a series of revelations in the men who know now that they too have wasted their lives. It is really interesting to watch, epiphanies soaked in booze and slurred proclamations for change. One does not have to know much about bureaucracy to guess what happens to these promises once the civil servants sober up.
This movie was too smart for me, at first. The powerful and compelling second act illuminates the work in the first. This film is political and allegorical, a stinging indict of self perpetuating red tape and the dehumanization that such a system causes both individually and collectively.
Sure, among Kurowsawa's best. Maybe tomorrow, I will call it BME.