Saturday, January 21, 2006



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.



Blogger ronvon2 noted on 1/22/2006 12:29:00 PM that...

So, proof positive that intial responses can change with time (like the films of 2005).

Huge fan of the recollections at the wake as a cinematic device. Ikiru might be my second favorite Kurosawa film (it would be hard to dislodge Seven Samurai, but it might be close to Throne of Blood).  

Blogger stowaway noted on 1/28/2006 12:14:00 AM that...

You guys got a cool site here!

The recollections of Rashomon would be the best for me, though!
True that Ikiru depends on the events of the second half of the film to illuminate the first half, Dersu Uzala being the other way round. Though the first few scenes of the Kafkaesque office, where Watanabe san spends a lifetime (as it turns out) without purpose after a failed spark (Jerry Maguire learnt his lessons here?) drew me in, I wondered why Kurosawa would pound us with moment after moment of staring into Watanabe's vacant eyes, with scenes that drive home the same point.. with the protagonist wallowing in self pity and indulging in a sort of 'let's get it over with' binge. I shared the exasperation that the lady he forces to go out for a date with him feels. The brilliant scenes at the wake and after, something you could call 'cemetery enlightenment'. which forsakes us as soon as we go back home after burying the dead, assuaged the film for me though.