Tuesday, May 14, 2013

145. Japanese maestro Akira Kurosawa’s “Ikiru“ (To Live) (1952): A prescription for curing our ailing souls and living our lives meaningfully.

“Life is so short, dear maiden,
so fall in love while your lips are still red
And before your passion cools
For there will be no tomorrow.
. . .Tomorrow will not come again.”
--The Gondola Song, written in 1915, sung by the lead character 
Kanji Watanabe (played by actor Takashi Shimura)

Three films of Akira Kurosawa figure in this critic’s top 100 films of all time: one is Dersu Uzala (1975), another is Red Beard (1965) and the third is Ikiru (1952). There are several reasons why the Berlin Film Festival’s Silver Bear winner Ikiru is sufficiently enchanting to watch again and again. When you view Ikiru, the fact that you are watching a Japanese film slowly recedes into the background and you realize that this is indeed a powerful and universal tale, amazingly knit together by a brilliant screenplay. That it is Japanese becomes inconsequential.

It is a tale of an ineffective bureaucrat named Kanji Watanabe, who has slogged away in a government office for 30 years pushing files diligently without taking a day off or making any willful difference to anyone in his office or to society at large by acting on any matter raised in those files. Watanabe is suddenly confronted with the fact that he is dying of cancer and has a bare year to live. The first half of the film Ikiru deals with the transformation of Watanabe by this sudden revelation. The second half of Ikiru deals with how different individuals perceive his transformation differently. In fact, many film critics see parallels in Ikiru’s structure with the German Wolfgang von Goethe’s play Faust, especially with the literary work divided into Faust on earth versus Faust in macro-cosmos. The German play and the Japanese film are structured in a similar way. This is not surprising because it is well known that F W Marnau’s silent German film Faust (1926), based on Goethe's play, was one of Kurosawa’s favorite films.

The film Ikiru is not about death that will eventually strike all of us—it is a film about living a life that will make a difference to humanity, and not merely living a life that is fulfilling to us and our immediate family. It is a film that reverberates with Buddhist values that the Dalai Lama expounds: ‘‘Awareness of death is the very bedrock of the path. Until you have developed this awareness, all other practices are obstructed.’’ Now Kurosawa was not a practicing Buddhist but it quite possible that Kurosawa’s co-scriptwriters Hideo Oguni (1904-96) and Shinobu Hashimoto were Buddhists.

Dr Francis G Lu, a Professor of Clinical Psychiatry at the University of California San Fransisco,  has published scientific papers on Kurosawa's (and his co-scriptwriters')  observations in Ikiru on human reactions of individuals shaken out of their mundane existence by life threatening diseases to transform themselves dramatically and lead meaningful lives. One of his scientific papers that appears in The Journal of Trans-personal Psychology, 2006, Vol. 37, No. 1, states that Kurosawa himself admitted ‘‘Sometimes I think of my death. I think of ceasing to be ... and it is from these thoughts that Ikiru came.’’ Another scientific paper on Ikiru's appeared in the same journal in 1987, Vol.19, No.2, which was co-authored by Dr Sanford Weimer, (Chairman, Department of Psychiatry, CIGNA, Los Angeles, USA) and Dr Francis Lu comparing Watanabe's transformation in Ikiru with a real life case study.  Yes, good cinema can be serious subjects of scientific journals!

For this critic, Ikiru does recall the life changing willful transformation of the Indian King Ashoka the Great (304-232 BC) from king to a monk and conversion to Buddhism, a fact  that Professor Lu seems to have missed mentioning in his otherwise excellent scientific paper written in 2006.

A jolt at the zenith of your career

It would be too simplistic to categorize Ikiru as a  mere tale of living life meaningfully before death. It is a film that explores the love of a father for his son and the apparent lack of love for the father from his son, who in his turn only cares for what he can inherit after his father’s passing. Kurosawa and his co-scriptwriters weaved a lovely discussion between the cancer-stricken bureaucrat Watanabe and the vivacious Miss Toyo Odagiri who had worked under Watanabe but subsequently wants to resign her bureaucratic job so that she could  make toy rabbits for the children of Japan. Miss Odagiri and Watanabe discuss the aspect that children "don’t ask to be born" and it finally dawns on the young lady that Watanabe led the colorless life thus far for the sake of his only son: "I know why you did it. You love him!" Evidently Watanabe doesn't have a wife anymore—so all his love is focused on his son. Watanabe wistfully confides to Miss Odagiri: “I became a ‘mummy’ for the sake of my son and he does not appreciate me. My son is far away somewhere, just as my parents were far away when I was drowning.”   These words reveal stories that are never fleshed out in the film but were there in the minds of the three scriptwriters. The Asian trait of living one’s life for the sake of one’s progeny might be unfamiliar to non-Asians.  It is this withdrawal of focus on his family that Watanabe adopts as death approaches him that is similar to another ancient Asian religion Hinduism that classifies the last two stages of a man’s life as Vanaprastha  and Sanyasa, moving away from the household duties (in Watanabe's case, of caring for his son and daughter-in-law). Now Kurosawa was neither a Hindu nor a practicing Buddhist but he was Asian in his outlook, and this Asian heritage and values come through in the final screenplay.

"Life is short"

Finally, Ikiru is a brilliant study of human characters that we encounter each day.  The first group examined in Ikiru are the typical bureaucrats that populate Watanabe’s office and who are given nicknames that typify bureaucrats. These include: 'eel' (a slippery man), 'fly paper' (a person who sticks to certain people), 'the fixed meal' (a man who has no preferences in life), 'gelatin' (the quivering man who is scared of taking decisions), 'drain cover' (a man who is figuratively dampens every mood) and 'mummy' (apparently a living dead man). And appropriately Watanabe’s nickname in his office is ‘mummy.’ In this first part of Ikiru, Watanabe decides that he will not live the last year of his life like a ‘mummy ‘ The second part of Ikiru provides equally interesting studies of various politicians and officials participating in Watanabe’s wake who show their guile in appropriating the positive contribution of the dead Watanabe as their own. More importantly those who promise to uphold the values of the latter day Watanabe, return to their desk jobs only to reprise the very actions of the inactive Watanabe of old. A policeman also attends the wake and recalls Watanabe sitting on a swing in the park that Watanabe helped create for total strangers in the falling snow singing the Gondola song after which he apparently died. The policeman feels sorry that he did not intervene and had left Watanabe to freeze in the cold.

"Christ carrying a cross called cancer" is how Watanabe is perceived by the  hack writer

The power if Ikiru is not limited to its wonderful tale. Its characters include a second-rate writer (the Mephistopheles equivalent) who has a problem sleeping and offers to show where Watanabe can enjoy women and song, and drink the best of liquor as well, when Watanabe offers him sleeping pills possibly stockpiled by Watanabe for a future suicide attempt. Watanabe's interactions with such characters and the effect he has on them are interesting details for the viewer to study.  When Watanabe tells his medical predicament to the writer, the Mephistophelian actor says “Men are such fools. They only realize how beautiful life is when they are face to face with death. And even those people are rare. Some die without knowing what life is. You are a fine man. You are rebelling against it. . .That's what impresses me. You've been a slave to life; now you are trying to master it. Man's duty is to enjoy life. It's against God's will not to do so. Man must have a lust for life. Lust is considered immoral but it is not. A lust for life is a virtue."  These interesting words reveal the combined power of the three screenplay-writers who made Ikiru what is today: Hideo Oguni (1904-96), Shinobu Hashimoto, and Akira Kurosawa. Drs Lu and Weimer have praised Kurosawa for his insights on human psychology but Oguni and Hahimoto need to share the praise from the professors as well. The conversations and the body language of varied characters can be appreciated endlessly by viewers half a century after the film Ikiru was made because of its honesty.

Screenplay writer Oguni contributed to seven Kurosawa movies, and screenplay writer Hashimoto, to eight Kurosawa films. Thus it is fascinating to note that Ikiru is an unusual product of two of Kurosawa’s closest screenplay collaborators.  Oguni would have collaborated on an eighth Kurosawa film, had Kurosawa indeed made the film Runaway Train co-scripted by Oguni and Kurosawa, but the film was eventually made by the Russian director Andrei Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky in Alaska, USA, with Hollywood actors. (Runaway Train, nominated unsuccessfully for the Best Film, Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor Oscars in 1986, remains to this day, one of the favorite films of this critic. Director Konchalovsky was Tarkovsky classmate and collaborator on one Tarkovsky film.) Oguni apparently had modeled the lead role as a gangster dying of cancer but his co-scriptwriters transformed the gangster into a bureaucrat in the final script. But the one of the finest moments in the film Ikiru is when a gangster confronts the transformed bureaucrat and threatens to kill him.  "Don't you value your life?" the gangster asks the meek Watanabe "I can't be angry, I don't have the time” is the loaded reply from the dying Watanabe. It does not matter whether those lines were written by Oguni or Hashimoto or Kurosawa. Those are one of the finest lines in cinema that not only disarms the gangster but the viewer of the film. Equally important is visage of actor Shimura when he utters those lines.

The trio of screenplay writers structured the story with the denouement of the tale in the opening scenes and then probably at the behest of Kurosawa, the tale was structures on the lines of Goethe’s Faust. The end result was a film that went beyond the tale of Watanabe’s disease, transformation, and death. The film was able to put on display different sets of people and their varied reactions to the few reformed Watanabes we are likely to come across in our own lives. Do we change as ‘gelatin’, the colleague of Watanabe, did in Ikiru? Only he could appreciate the sunset as Watanabe did and evidently the transformed ‘gelatin’ had become 'rock solid' with a new perspective to living life, thanks to Watanabe. The screenplay writer Oguni did look closely at Leo Tolstoy's novel The Death of Ivan Ilych. The similarities between Ivan Ilych and Watanabe cannot be ignored.

You are ready for death when you are no longer a 'mummy'

The other pillar of Ikiru will remain actor Takashi Shimura who plays the ineffective bureaucrat dying from cancer. Actor Shimura (1905-82) was a thespian in 21 of 30 Kurosawa films—yet people tend to forget Shimura but recall another Kurosawa film regular—Toshiro Mifune, who played the tough-guy roles. Shimura on the other hand could play both the wimp and the tough guy (as in Seven Samurai) and that capability of playing distinctly different characters is why Shimura needs to be admired more than Mifune, whose roles were mere variants of the tough guy. When Shimura playing Watanabe in Ikiru was required to sing the Gondola song , Kurosawa’s apparently directed him thus:  "Sing the song as if you are a stranger in a world where nobody believes you exist." (IMDB trivia). And that is exactly what Shimura did with aplomb.

In essence, the film teaches us to go beyond ourselves and our families, to reach out with compassion to help strangers—the basic element of all the great religions including Buddhism. It is exemplified in the words and actions of the most important female character in the movie, Miss Toyo Odagiri, who resigns her clerical job to make toy rabbits for children and suggests to Watanabe: ”I mean it...all I do is make these little things. Even making these is so much fun. Making them, I feel like I'm playing with every baby in Japan. Why don't you try making something, too?"

"I know why you did it. You love him."

Every viewer of Ikiru will be forced to re-evaluate their own lives, whether they are a cancer patient or not. That is the power of this Kurosawa classic.

P.S. An Indian film Hrishikesh Mukherji’s Anand (1971) went on to win many awards including one for its screenplay. What few people realized in India was that it mirrored Ikiru. Hrishikesh Mukherji had insisted to his screenplay-writer Gulzar that he wanted to inform the audience that the cancer patient played by Rajesh Khanna was dead at the start of the movie itself (ref: IMDB trivia of Anand) --the very concept that Oguni/Hashimoto/Kurosawa had so effectively used in Ikiru