Friday, May 16, 2008

Akira Kurosawa's Ikiru

Last night, my husband and I watched the first half of Akira Kurosawa's 1952 film Ikiru. His (my husband's) back hurts by the end of the day and the movie is 143 minutes long. I am a big fan of Kurosawa's films, many of which I have seen via Netflix, one of the main reasons I am a member. How could I see these old films any other way?

Ikiru is what my husband would call a "slow" film, lots of dialogue, not much violence and little fast action filmography. But that is one reason Kurosawa is so great. Every frame in each of his movies is a fascinating composition of light and shadow. In Ikiru, the plot unfolds in large part through many conversations between only two characters. The intensity of the main character's emotion is portrayed as much by the camera shots as it is through the actor's facial expressions and movements.

The story itself -- Kurosawa is screenwriter as well as director-- is as much an indictment of bureaucracy and the rationalization of everyday existence as it is a celebration of life. There is such an intensity here, the feel of a Dostoevsky novel, the passionate struggle of life to escape the bonds, internal and external, personal and social, of existence. And all this from the point of view of a boring and bored public official who has just learned of his eminent death from stomach cancer.

But it is his death sentence that brings this character to life. And the film is a chronicle of the unfolding of this, one of life's blossoms in slow motion, close-up photography.

This sacred process begins in a bar, smaller and far more intimate than the one in the television series Cheers, where the hero goes to drown his sorrows and physical pain in saki. He tries to pay a drinking companion to show him what life is about. His new friend refuses the payment but does agree to take him out for a night on the town. The pilgrimage begins with a tour of jazz bars and includes a confrontation with a haughty streetwalker who grabs the old man's hat. He buys another at his friend's insistence, in honor of his "new self." Towards evening's end they visit a club where the dying bureaucrat sees his first striptease act. This scene reveals no flesh but is exquisitely and seductively filmed. Despite its tawdry setting, it represents the turning point in our hero's journey from a living death to living life.

One of the most intriguing things about Ikiru is its post WWII setting. Scenes of family life -- the bureaucrat is a widower living with his son and daughter-in-law -- reflect the influence of the West on Japanese traditions. But the scenes of night life could have been scenes of Harlem or Los Angeles with adjustments for skin color and accents of speech. This set me to thinking about the war's end: the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, about the post-war U.S. occupation, about this chapter of Japan's national experience. The film came out in 1952, just seven years after the end of World War II. It is a study in human consciousness from the hand (and eye) of a master filmmaker, Akira Kurosawa.

Have I left you hanging? You should see this movie!