Ikiru (1952) movie poster
(1952) dir. Akira Kurosawa
viewed: 02/25/09

Plot: bureaucrat discovers that he has terminal stomach cancer and then dedicates his life to building a playground.

Sounds thrilling.
Though I’ve been watching a growing list of every Akira Kurosawa film, I somehow managed to queue this one up before really realizing what it was about.  Like pretty much every Kurosawa film, it’s highly praised and esteemed, but when I read through the basics of the plot I was thinking to myself: “What night of my life am I going to want to watch this film?”

Actually, of the films of Kurosawa’s that I’ve seen, he does have two main types, the samurai period films and the modern or “contemporary” films, which often seem to have a crime theme.  This film is quite different.  Obviously.

Largely, the film is a critique of burocracy, the particularly lugubrious kind that existed in Japan at the time of this film’s production, when forms upon forms existed and certain occupations were like that of the protagonist of this film, a human rubber stamper.  Whole divisions of people who sit around with stacks of paper, essentially “doing nothing”.  In Ikiru (translated as “To Live”), Watanabe, the bureaucrat in question, discovers that he has stomach cancer and probably about six months to live.  Reflecting on his life, he feels that it has amounted to nothing, his job is pointless and empty and he feels rejected by the son that he dedicated his life to raising.

After a series of adventures in “living” by carousing with a writer that he meets in a bar and enjoying life with a young woman that he formerly worked with, Watanabe comes to realize that he can contribute something through his means at work and dedicates what is left of his life to building a playground where a cesspool currently exists and is troubling a local neighborhood.  So, in other words, instead of “doing nothing”, he pushes to do “something”.

The first half of the film is about his discovery of his illness, his analysis of his life, and his adventures with the writer and the young woman.  A little further than halfway through the film, he dies, and the second half of the film takes place at his wake, where his co-workers and family reflect on his final months and his accomplishments (though they only come to understand him through the discussions at the service).

The film is good, certainly, featuring many of Kurosawa’s regular actors.  There is a lot of interesting camerawork in the film, framings, uses of sound and so forth, and the film is visually interesting.  In some ways, through parts of the film, it feels almost like an Ingmar Bergman film or something, but its heart is the critique of this uniquely Japanese system of burocratic bizarreness.

I don’t know.  Not my favorite of his films, but still a good film.  Seems strange among the others that I’ve watched of his of late.

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