November 22, 2008

Ikiru (1952 script/film)

The Script
Undated published draft translated by Donald Richie. Written by Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, and Hideo Oguni.

What would you do, how would you react, if you discovered you had less than a year left to live? These are the questions posed to Kanji Watanabe, chief of a department in City Hall. Every day for the last thirty years have been a thankless routine of stamping papers he doesn't read and sending desperate citizens on an endless romp from division to division, none of which want to take any responsibility. Outside the office, he is a widower who gave up his own dream early to support a thankless son.

In other words, he has no life. So imagine his regret when he learns it will soon end.

This is an extremely brisk, tight script, forgoing detailed descriptions for meaningful actions and everyday philosophical discussions of what it all means and what we leave behind. After a period of sulking, Watanabe goes on a series of escapades with a young woman who works at the same office and an unnamed author he meets in a bar. Through them both, he sees the joy of pushing through the struggles in life instead of falling beneath their burden.

It's quite an inspiring, thoughtful character study. Though obviously sentimental, it handles the manipulative emotions well instead of devolving into pure sap. If there's anything wrong with the script, it's an extended section near the end. I can see where Kurosawa is going, showing how different people react to their memories of the deceased, but it goes on too long and takes things off in some unnecessarily complicated directions.

But that's it. This really is a great read, but it's one of those scripts that's so simple, the success or failure of the film depends entirely on the direction. Granted, this is Kurosawa we're talking about, so there's little doubt in that regard.

The Film
Directed by Akira Kurosawa. Written by Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, and Hideo Oguni.

I was wondering why, in Kurosawa's adaptation of The Idiot, the filmmaker decided to excise a huge plot thread about a man coming to grips with the knowledge he will soon die. It wasn't a particularly strong thread and I was glad to see it go, but I'm still surprised Kurosawa didn't do something with it.

Well, I guess this is the answer: he gave it its own film.

Takashi Shimura plays Kanji Watanabe, an aging echo of a man who leads a department in City Hall which was created for the sole purpose of keeping "useless causes" out of the hands of the other divisions. All day long for the last few decades, he would just shuffle through sheet after sheet, stamping them with his seal. He doesn't hang out after work with friends, he doesn't have fun, he doesn't do anything besides eat, sleep, flip a sheet, stamp.

But then comes stomach cancer and a realization that he only has six months to live. What would you do in his situation? Would you just let yourself fade away, or would you try to go out and make the most of your time? It's the latter course Watanabe follows, though his social inexperience leaves him a little stuck as to how he should see such an endeavor through. Thus begins a pair of extended episodes as Watanabe latches onto a drunk author in a bar and a young woman at his office, connections who will take him through the whirling dancing and drinking of the Japanese night-life and the joy of simple youthful exuberance.

It really is a beautiful story and Kurosawa is at the peak of his skill, swaying from delicate jaunts, to shaded moments of despair, to the chaotic flurry of party after party after party. If there's one place it stumbles, it's in the last 40 or so minutes.

As I said in my review of the script, I like the idea of picking up the story after Watanabe's death, exploring how his final act really does have meaning and a positive affect on those who are willing to allow it to, but it just drags on and on for far, far too long, and becomes more about the clutter of bureaucratic red tape than the accomplishments of this fallen man.

And as much as I hate to say it, I'm not completely sold on Shimura's performance. Now, hold on. Hear me out. He's an absolutely stunning actor, definitely one of my favorites in the history of the industry, but there are far too many moments (and this is partially the result of Kurosawa's precise, unforgiving composition) that feel artificial. Instead of looking weak or depressed, he looks like he's playing someone weak or depressed. In other words, it doesn't feel authentic. And his voice, his unconvincingly hoarse and whispery voice, only makes it worse. That said, Shimura is still a damned captivating presence on screen and whatever he overplays through his voice and posture is more than made up for by his eyes. Only through them do I see the true depth of his despair and eventual moments of hope and perseverance.

I know some will scoff at me for arguing this film isn't perfect. I'm sorry, I can't help the way I genuinely feel about something. That said, I do still hold it up as a classic of cinema which should be watched, appreciated, and treasured from now to the end of time. None of those flaws I mention are enough to tarnish the majority of elements which it not only gets right, but masters.

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