Sunday, March 16, 2008

Ikiru (1952)

* PT: Watanabe. Wadpaw: To do something meaningful before he dies.

* Akira Kurosawa's depiction of the unexamined life brims with patience and visual poetry, but what's really fascinating is how he uses the latter to cut through the former and keep the film moving even when nothing is happening. There's a lengthy party scene that stands out in that regard -- Kurosawa keeps foregrounding objects between us and Watanabe (trumpets, beads and whatnot) until we cut suddenly to an extreme closeup of the man's morose face. The visual strategy reflects the whirlwind evening's attempts to blot out and obscure the pain of the situation, and the closeup reveals that it's all for naught.

* Takashi Shimura's performance as Watanabe the dying bureaucrat is economical and physical in all the right ways. In particular, he uses his eyes as big liquid pools of expression, with dejection and determination swimming around chasing each other. He also gets some choice lines of dialogue, my favorite coming after yet another setback in his attempts to have a park built on a landfill: "I can't afford to hate people. I haven't got that kind of time."

* The opening sequence depicting the runaround a group of ladies get through the various departments of the government is a wonderfully exasperated and succinct depiction of government in inaction.

* Wasn't quite prepared for the shift in perspective that occurs at the ninety-minute mark -- right at the moment where Watanabe figures out what to do with his remaining days, the film suddenly careens from linear storytelling to Rashomon-style flashback pastiche, and the story similarly shifts from one about a man trying to cope with the news that he's going to die to one about a man who fights to leave a mark on the world before he dies.

* The whole of the film can be summed up in its final two images: an office worker who tried to stand up to the bureaucracy swallowed by paper as he dejectedly takes a seat, followed by the glorious shot of a joyful Watanabe sitting on a swing in the rain. The penultimate shot gets to the heart of the cynicism Kurosawa feels about postwar Japan, but that's washed away by the serene triumph of the closing shot. The legacy has been left.

* Sole demerit: The voiceover narration struck me as overly explanatory and superfluous. "He is passing time instead of living his life." Yeah, I got that, thanks anyway.

Grade: A-


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