Kurosawa’s Japan Revisited

Takashi Shimura as Kanji Watanabe in Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru, 1952
Takashi Shimura as Kanji Watanabe in Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru, 1952

Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru (1952) was the first film I saw after I moved to Japan in 1987. A Zen-trained painter from San Francisco, who’d spent fifteen years around Kyoto mastering its classical arts and the graces they stand for, pushed a videotape into his creaking machine the day we met, my first week in the old capital, and urged me to sit still. He’d already spent all day showing me the sights of my new adopted home, and now he might have been sharing with me a guidebook to its heart. We sat for 143 minutes on the tatami mat in his crumbling old wooden house, paper screens around us, and the piercing melancholy of the central story, about a bureaucrat in a dead-end job suddenly realizing he is about to die of stomach cancer, carried me off into what seemed to be a distinctly Japanese sensibility. I’d been trained, after all, by devouring most of Kurosawa’s other films before I arrived, as he was the Japanese filmmaker most accessible to (and in) the West.

But when I watched the film again recently, after half a lifetime in Japan, I was taken aback at how very un-Japanese it seemed: in the broadness of its satire, in the zaniness of its switches from one genre to another, in the almost violent simplicity of its message and story. The end was more moving than ever, as it famously cuts to the old man, Watanabe, on a swing, waveringly singing “Life is Brief”; twenty-eight years with a Japanese wife helped me to recognize and feel the spirit and charm (as well as the unabashed appetite) of the hero’s young female colleague, who gives the film its moments of sunshine and fresh purpose. I was even able now to notice that, when she greets the central figure in the street with what is translated as “Station Chief,” she is in fact calling out, “Daddy!”

More than that, I could better appreciate with my own mounting years both the piquancy of the premise and the intricate structure that keeps us constantly off-guard, moved to contrast Watanabe’s actual son with the colleague who inherits his vision, or to understand how and why the film begins with its ending, in a sense, and continues long after what might seem its human climax. I could see how the hero does indeed enjoy a kind of rebirth as some girls around him sing “Happy Birthday!,” a mechanical rabbit, of all unlikely things, turning his gaze away from his own predicament and towards all that he can do for unmet children. I loved the way the filmmaker looks so unflinchingly at essential truths, brushing the trivial aside.

At the same time, I could see why so many Japanese write Kurosawa off as a “Western” director, a dismissal that had surprised me when first I arrived in Kyoto. The film offers an unapologetic attack on lives of quiet desperation of the kind that were coming out in the US at around the same time, in works such as The Organization Man and The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. Its concerns, for a work about an old man dying, are strangely social and public, the pathos of one man’s final days all but overshadowed, especially at the film’s end, by assaults on Japanese bureaucracy and conformity. The nuance, stillness, and sense of privacy one finds in a movie by Kurosawa’s great contemporary, and counterpoint, Yasujiro Ozu, are replaced by bold-type assertions; Ikiru reminds me how masculine and strident a filmmaker Kurosawa could be, head-on in his effects and unqualified in his declarations (whether it’s an antic depiction of “passing the buck” in the opening scenes or a whirligig journey through a kind of Fellini night-town that makes for some virtuoso passages in the middle). Classical Japanese art is often about putting on veils and masks so that what is not said or shown becomes the heart of the story; a central moment in Kurosawa’s film is a striptease, and much of the film seems to be about stripping away pretensions and platitudes to show the selfishness and hypocrisy that surround poor Watanabe.

Of course, at a remove of sixty-three years, one can also see how Kurosawa was catching something essential to the Japanese postwar predicament, as his culture began to waver between its Buddhist roots and a new, imported American optimism. Japan, then as now, was looking in two directions at once, as brassy Western fashions began to encircle its modest wooden houses. Two women of the night here burst into a ditty they’ve no doubt learned from visiting GIs—“I’m gonna give you a Christmas tree”—delivered in a kind of saucy English, while the more innocent girls who later belt out (in English once again) “Happy Birthday to You!” might be smuggling a foreign confidence and blitheness into a society more attuned to the bittersweet song at the center of Ikiru, “Life is Brief.” Impermanence, the fleetingness of things—mono no aware, as it’s called—still sit at the heart of Japan, even in the midst of its bright, fluorescent, 7-Eleven diversions. And at the core of the film lies a cynical upending of a truth that you might find in any Zen temple: “The best way to protect your position is by doing nothing at all.” Yet still, I watch Ikiru today and recognize the streets, the settings, and the surfaces of my acquired home more than I recognize its relatively intimate and recessive heart.

Miki Odagiri as Toyo Odagiri and Takashi Shimura as Kanji Watanabe in Kurosawa’s Ikiru, 1952
Miki Odagiri as Toyo Odagiri and Takashi Shimura as Kanji Watanabe in Kurosawa’s Ikiru, 1952

It’s a familiar trope, I’m sure, but to set Kurosawa next to Ozu is to be startled by their differences. Ozu’s films are often about characters who stoically accept their duty, even as everything in them cries out against it; Kurosawa’s, as here, are about raging, often quixotically, against the system and its accepted pieties. Ozu, you could say, catches the stifled sobs and brave smiles of Cordelia, where Kurosawa, whose Ran famously plays off King Lear, fastens on the rebellions of Goneril and Regan. Ozu’s concern is with the family, and how an intricate structure of social obligation is under stress as trains propel a new, foreign world into their midst; Kurosawa is much wider and wilder in his interests, unashamedly deploying an Olympian voice-over in Ikiru to declare, “This man has been dead for twenty years,” while scheming relatives announce, “I just hate Japanese houses. We need a modern home.” Ozu famously kept his camera still, at tatami level, in long takes designed to see what lay beneath the silences within a near-empty room; Kurosawa swivels it around to the raucous streets and offices of the unsubtle world.

As I say all this, though, I realize that it may be me, and not Kurosawa, who is truly failing to catch Japan. I recall how startled I was when I took my thirteen-year-old Japanese step-daughter to a Kyoto hospital—she had Hodgkin’s Disease, Stage 3—and was reminded that, even now, as in the movie, doctors in Japan try not to tell patients, or their families, that they have cancer. I look at moist-eyed Watanabe, shuffling around in his heavy coat, doomed to be misread by everyone he knows, and I see the salarymen around me in my neighborhood, whose positions as Section Chiefs of Public Affairs routinely ensure they have little time for private affairs. Visiting Fukushima after the nuclear disaster in 2011, I was reminded—as in Ikiru—that it was the recurring attempt to cover up the truth (and to save their own skins), on the part of both government and industry, that outraged everyday Japanese. And, as in Ikiru, both the outrage and the humanity are delivered most expressively by Japanese women, the same women who seem to be all bows and acquiescence when you see them serving tea.

Even more privately, I recall how, whenever I’m asked why I left my secure-seeming life in New York City to move to a small room on the backstreets of Kyoto, I say that I didn’t want to die feeling I’d never lived. Perhaps something in me was already moving toward Ikiru even then. I chose Japan as the place to move to in part because it seemed to be a quietly realistic society inclined to see life within a frame of death. (Not long ago, I heard the creator of the hugely successful TV series Breaking Bad confess to Terry Gross that his work had been inspired by watching Ikiru, even as he inverted its message—or converted it rather into an all-American story of crime.) In my two-room apartment in suburban Nara, I revisit every autumn, almost religiously, My Life Without Me, by Isabel Coixet, a rendingly unself-conscious movie about a twenty-three-year-old mother in Canada suddenly told she has little time to live. My wife knows the film by its title in Japan, Ten Things to Do Before I Die.

When I finish watching the film, I return to my stepdaughter’s desk in one corner of the apartment, lavishly appointed with stickers of Hello Kitty and pictures of Brad Pitt, and work on a novel about a monk who has been told he has only three months to go. In the street outside my window, I can see the men heading out in their suits before dawn to stand at the local bus stop to commute to faraway offices that can surely seem a death-in-life. From across the way, I hear the sound of children in the playground of the neighborhood junior high school, right next to a park. Another park down the road offers swings, which I see every day as I walk to play ping-pong with retired grandfathers exulting in the chance to spend time with the families they neglected during forty years in the office.

Ikiru, in short, may have looked a bit more broad and didactic than I remembered when I watched it again, a far cry from the subtlety and self-containment that are to me the graces of Japan. But somehow it still touches on a world that grows deeper within me every autumn, even as its themes and props encircle me. I met my old Zen painter friend not long ago—he’s moved back to California now—and all our talk was of turning leaves and aging parents, how to give our short lives a sense of purpose. Maybe that plangent sound of “Life is Brief”—and the sense of urgency and a need for service it awakens—has caught up with me in spite of everything?

Part of a continuing NYR Daily series on life-changing films. This essay appears in slightly different form in a new Criterion DVD reissue of Ikiru.