Oh, but this is good. You want a story of a life regretted and a scrabble for salvation, perhaps self-redemption, then you gotta go Akira Kurosawa. The man who gave us Seven Samurai and is pretty much responsible for R2D2 and C3PO and this beautiful, intimate story of a man facing his death after an empty life.
Old Jack gathered the smart ones for this. It needed a dark room, quality nibbles and refinement: Intellectual Ivy, Cineaste Sally and Deep Dolly. I felt it best to avoid the old men as this’ll get them down. It starts with a mournful close-up of an X-ray: the ‘hero’, old widower Kanji Watanabe (the glorious Takashi Shimura) doesn’t know it yet, but he has stomach cancer. There’s a comment passed when he finds out – when you vomit up something you ate last week, you’ve got three months left – that chills the soul. That said, I’m tempted to stick it on a T-shirt.
Watanabe works in local government. He’s done the same job for thirty years, playing his dour part in the game of passing paper from department to department and achieving nothing for the locals. He reads, he stamps, he passes queries to other departments that do the same. Thirty years. Wow. Kurosawa pulls down bureaucrats, their bureaux, Japanese society and the people in it with a few bleak shots of dead minds sat behind dead piles of paper. Everything you suspected about local government turns out to be true all across the planet.
Watanabe’s colleagues – all the types of faces and excuses you’d expect – present their versions of ‘no’ to an off-camera group of women who want leaking sewers fixed and replaced with a children’s playground. But it is Shimura’s performance as the exhausted Watanabe that the camera loves. It watches him, and makes the audience do the same, letting his decades of pointless, cog-like behaviour in a machine designed for futility wash over you.
And then he goes to the clinic and the news lands. A weirdo shuffles up to him to explain the coded words the doctors will use (eat anything; you’ve got a year…really, I’m seeing a line of T-shirts, here). He leaves, lied to by the professionals, but knowing he has six months. The poor little man, continually hunched and in slowly growing pain, reflects on the world he has made for himself. If you listen late into the night in this Care Home, when you can hear the ticking and whirring of machines, the coughing and the snoring, the occasional scream of despair…well, we reflect like that all the time. It is rarely a happy story for the great unlived.
Shimura gives us a big, sad-eyed man, bowed beneath his old, dull hat. He meets a bohemian writer of cheap novels in a bar and begins to share his story. He would have told his son, but the boy is modern and married and interested in inheritance not love. And off go Watanabe and the writer into Tokyo nightlife: gaming stores, clubs, bars, a world of close-knit dancing, old Japan and Western bands, strippers (Shimura opens Watanabe’s eyes in a moment of sharp comedy as a final veil drops off camera). Weirdly, the women with old Jack laughed out loud at that moment. It’s as though they forgive us our maleness when we are hurting.
But it doesn’t work. The old failure is distracted and overwhelmed, but doesn’t feel he’s living. He and the writer settle in a piano-bar. Kurosawa’s director’s eye plays artfully with the pianist as he beats out cheery tunes, using a mirror above to catch the action. But Watanabe remains consumed by his failure and lifelessness. He requests an old tune, one of those ’20s songs cheers the pianist, and then the place falls quiet as Watanabe, still-faced but singing, pulls a sonorous blinder with “Gondola non uta“…
life is brief
fall in love, maidens
before the crimson bloom
fades from your lips
before the tides of passion
cool within you,
for those of you
who know no tomorrow
The camera looks into Watanabe’s face as he sings, deep and sad with a kind of ancient truth. Not depressing, the room agreed, but we all got it just as the young things in the bar did. Shimura’s performance is simply brilliant: barely moving, he tells us all.
If films are about moments, then this is one that speaks to everyone, and everyone should be smart enough to see it. There are moments we all know from growing old, the awkwardness of the young around us, occasionally their fear. The young writer sees Watanabe return from puking in the street at one point, darkness gathers around the old man, terror rests in the writer’s face. The piano bar scene is like that, but not the fear of death, rather the aching sorrows of leaving. Shimura, again, shows us everything with an immaculate stillness.
A remedy to his sorrows presents itself in the form of Toyo, played by 21 year-old Miki Odagiri, who worked in Watanabe’s team and (cultural oddity here) needs his stamp on her resignation sheet to take up another job making toys in a factory. For a few brief scenes, much like Mr Morgan’s Last Love (2013) and Is That You? (2014), the platonic relationship between old man and young woman revitalises the senior party. There’s no passion involved, just the bemusement, enjoyment and envy of being with a bundle of energy. Toyo, to be honest, is full of irritating giggles, but is grateful for the small gifts he gives her. The friendship is, however, noticed by Watanabe’s household and – at the point the old man tries to tell his son about the cancer – a blast of anger kills the moment. Do all children resent their parents spending the inheritance? Hmmm.
The friendship can’t last, of course. Toyo doesn’t understand what the old man gets from her, is embarrassed, bored and ultimately angry at his lifelessness. They have an honest row in a café, a cheery birthday party going on behind them a counterpoint to Watanabe’s inarticulacy. Old Jack and the intellectuals were shouting at the screen as he fumbled – again – sharing his true thoughts. They end up scary for the girl. The odd friends part with clumsiness, but not without revelation. Watanabe takes the hint from Toyo that living is creating, and hits on the idea that will be his memento mori.
Again, beautifully done. Cineaste Sally waxed lyrical on the beauty of Kurosawa’s script and framing. The happiness behind the sad pair; the underpinning of Watanabe’s realisation set against a birthday party; even Toyo showing off a bouncing toy: the energy of a thing created. For me, it is Shimura’s work again that captivates: you feel his despair jump into hope.
The first half of the film (really) ends with Watanabe returning to the office and starting on a mission to fight the bureaucracy – all the way up to the cynically presented Deputy Mayor – and get that children’s playground built. Legacy is all. At the beginning of the second half, he is dead.
We took a break at that point. Intellectual Ivy needed to change her bag, Sally was too busy weeping at the mournful old man’s angst, and Deep Dolly had promised us second-half macaroons. Old Jack took a brief stretch. It was dark outside and a thin layer of snow had turned the lawns into a sea of white silence. I’d seen Ikiru back in the early 1960s and knew the second half – at Watanabe’s wake and a reportage of what he’d achieved – seemed a bit of a slog. But then, old Jack was a lot younger in those days.
We reconvened as Watanabe’s family and colleagues got going with his wake. Not quite lined up opposite each other like they were, beside a shrine and photo of the man; we don’t have the knees for Japanese traditions. But Intellectual Ivy rustled up some saki and we gave it a go.
It’s still a bit of a slog. Fifteen or so actors give it their all to play distinct characters, but they’re all too full of bows and tentative anecdotes to make it fly by. However, what they slowwwwlllllly achieve is lovely. Watanabe died in the playground, but went unmentioned in the Deputy Mayor’s opening speech (Nobuo Nakamura gives well-oiled politician). Why was Watanabe there? Did he know he was dying? They gossip – demonstrating their venality and small-mindedness – whilst Watanabe’s son and wife sit by guiltily and in silence. There’s a growing affront at the Deputy Mayor (there briefly; bitched about when gone) taking the credit for what is realised to be Watanabe’s breaking of his own mould. Their mould. The scene teaches us a few things: humans don’t change, they chatter, they will do so about you when you’re gone, so make a powerful mark if you want to rule that conversation. Or be a bit lucky.
Watanabe is lucky: a policeman turns up to lay down a prayer. He’d seen the old man in the park, laughing at his end, singing, sat happily on a swing in the snow. We see the moment later, Kurosawa’s camera peering through a climbing frame, like prison bars, but sliding past them to the happy, released Watanabe at the end of his life. A success: joyous, and redeemed. Gorgeously done.
The older I get, the more I respect the power of Ikiru (“to live”). The film is echoed in many others, but makes its points with such skill and so beautifully. Kurosawa and Shimura – both in their 40s when this was made – let us burrow into the soft sadness of old age and regret, and let us rejoice as a man beats back his own indolence in a grand gesture: a thing created.
Of course, the film then leaves us with a beat of irony. The wake gets properly drunk, the men recognising their own failings. They make promises to each other. You know they are empty. But one of them, who has gone quiet in the corner, moves behind them as they gossip to quietly lay a prayer before the funeral shrine. He is then seen back in the office, reacting to a decision to do nothing, before caving. He returns to his seat. Kurosawa’s camera peaks at him behind a growing pile of the papers – the red tape that is their indecision. He bows his head as the camera sinks and all we see is paper. He is defeated.
And ain’t that life? How many times have you promised yourself a fresh approach to the world and then caved: beaten down by the hustle and bustle and bitchery of people, the unending drudge of ill-managed processes, or your own – admit it – weakness. A thing created is a thing needing energy, drive and intent. If the purpose of life is to plant trees whose shade we never expect to sit in (thank you, Greek philosophers), what value a life without planted trees?
Kurosawa leaves us with a shot that captures the story, its point and an artist’s smarts: the defeated man looks down from a bridge onto Watanabe’s playground, we see the children at play, life going on. Up on the bridge, the man in silhouette, adjusts his hat and walks away. Perhaps he learnt something; perhaps he didn’t.
Ikiru: intricate and tender.
We sat back and looked at each other in the TV room. I was wiping away tears, Ivy was nodding smugly as intellectuals do, Sally smiled and Deep Dolly nodded. We all got up and hobbled out into the snow, now falling bitingly in the semi-dark. I heard the creaking of trees in the distance, and for a moment, we were with old Watanabe and his swing. We talked for as long as we could take about the things we’d achieved in life: young Steve and my fishing cups, Ivy and the stripping money that paid for her PhD, Sally and her one film short in the 1970s. Dolly was silent. We all felt how little she had to say.
“You know what,” she said in the end, “fuck the insurance, this place needs an assault course and I’m building it tomorrow.”
And she did.
Get thee to the BFI Player on Amazon Prime and create something too.