Friday, June 06, 2014

"Ikiru" is a remarkable Japanese film (1952) about a dying bureaucrat's finding meaning through service (but it's long!)

Ikiru” (“To Live”, 1952, Akira Kurosawa) is a labored (by today’s standards) philosophical look at the problem of finding meaning in life through involvement with the needs of others – service and charity.  It is very much a “meta movie” and it is rather remarkable that a film like this came from Japan just seven years after the end of WWII.

The black-and-white film is narrated, and it opens with a shot of an Xray of the protagonist’s stomach.  We are told that he (Kanji Watanable, played by Takashi Shimsura) doesn’t yet know he has stomach cancer, although he’s bothered by early symptoms of dyspepsia.  He has worked as a bureaucrat for three decades, and others say that the best way to hold on to a government career like his is “to do nothing at all.”  A colleague tells him that doctors are not honest in giving out diagnoses of cancer, and that if he is told to eat anything that doesn’t cause him indigestion and just to take it easy, well, maybe he has a year to live.  He goes do the doctor (that breaks my first rule) and that’s what he hears. The film communicates the dread of gradually growing sicker quite well;  there is a real sense of horror. 
Although always sad-faced, and with weak connections even to family, he uses his background to steer the bureaucracy into building a children’s playground.  When he passes away, his son resents that the family had been kept clueless about his cancer.  Stomach cancer is a bad scene, and modern medicine shows that it can be related to infection with helicobacter pylori (NCI link). 

I remember concern about my own hypochondria and “indigestion” as a boy through the early teens (it got better after about age 16) and it was a real bummer.  I was surprised at how much medicine could do even in 1952. 

The original release was from Janus (and Toho), and the DVD is in the Criterion Collection.

Criterion calls its YouTube excerpt, “the moment he started living”.  

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