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Vol. LXIV, No. 49
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DVD Review

On Kurosawa’s 100th: A Movie That Dostoevsky Would Come Back For

Stuart Mitchner

I know of no one so compassionate… ordinary people turn their eyes away from tragedy; he looks straight into it.

Kurosawa on Dostoevsky

Events marking Akira Kurosawa’s centenary have ranged from the Tokyo Museum of Photography’s exhibit of his storyboards to a Nashville, Tennessee summer film festival that ended with Ikiru (1952), billed on the Nashville Scene website as “A Movie That Can Change Your Life.”

“Sure it will,” says the cynical moviegoer. “What does it mean to change your life? What do you do? Quit your job, pull up stakes, find yourself a mission?” In fact, that’s what happens in Ikiru, which means “to live.” A man who knows his days are numbered suffers the knowledge, sinks to the bottom of it, and comes back to the surface just in time to find his salvation.

Dostoevsky in Nashville

It’s a small world. If you can have a Kurosawa festival in the country music capital of the world, why not make things interesting and bring in a group of Dostoevsky devotees from parts unknown. These mysterious characters have seen Ikiru many times over, not to mention Kurosawa’s previous film, based on Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. They also know that the director’s older brother turned him on to Dostoevsky and Gorki and the films of Fritz Lang, John Ford, and Sergei Eisenstein before committing suicide when Akira was in his early twenties. So pumped are the Dostoevskians, they even manage to convince themselves that the balding, bearded old guy in the greatcoat sitting in the front row with his eyes glued to the screen is you-know-who himself. I mean, who else but Dostoevsky would wear a greatcoat on a hot summer day in Nashville? There’s general agreement that Ikiru is the Kurosawa film the author of The Brothers Karamazov would come back to life to see, the very one Kurosawa must have had in mind when he spoke of the man who was not afraid to “look straight into tragedy.”

The Dying Clerk

Ikiru’s opening image is an X-ray of the tumor in the doomed protagonist’s stomach. Next you see Mr. Wantanabe (Takashi Shimura) at work in Tokyo’s City Hall; he’s the Section Chief in the Department of Public Affairs, which, like Charles Dickens’s Circumlocution Office, and like numerous such offices in the works of Dostoevsky and Gogol, specializes in how not to do what has to be done. As one clerk says, “Doing nothing at all is the best way to protect your place.”

When a group of distraught mothers demands that something be done about the mosquito-infested cesspool threatening the health of children who play in its vicinity, Mr. Wantanabe doesn’t even raise his exhausted eyes from the documents he’s stamping as he tells a clerk to send them to another department. After parading from one brush-off to another, the women return to Public Affairs and make enough of a scene to earn them an audience with the Section Chief, except his place is empty. No one knows where he’s gone. Days later, he comes back, having absorbed the reality of his impending death with the help of two companions, first, a writer (Yûnosuke Itô) who offers to be a beneficent Mephistopheles leading him on a voyage through Tokyo’s night world, and second, the ebullient, free-spirited young woman (Miki Odagiri) who has decided to resign from her job in the same oppressive office. Inspired by her example — she who knows “how to live” — he devotes the last days of his life to battling the bureaucracy and making sure the cesspool is drained and a playground built in its place.

Shimura’s Intensity

Takashi Shimura’s portrayal of Mr. Wantanabe takes him to a place most actors dare not go. From the moment he comprehends the death sentence, it’s as if he’s been hurled toward his doom, a man in free fall, his face a mask of such dread and despair that a smile or a tear is an event. Interviewed in the documentary accompanying the 2-disc Criterion Collection DVD of Ikiru, Shimura says that Kurosawa used a picture of a monkey to indicate how the role should be played. “This is him,” said the director. While Shimura responds accordingly in a sometimes hair-raisingly primal performance, he never does it at the expense of Wantanabe’s humanity. For Shimura, inhabiting such a character was devastating: “There were times when I gave my all, squeezed out all I could give until I had given everything and had nothing left….” The phrase “squeezed out” could also describe the harrowing effects the actor achieves with his voice, as when he uses the “raspy falsetto” of cancer patients he’d spent time with during the production.

“Sing it in a way that makes it sound otherworldly” Kurosawa told Shimura apropos of the moment when Wantanabe hoarsely renders the old song (“Gondola nogata”) about the shortness of life, a song that he will sing again in the film’s most famous scene, sitting in a swing in the playground that was his life-changing mission, snow softly, luminously falling. Unlike that last lyrical moment, however, the first rendition comes in a dance hall that a minute before had been in an uproar, with a burly piano man banging out a bizarre mix of bop and boogie-woogie. As the old song begins to possess Wantanabe, the dancers stop and the place is hushed except for the pianist’s gently supportive accompaniment and the sick man’s tuneless croak. The dance hall girl who had been sitting in Wantanabe’s lap after kicking up her heels in a joyous frenzy during the boogie-woogie interlude backs away from him, as if recoiling from the message of the song (“Life is brief, fall in love, maidens/Before your raven tresses begin to fade/Before the flames in your hearts flicker and die”). It’s the same with the couples who had been dancing. Rather than responding to the obvious pathos of the situation, they’re wary, uneasy, distancing themselves from the grim future he embodies. If Kurosawa had wanted pathos, he wouldn’t have asked for something otherworldly.

The Novelist

Back in Nashville, it’s only to be expected that the Dostoevsky contingent sees intimations of the master in the wretched, morbid beauty of the moment in the dance hall. They might have applauded had they not already been roundly shushed for cheering the earlier appearance of their favorite character, the self-proclaimed Mephistopheles (“a virtuous one who won’t demand payment”) who will guide Wantanabe’s journey to the end of the night. The credits list him as “the novelist,” and indeed, when we first see him he’s been working on a manuscript, slouched at a table smoking and sipping sake with a wide-brimmed black hat on his head, a scarf around his neck, and a cape around his shoulders. He regards Wantanabe the way a writer regards a great subject, more to be admired than pitied, and he’s already, in effect, composing a narrative around him, telling him, “You were a slave to your own life. Now you’ll become a master.” Calling himself “a half-baked fool who writes meaningless novels,” he finds the doomed man “fascinating,” and speaks of “the nobility of misfortune,” which “teaches the truth” and other Dostoevskian sentiments.

The novelist is Wantanabe’s escort on the whirlwind tour of nighttime Tokyo with its pachinko parlors, smoky cabarets thronged with B girls, dance halls, and strip joints. Next morning he encounters Toyo, the spirited girl who corners the Section Chief after his night on the town because she needs him to sign off on her resignation from the dreary Department of Public Affairs. Her new job is making toy bunnies for children, and it’s the idea of doing something for children that inspires Wantanabe’s life-changing mission to turn the cesspool into a playground.

The Humanist

Takashi Shimura, who appeared in more Kurosawa films than any other actor including Toshiro Mifune, is given the last word in the Criterion documentary when he says that “the sense of humanism is the foundation” of Kurosawa’s work. His words are translations from the Japanese except “humanism,” for which Shimura uses English, perhaps because he knows his most universal role, the one he will be remembered for, is the one he played in Ikiru. It’s curious but not surprising that Kurosawa’s recognition and influence in the West was due not to Ikiru but to Japan-centric films like Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, and Rashomon.


The soul is healed by being with children.


As for the Nashville Dostoevskians, they remain in their seats long after the film is over and everyone else has left the theater. When the bearded man in the greatcoat passes the row in which they’re sitting, he gives them a smile as good as a password and shouts, “Hurrah for Kurosawa!” With that, they know he’s one of them, for he’s just echoed the last line of the novel they were all thinking of, the novel that ends with children joyously shouting like the children at play in Wantanabe’s playground, “Hurrah for Karamazov!”

The Princeton Public Library has an excellent collection of Kurosawa’s work, including the Criterion DVD of Ikiru containing the documentary from which I’ve been quoting.

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