Monday, 23 August 2010

Ikiru (1952)

Some back story:

For a while S & I have been working our way through the 'they shoot pictures, dont they' top 100, partly out of interest, mostly out of a sense of ego-fuelled duty (can you call yourself a cineaste if you haven't seen Le Règle du Jeu? Unlikely. Now we have - and it was overated). We knew we wouldn't like all of the films we watched, after all it's a ranking of opinions, but we hoped to really fall for the majority of those on the list. There were revelations (M - amazing; L'atalante - subtle and brilliant), disagreements (The Searchers - didn't find S; The Magnificent Ambersons - not so magnificent for S) and disappointments (Les enfants du paradis? Rio Bravo? and I was really looking forward to Rio Bravo). Then there was Kurosawa, and I still can't decide on how I feel about his films...

Ikiru was the second film after Kurosawa's European breakthrough Rashomon, and it's the 5th Kurosawa films I've seen so far (Rashomon, The Seven Samurai, Kagemusha and Ran being the others). It tells the story of a civil servant, Watanabe, who is nearing retirement. At the beginning of the film Watanabe is diagnosed with terminal stomach cancer. He has devoted his life to his monotous work, refusing to remarry after his wife died and instead raises his son from a distance whilst continuing to plug away at work, never standing out, and earning the nickname 'The Mummy'. The film tells the story of how he comes to terms with his nearing death and his desire to finally make a difference to someone.

The film is well shot with some great crowd scenes when Watanabe is taken on a night out with his "own personal Mephistopholes". The final scene of Watanabe singing in the snow is, regardless of its renown, beautiful. The majority of the film takes place in interiors: homes, bars, offices. You geta real feel of claustrophobia throughout the feel, as if Watanabe's enaring fate is closing in with the walls and piles of office papers. Yet I couldn't quite accept this film and never felt as if Kurosawa showed us anything.

What do you learn about Watanabe? That he should have remarried, that he is a figure of fun at work, that his son resents him. Do we learn anything about why he took this route in life? Well, no. Other than a sense of 'duty' to his son and a desire not to appear needy or special, Watanabe only ever seems to stare forlonly to the left of the camera whenever he is confronted with an unsettling truth. Boy do you get sick of that face...

The film would be a good half an hour shorter if we weren't forced to sit and stare at that face every 10 minutes. And this is were my frustration with Kurosawa can be summed up - where is the subtlety? Where is the ephiphany? I always expect him to be better than Ozu due to his reputation and his subject range, but in terms of an effecting drama about old age and mortality Tokyo Story blows Ikiru out of the water.

Watanabe decides to push through the children's playground proposal - fair enough. But you could see it coming a mile off. The film really lacked any real character progression - Watanabe's world was shattered by his diagnosis, he felt sorry for himself for the vast majority of the film, he got took on a picaresque tour of the city and spent a lot of time with a young women from the office - did he learn anything from them? I never felt that he did. The decision to back the playground wasn't influenced by any of his recent experiences, it was just the first paper on top of the pile.

I liked this film, but it failed to deliver on its promise. I like Kuroswa, but he fails to deliver on his promise.  This is why I can't place him: his films promise everything, but ultimately show us very little.

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