About halfway through Kurosawa's Ikiru I thought, with a touch of cynicism: This is going to be a story of a staid and gloomy old man facing death, given a new appreciation of life by a vivacious young woman. I wondered if perhaps this was the first film to portray that sort of encounter and awakening, which strikes me as a little trite now. (Why do I think that? In fact can't think of a single specific film that follows the pattern, but I know I've encountered it enough to feel a little impatient with it.)
But that was only the first half (roughly) of a fairly lengthy film, and the rest of the story plays out somewhat differently.
The protagonist, Kanji Watanabe (played by Takashi Shimura), is an official in what is portrayed as a turgid city bureaucracy, indifferent to everything but its own machinery. Watanabe's job, as far as we see it, appears to consist mainly of looking at pieces of paper from the very large stacks that threaten to crowd out everything else in the office, looming over the staff in a very concrete representation of the phrase "overwhelmed by paperwork," and stamping them, presumably with a yes-no, approved-disapproved verdict. And one can't help thinking that most are disapproved, judging by the evasive not-our-responsibility behavior of the staff when they're approached by a group of women who want a sewage leak near their homes cleaned up.
Watanabe has not been feeling well, and he goes to a doctor who tells him nothing is seriously wrong with him. But the doctor is lying--a rather odd thing from a contemporary American perspective, but which appears to be standard procedure in the Japan of that time. Watanabe has been warned, though, by another patient: if the doctor thinks you have a fatal stomach cancer and not very long to live, he will tell you this, that, and the other--certain specific things--and those are in fact the very things the doctor says to him. Watanabe goes home believing he hasn't much longer to live, and we are not left wondering whether it could be a false alarm because we have been told in an opening voiceover that it is not. And the doctor admits it to an assistant after Watanabe is gone.
Watanabe is a widower and has been since his only child, a son, was very young. He has raised the boy alone, sticking with his dreary job for the child's sake. Now, in several painful scenes, he realizes that his son and daughter-in-law don't much care about him, apart from the pension he will eventually receive. He turns back to the job: did it, does it, really have to be so futile?
"Ikiru" means "to live," and the film suggests that the word is part of a question: what does it mean to live? On the basis of my very limited knowledge, I suspect the Japanese character does not go in as much for the big cosmic answer as some other cultures do. Kurosawa may have intended Ikiru to be almost as much a criticism of bureaucracy as an exploration of meaning, and it certainly works that way, but the title makes it clear that the deeper and more permanent concern is primary. The resolution arrived at is modest, hardly triumphant, not satisfying as a cosmic answer (at least not to me), but quite moving. If it is not a solution, it is certainly a consolation. There are a couple of scenes toward the end that I want to watch repeatedly, one in particular which involves falling snow.
When I watch these movies it takes me a little while to adjust to the acting style. Shimura's portrayal of Watanabe's terror strikes me as peculiar and overdone. I found it helpful to think of it not as an unsuccessful sort of naturalism but as the use of the face as a kind of tragic mask. With that adjustment, it works.
This seems to be the original trailer. It's almost four minutes long.
All I know of Japanese cinema is the most famous of Kurosawa's work (Rashomon et. al.), and a few of Ozu's. Unlike the former, which are set in the pre-modern past, this one is then-contemporary postwar Japan. And on the basis of it and the Ozu films, I wonder whether the situation of old people whose children don't really want to be bothered with them is a widespread concern in Japan, or at least was in the 1950s. Or does the presence of the question in these films mean that the behavior was a new and deeply shocking thing? And does that have any connection to the news reports I keep reading that the Japanese birth rate is so low as to place the culture's survival in doubt? All or most industrialized nations seem to be tending toward very low birth rates, but Japan's seems to be worse: Japan births fall to record low as population crisis deepens (CNN)
The reason I watched Ikiru at just this time was that I was intrigued by Rob G's recommendation of Living, a recent English film which is a remake of Ikiru. (See comments on this post.) I basically dislike the whole idea of remakes. I dislike the idea so much that I can't even justify my prejudice by pointing to some examples, because I don't watch them. (For that matter I haven't seen most of the originals.) I think my prejudice began in 1978 when someone remade Invasion of the Body Snatchers. I had only recently seen the original and thought it was great, and didn't see the point of remaking it. (I'm asking myself now: how did I see it in the late '70s? I don't know. Home video had barely gotten started, and I'm pretty sure I didn't have a VCR until the early '80s. And when the original came out in 1956 I was eight years old and certainly didn't see it then.)
The argument for a remake of Ikiru is stronger than most, because the original is not only relatively obscure but presents language and culture obstacles for the Western audience.
Anyway: Living serves as an example of doing it right. One way of doing it wrong would be to change too little, to make a slavish imitation, with whatever updates are necessary to bring it into a different time, place, and, possibly culture. In that case one might think "Why bother?" The other, which I think is probably what happens more frequently, is to trash it: to turn it into something else, as if the re-maker didn't really like the original, or, worse, to make it "contemporary" by sensationalizing it: more sex, more violence, cruder language, and maybe some (or a lot) of fashionable politics. (As I write this I suddenly remember some reviews of remakes which no doubt reinforced my prejudice: one, for instance, a remake of Cape Fear which made the villain into some sort of Christian.)
Living strikes exactly the right balance of homage and innovation. I suppose some critics, especially the trendier sort, might find it too close to the original, not "innovative" etc.; if so I disagree. I wondered, when I saw an ad for it, why the main character, a county official named Williams (Bill Nighy), is wearing a bowler: surely London office workers don't do that anymore? But the story is set in the 1950s, a more plausible time for a government official to mirror the rigid rule-following super-conventional type of his Japanese contemporary Watanabe. The result is a near-perfect transmutation. One would never suppose, if not otherwise informed, that it is not a wholly English original.
There are a few changes to the story and to the characters. They strike me as not necessarily necessary but justifiable. Some are perhaps calculated to make best use of the English milieu, which in any case the film very much does. The one I noticed most is a change in the relationship between Wilson and his son and daughter-in-law. In Kurosawa's original, the latter are about equally at fault in their treatment of the old man. In this one, the son is only weak, and his wife is pretty close to actively malicious, pushing her husband (not very successfully) to make demands on his father with the broad goal of getting him out of their lives. And the son is, at the end, remorseful, which in the original he is not.
Whether or not you've seen Ikiru, this movie is very much worth your while. I notice that it received a number of awards. Good; it deserves them. The screenplay, by the way, is by the novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, author of The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go, among many others, who is Japanese by birth but has lived in England (mostly) since he was a child. I didn't recognize the name of the director, Oliver Hermanus, or any of his other work.
Here's the trailer, which, you'll notice, is less than half as long as the Ikiru trailer. Attention spans are shorter than they once were, I think.
Another question I'm asking myself: why is Bill Nighy so familiar to me? I've seen almost none of the movies and TV shows listed in his filmography. Yet when Rob mentioned his name I knew immediately who he was.