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Takasi Shimura as Watanabe (Ikiru)

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve been for months it seems writing about a subgenre of novels I called “grief memoirs,” some are ostensibly non-fiction and may be in verse (Donald Hall’s Without), others novels (Toibin’s Nora Webster), memoir’s (Joan Didion’s A Year of Magical Thinking), sermon disguised as science (Sherwin Nuland’s How We Die). I have bought myself an art history book, T. J. Clark’s The Sight of Death, which I found focuses on precisely a couple of Poussin’s paintings that Jim loved so, and will come back to that another time. For now I add movies, one 24 hours after the first viewing has worn off seems to me as meaningful and beautiful too (deep, true, subtle, complex and complicated emotions) as any list of best prose or poetry books you can find.

The trouble with hyperbole is when you want to single out something you can be at a loss for words. After I watched Ikiru by Kurosawa last night (Yvette told me about it over supper last week) I was at a loss for words to find adequate expression. Maybe unforgettable, maybe so direct with true emotions which in life we are taught by experience and our own need to guard ourselves from showing or even feeling, we hardly ever acknowledge openly and yet are in such need of — for ourselves, to help others, to be with, and to experience from others. I had never heard of Ikiru though I had seen (years ago with Jim in a tiny movie-house in Leeds, for 12 and 6) Rashomon. So here’s wikipedia for the vanilla version (it lacks stills), and Ebert, headed with the justly famous moment of the man at the close of the film on a swing.

The story: Kanji Watanabe, an old man who has spent 30 years in a dull office where work is meaningless, and promotions come by staying put and doing nothing that displeases those above you, discovers he has stomach cancer and less than a year to live, probably 6 months. This is 1952 and there is no treatment at all in Japan. He is not given the dignity of truth: told he has a mild ulcer and must try to eat as long as he can, but he has had a conversation with someone who told him just the same words from a doctor means you are dying of stomach cancer. Already he can’t eat much, vomits most of what he takes in. Shimura is a powerful actor; he is unashamed to put the most vulnerable abject emotions on his face: in his eyes come and go the terror of death, but since no one in the doctor’s office will admit he’s dying, and he cannot bring himself to tell the cold son, he has no one to express himself to.

knowledge

Watanabe has spent 30 years in an office where nothing is done and any one trying to get help is given the runaround. Like Dickens’s Nobody’s fault – now not to get anything done. he has this intense revulsion and for several nights goes about with two young people, a man who is a novelist and has compassion for him when he tells the man he is dying of stomach cancer, a young girl who he is driven to tell as she tires of him and grows frightened. He tells her he has spent these long nights with her because her youth and intense aliveness makes him feel alive again, younger (Jim used to say that’s why older men left their wives for younger women). She calls him creepy. He is creepy looking. now unshaven, desperate, deeply hungry in his soul.

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The nights are awful: hugely overcrowded places where people are in an endless circle of useless (meaningless) activities, all smiling and seeming to enact pleasure. Horrible nightmares really, but the old man tries to enjoy himself — his old hat is destroyed by a passing car and the young man helps him buy a snazzy one. At home his relationship with his son and daughter-in-law has become cold; they resent him, they want his money when he dies; they leap to the worst conclusions: that he is after the young girl sexually; that he is suddenly becoming a layabout; he is disgracing them the son says. He should stick to the job and do what’s wanted.

Job

He remembers things as he is going about at the clubs and in the night streets — seeing couples, seeing groups of people. In a flashback, wee see him and his son in a car with his parents — they are driving to or from his wife’s funeral. She died very young. All crowded in. The feel so impersonal because there is a driver in front too. He remembers intensely happy moments as in later years alone he watched his son achieve this or that. He remembers his son making gestures of love to him. Oh it is just heart-breaking.

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Well, when the young girl says she has had enough he remembers — finally — a group of women who had come to beg for having a huge cesspool near where they live fixed, and then if possible build a playground. We cut to his funeral where a Deputy Mayor and high functionaries are with his son and daughter-in-law. The DM is angry because people are saying the old man built the playground; he did not.

As these people talk, the women come in who he helped, and they cry and put incense in front of the Watanabe’s picture. As they sit there for a couple of hours and then are replaced by close co-workers, the story of how the playground came to be is told in flasbacks. The co-workers include a few people who have intelligence and hearts and under the influence of lots of liquor they realize the old man was transformed all at once, put together memories and realize he was dying of stomach cancer.

KurIkiruReview

In the flashbacks we see that as a minor Chief Something-or-other he can and does sign for this project to be done, but to get it done requires terrific terrible patience, bowed over before so many mean hostile irritated selfish people — really it’s all about selfishness, how selfish we all learn to be.

Scene after scene of him bent over begging, of people — restaurant owners infuriated because they want the space for their profit-making establishment (doubtless another of the rooms crowded with people supposed to be enjoying themselves), whom he lurches past.

hospital

He is endlessly hunched over, whether walking the streets at night with the two companions, with his office workers begging for playground or with his son (a huge newspaper dividing them) or daughter-in-law, resentment itself.

It’s a parable. Alas it’s improbable that he would have gotten so many people to agree and act just to get rid of him. This is where we are in the improbable. By his open vulnerabilty he gets everyone to act to make him go away. We see him on the site. But Kurosawa has forestalled our objections.

Several times in the film he or others is nearly run over by cars and/or huge trucks as in one of the site scenes.

The workers getting ever drunker remember seeing the old man on a swing looking happy one night in the rain with the playground all around him — that is the moment of the miraculous serenity. When the co-workers are talking and one denies the old man had stomach cancer, says he is putting together a story that didn’t happen that way, it was by chance it was achieved, for other practical reasons it was done, because the DM had an election, another worker looks at him. He doesn’t believe this: the old man was an inane fool. The worker says if that is so, there is nothing but this dark place (as life, for life). The worker begins to cry. So if we rule out Kurosawa’s story, we are left bottomlessly bereft.

As all who have seen the film recall we switch to the old man swinging on the swing. It is night and raining. Kurosawa manages this shimmering beauty in the texture of what we are seeing. The old man sings a brief slow melancholy ballad which he had gotten one of the musicians on the nights he went out to play: life is brief, it urges you to enjoy it while you are young. My favorite of the many stills taken from this scene is one where we see the old man from the side, swinging, singing.

From what he sees at the funeral the son gradually realizes that he misunderstood totally, especially (the film continually does this, provides a mean motive for what is happening) as when he gets home, his wife finds the old man left him and her his whole pension. One of his grief feelings is clearly from his now being left with irretrievable remorse. He cannot undo the life they led.

He is intensely hurt his father never told him he had stomach cancer. But everything all around them pushed the old man to tell only the two semi-strangers at night in moments of sudden anguish, and the girl does not react well. The character who reacts best over the whole film to this news is the young man the first night, this novelist who can’t get his novels published, who looks poor and awful and who we at first fear will cheat the old man, but does not.

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It is he who helped the old man buy himself the new hat. That hat all battered is in the son’s hands as the film ceases. This is, ladies and gentlemen, an affirmative film.

Someone in the group at the funeral asserts he has seen Watanabe walking on the bridge over the playground, wandering among the children. We see them in the office and the co-worker who cried sees another group of people in need of help come in and at first stands up to try to do something for them. But no one stands with him. He soon sits down.

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How long will the playground last? who will mend it when things break? these children will grow into the adults we saw late at night wandering wildly.

The film’s last image is of a man in shadows standing on the bridge looking down: is it the co-worker who cried? Watanabe’s ghost? if so, this is a a redemptive ghost moment: most tales come out of the irretrievability of a life’s experience. But it’s not clear what we see.

A larger perspective: the film shows Japan after WW2: the devastation of the bombing from the Allies, dreadful before the atom bombs hit.

ikirucafe

I felt I ought to write a novel about some of things I carry on thinking to myself and feeling since Jim died but when I once tried it came out so raw (and grim) I had to stop. What is astonishing is the control in the film which makes the surface cool and produces these capabilities of human hearts in the midst of a society desolate of uncorrupted structures for people to relate to one another too, instead with structures which reinforce the worst feelings of materialism and superficial gaiety.

Maybe in Wolf Hall there are in it, due to Rylance’s presence, tone, face, moments of deep gravitas, projections of still true emotion, that reach near what flowers in Ikiru.

Last night I dreamt of Jim, it was disturbing because the dream was he was back but with the cancer. Probably I was longing to have him back with me on any terms. Yes I can survive — I have conversations with people where I gather I am expected to have “gotten over what happened” by now. That is, by those who have never had such a loss or have never felt life at its core. Those who have know better.

Sylvia

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