September 28, 2014

Tracing the arc of one's mortality

I watched Kursosawa’s Ikiru (1952) last night and I absolutely loved it. Again I'm astonished by how successfully Kurosawa ambushes his audience. You think you're watching a film only to realize that you've entered into some kind of existential contract with the director, the stakes of which are nothing less than that which you think is good, beautiful, and true in and about the world. The film starts with an x-ray of a man's stomach, an x-ray that shows stomach cancer. So the whole film is framed by this threat of terminal illness; our protagonist – Kanji Wantanabe (Takashi Shimura) – has been given a death sentence. This, of course, can be read in global anthropological terms, we've all been given death sentences - to live means to die, to give form to an existence whose greatest certainty is that it will at some point cease to exist. At first this feels as though it could be a highhanded existentialism, a filmic adaptation of Camus's The Stranger or The Plague - literary explorations that track lives as they transition, to use Heidegger’s idiom, from the banal and unfelt sociological assertion of "one dies" to the "apodictic certainty of my death", from "inauthenticity" to "authenticity". And indeed, it is his diagnosis that prompts the Watanabe's courage to be, to live a life resolutely comported towards its own temporal horizon. There is, however, a deep ordinariness that pervades this life that militates against existential grandstanding (Kurosawa accomplishes this largely through mood and pace, through the minutiae of facial expressions and quotidian rhythms). Watanabe is the section chief of a public affairs office in Tokyo's city hall. He is part of a vast and unfeeling paper pushing bureaucratic machine. We see how ugly bureaucracy is when some locals show up trying to have an open cesspool removed from their neighborhood - the well-meaning community activists are bounced around like pinballs between different departments only to be dismissed in a truly discouraging way, and then told to leave their complaint in writing. When the miserly Watanabe, who hasn't missed a day of work in nearly 30 years, gets his diagnosis, he withdraws money from the bank and shows up at bar knowing he will die and realizing, painfully, that he does not know how to live (he buys expensive sake because it signifies enjoyment, despite the fact that he dislikes the taste). After a couple of weeks of truancy, late nights, bars, carnivals, etc. and a number of outings with a young woman from work (that are variously sweet and disconsolate), Watanabe realizes that to taste life, to feel its pulse, one has to make something - to live is to love the world, to love the world is to love one small piece of it intensely. He returns to work and throws himself at the project of removing the cesspool and creating a little park. In the next scene, we are at his funeral - he is dead and the park he worked to complete is finished - the movie, however, is not. Had the film ended here, it would have been a lovely feel good existentialist fairy tale. Instead, we, the viewers – intimately privy to this man's vital internal transformation – are immediately thrust back into the gossipy and self-aggrandizing power games of living where Wantanabe's reputation is severely abused. Through various misjudgments and recounting of memories, the story of his final months at work are pieced together. The viewing audience knows with hyper-acuity what is true and what is false. And this is extremely painful (painful for me at least) because while, in the first part of the movie we witnessed a life, we are now (and this is Kurosawa's brilliance) put in the position of wanting to desperately defend it against the cynicism and misrepresentation that threaten to disfigure its beauty. There’s something startlingly ordinary about the casual selfishness of those who surround him and, more importantly, something just as ordinary in the grace that transforms a life that has begun to limb the arc of its own mortality. I know this sounds cheesy and kind of uncool, but in a very simple and straightforward way this movie made me want to be a better person – a rare accomplishment for any film.

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