Who am I? What do I stand for?
When I started this meme, I did not need to think which film for ‘I’, but rather, the other way around – that Ikiru already fills the ‘I’ slot. That sums up my love and respect for this profound, quiet, and the most personal film by the giant Kurosawa. It is a deeply inspiring film every time you remember it later.
Ikiru (‘to live’), is about the life and death of an ordinary bureaucrat, who discovers at the beginning of the film that he has less than a year to live, since he is dying of cancer. Watanabe has spent 30 years of his meaningless existence stamping papers at a desk. When he discovers he has only a few months to live, he is in despair and finds himself estranged from his family. He also realizes that he has led a meaningless existence all his life. The narrator tells us that death won’t be such a big change, since he has mostly lived like a corpse his entire life. What follows is incredible and extremely moving.
Watanabe has been compared with Sartre’s Roquent, Camus’ ‘foreigner’, Kafka’s Gregor, and Dostoevsky’s Prince Myushkin, but I know only Watanabe, the rest are all strangers! 🙂
The first scene is a close up of an x-ray. We are thus shown Watanabe’s inside, before we see his outside. The cancer defines the character. In the first half of the film, we are shown his body and actions, his physical manifestation. At the midpoint, Watanabe dies. In the remaining half, the body has disappeared, and through the conversations of others, we are shown what remains of Watanabe – his soul. I have not seen such structural ingenuity in any other film.
After a series of despairingly hedonistic flings, Watanabe realizes that he needs to do something worthwhile if he is to give some meaning to his life. Is he successful? Watch the deeply moving closing scene, and you’ll know.
No one other than Takashi Shimura, a Kurosawa veteran, could have played Watanabe. Shimura has the uncanny ability of personifying characters who do not personify anything.
Greater lessons can be learnt in the latter half: how one man’s actions can confuse, inspire, or frustrate others. Our empathy with Watanabe increases because we are not simply shown what he does, rather we find ourselves rooting for him, championing for him, in the cynicism and gossip of others. One interpretation is that what ultimately matters regarding the meaning of one’s life is what one decides for himself. What others think about it is meaningless and futile.
There are many sequences of poignant film-making at its best. In a heart-rending scene, Watanabe goes home and cries himself to sleep under his blanket, while the camera pans up to show us a commendation he received after 25 years of service. The scene at the bar, when amidst the drunken, rambunctious revelry, Watanabe slowly starts to sing, and the entire bar becomes silent. The long shot of his stubborn, submissively bowed head, unyielding, in the office of pencil pushers. And the closing shots – one of the greatest in cinema.
Ikiru stands so high above every other ‘I’ movie I have seen, that there is no runner up.
- Immortal Beloved, a romantic fantasy of the search of Beethoven’s unknown lover that is disturbingly and passionately evocative, like Beethoven’s music. A must-see if you are a classical music buff. A memorable scene is that of Beethoven as a boy running into the forest and floating on a lake. He appears afloat in the starry sky reflected in the water, while the ‘Ode To Joy’ from the Ninth plays in the background.
- Il Postino, a charming, quiet, emotionally fulfilling movie, with a bit of everything.
- Ijaazat, Gulzar’s sensitive drama about an estranged couple with excellent performances and an unforgettable soundtrack.
- Intermezzo, Ingrid Bergman’s American debut, a romantic triangle with beautiful cinematography and magnificent music.
Yet To Watch
It’s A Wonderful Life, Frank Capra’s acclaimed masterpiece, which would probably have figured somewhere above had I seen it! 🙁