Watanabe on the swing in the snow

Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru is now old enough – it was released in 1952 – for people to be able to consider it rationally. Almost from the moment it hit the screens it was treated as Kurosawa’s “triumph”, one of the best films ever made, regularly turning up on Sight and Sound magazine’s influential once-a-decade poll of the best movies ever made.

Recently, though, it’s slipped a bit. In 1962 it was number 20 on S&S‘s list. By 2012 it’s “only” at number 136, well behind Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (17) and Rashomon (24). A 2016 article in the UK’s Daily Telegraph listing its top 10 most overrated films of all time placed Ikiru at number six, between Slumdog Millionaire and Million Dollar Baby. Considering that neither of those films comes laden Ikuru‘s cultural kudos, that’s quite unusual company.

So what’s the film about? Kurosawa unusually opens with an X-ray of a man’s stomach. This man has cancer, a voiceover tells us, but he doesn’t know it yet. We meet Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura), a bureaucrat who’s spent so long at his desk that he’s almost grown into it. He’s dead already, the voice says, and has been for decades. Instead of getting things done, he shuffles papers from pile A to pile B, moving problems about rather than solving them.

Enter a problem to illustrate: a gang of local women petitioning to have the swampy, mosquito-infested culvert that runs by their homes turned into a park. Watanabe does what he does, punting the problem off to another department, and Kurosawa delivers a Hollywood-esque montage sequence of the women chasing from Public Affairs (Watanabe’s department) to Parks to Highways to Schools to Public Health, and so on, each department kicking the problem further down the road.

Meanwhile, Watanabe has taken his stomach complaint to the doctor and has learned – obliquely – that he has terminal cancer and may only have months to live. Having never missed a day’s work in 30 years, the diligent but useless Watanabe draws a stack of cash out of his bank account and sets out on a voyage of discovery. Or rebirth.

It’s a Wonderful Death – the quip has been made before, but it’s an accurate one. As old Watanabe takes faltering steps into Life (the title is usually translated at To Live), a Frank Capra-esque film starts to emerge, with Watanabe being guided on his new path by two different representatives of a life lived to the full. The first is a writer, who finds Watanabe semi-drunk in a bar and takes him on a night of booze, girls and music. And the second is a sparky subordinate from Watanabe’s office he meets by accident, who shows him a day of fun-loving, but chaste, good times.

Toyo with Watanabe in a restaurant
Toyo shows Watanabe how to live

Both are lovely performances, Yûnosuke Itô as the heavy-lidded novelist with debauchery written all over his face, and Miki Odagiri as Toyo, the bubbly co-worker who’s realised that office life is deadly and wants out, a Manic Pixie Dream Girl in utero and by far the best thing in the film. Shimura, by contrast, overacts throughout.

From the doctor finding himself incapable of telling Watanabe that he’s going to die (Watanabe pieces it together thanks to a “translator” out in the waiting room), to the petitioning women being sent on a wild goose chase, to young Toyo misconstruing Watanabe’s motives, to Watanabe’s avaricious son’s failure to understand what’s suddenly got into his dad, miscommunication abounds. Getting things all wrong is one of the film’s themes, along with the dead weight of bureaucracy (sledgehammer subtlety here) and restrictive family life.

But mostly it’s about Watanabe’s redemption – returning to work spiritually reinvigorated he moves heaven and earth to get the petitioning women’s park built before he succumbs to his illness.

One of the things that makes Ikiru hard going is its very drab looks, at first anyway. In the pre-Netflix era you could do this sort of thing – be daringly dull – because your audience had paid their money and were trapped in a cinema. Films were not as front-loaded then as they are now.

But the mid-grey palette of DP Asakazu Nakai, the flat performance by Shimura and Kurosawa’s static direction is in keeping with Watanabe in his “dead” state. As he comes back to life, the monochrome picture gains contrast and tonal range, Shimura becomes more animated and Kurosawa starts to swing the camera around. Things lighten up, in other words.

With 50 minutes of running time still to go, our hero is dead and the dead hand of bureaucracy is re-asserting itself. At the official mourning Watanabe’s colleagues hash out whether his was a life well lived or not, in scenes that go on and on. Here, the petitioning women are also re-introduced, pointing up the film’s main structural problem – this plotline simply isn’t integrated well enough, leading to moments of “who are these people again?… oh, yeh”.

One of the film’s final images is of a flashback to Watanabe sitting on a swing singing to himself, in the dark, the snow falling softly around him. It’s pure Capra, Kurosawa’s homage to one of his favourite directors. But Frank Capra would surely never have tolerated Ikiru‘s messy final act.

A lovely film, but not a great one. It’s a Wonderful Life trumps it, and it’s not anywhere on S&S’s big list.

Ikiru – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

The Hidden Fortress

Princess Yuki and General Makabe

The Hidden Fortress is a film by Akira Kurosawa and just that fact alone – “a film by Akira Kurosawa” – is enough to get it bracketed as an arthouse movie. Which is entirely ridiculous if you watch it, because there’s nothing difficult or abstruse going on here, no philosophical musing, no challenging style experiments to overcome or difficulties over character, plot or chronology.

It’s an out and out Saturday evening adventure movie with action, comedy, a pretty girl and a strapping hero. It’s that aspect of it, its entertainment value, that first attracted George Lucas to it when he was first scoping out his first Star Wars film. Great though Star Wars is, an arthouse movie it is not.

There are other similarities with Lucas’s film, though the whole “it’s based on The Hidden Fortress” argument takes things too far. This is a quest movie, there is an endangered princess and in its lead characters, venal, cowardly peasants Tahei (Minoru Chiaki) and Matashichi (Kamatari Fujiwara) there are obvious templates for joined-at-the-hip robots R2D2 and C3PO. Princess Yuki (Misa Uehara) is also an obvious role model for Princess Leia – feisty, brave, combat-ready and also struggling against enemy forces who would extinguish her blood line and with it the hopes of a lot of innocent people.

John Williams clearly listened to Masaru Satô’s soundtrack, though not as closely as Ennio Morricone did with Satô’s soundtrack to Kurosawa’s Yojimbo when he was scoring Sergio Leone’s remake A Fistful of Dollars.

But… no Darth Vader, no Luke Skywalker, no Han Solo, or anyone who might fit that bill. Instead there is Toshirô Mifune as legendary General Makabe. You could argue that Makabe is a composite: Obi Wan’s wisdom, Han Solo’s charm and swagger, but that is to put the cart before the horse. Getting our chronologies in the right order, Mifune is obviously modelled on Douglas Fairbanks, down to the fists-on-hips stance and the head thrown back in uproarious laughter.

For full enjoyment it’s actually best to leave the Star Wars comparisons to one side once those obvious borrowings have been taken into account, and follow Tahei, Matashichi, Princess Yuki and General Makabe on a grand adventure to spirit the princess and a hoard of gold across enemy lines, the first two doing it for the money, the second two for more noble reasons.

Kamatari Fujiwara and Minoru Chiaki
Kamatari Fujiwara and Minoru Chiaki

Kurosawa is a master of action. His crowd scenes are brilliantly choreographed (watch an entire platoon of soldiers flinch as one) and he’s also a dab hand at the action set piece – spears and samurai swords might not be light sabres but isn’t the way they are wielded incredibly familiar? Sorry, I’m comparing again.

Everyone overacts, which is to say they bark their (post-dubbed) lines, strike fierce poses and roll their eyes in the theatrical Japanese style whenever possible. Once you’ve tuned in to the idea – overdoing it – it’s all great fun. Join in at home.

Mifune was Kurosawa’s favourite actor and you can see why here. He exudes manliness, charm and natural authority and he’s the sort of person who can jump onto a horse and gallop off, samurai sword aloft, motionlessly ready to strike while the horse thunders away beneath.

Some of the Japanese notions of martial honour – we’re only alive when we fight and it’s better to die than to be allowed to live after losing – don’t quite map to the current zeitgeist, but on the whole this is a remarkably familiar sort of film, with incident, jeopardy, comedy and action all crowding in on each other like something from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Enjoy with pizza and a beer in other words. As for the subtitles – given that you’re reading these words they shouldn’t be too taxing.

PS: a word about the Criterion 2K restoration I watched. It’s spectacular. Not only is the image sharp and the monochrome shades incredibly nuanced, but it’s been resubtitled, and brilliantly, in a way that’s both up to date but unobtrusive. No one ever said “Get out of here,” in 1958 to mean “I don’t believe you,” but they do here. It fits the whole knockabout ethos perfectly.

The Hidden Fortress – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021