Ikiru or To Live

Deemed Akira Kurosawa’s best film the movie Ikiru– or To Live is a complete examination of the life and death of a government worker in Japan. The movie was inspired by the book “The Death of Ivan Illych” by Tolstoy for its existential look at the life of one man and his realization that his life was lived as it should be, instead of as he would have chosen it to be.

 

One of the main differences between the movie and the book that inspired it, is the missing element of the wife in the cinematic version. The protagonist’s wife dies at a young age in the movie and he is left to raise his son by himself. This, and his job working in the same environment for thirty years invites scrutiny throughout the film.

Kurosawa does an excellent job directing this work of art and has described the way he focuses on his choice of film has to be inspired by something he sees in real life. He does not like thematic cinema, instead choosing to make a movie that may have scenes in it that offer glimpses into real world experiences and perceptions.

This movie while examining the demise and death of its protagonist is one of the most life affirming movies I have ever seen. It asks us to look at our lives while we can and to find the joy inherent in each moment, instead of finding ones’ self at the end of it filled with bitterness and regret.  Watanabe comes to some moving conclusions after his brief battle with anger, sadness and confusion and makes a decision that will impact his community that will be left behind.

One of the most poignant parts of this movie is when the protagonist sings a song entitled” Gondola no Uta” reflecting his sadness over the ending of his life. Even the words bring a tear to the eye of the viewer and the choice Kurosawa makes effects the view of the scenes it is in:

life is brief.
fall in love, maidens
before the crimson bloom
fades from your lips
before the tides of passion
cool within you,
for those of you
who know no tomorrow

life is brief
fall in love, maidens
before his hands
take up his boat
before the flush of his cheeks fades
for those of you
who will never return here

life is brief
fall in love, maidens
before the boat drifts away
on the waves
before the hand resting on your shoulder
becomes frail
for those who will never
be seen here again

life is brief
fall in love, maidens
before the raven tresses begin to fade
before the flame in your hearts
flicker and die
for those to whom today
will never return

 

It is said that when Takashi Shimura rehearsed his singing of “Song of the Gondola,” director Akira Kurosawa told him to “sing the song as if you are a stranger in a world where nobody believes you exist.” One might agree the song hauntingly reflects that reality.

Ikiru” means “to live,” and it seems that one of the major themes of the movie is that the main character – Watanabe, who has just been diagnosed with terminal illness but his doctor will not admit it so he is stuck in an ambiguous situation. Watanabe eventually comes to an epiphany and acts altruistically for others just before he dies. We also see the people at his wake take credit for the park Wantabe creates, because everyone only thinks of themselves in this life unless they are faced with their imminent demise.

Comments from the narrator of the movie include “He is simply passing time without really living his life – in other words he is not really alive.” Also “He might as well be a corpse – in fact he has been dead for over twenty years.” The comment ” busy, busy, always busy – in fact this man does nothing at all” is reflective of the way most people in the world work without thought to any other part of their lives.

 Heidegger’s  philosophical concept of the ‘tyranny of the other’  comes to mind when watching this film. Human beings, in their struggle to live any kind of meaningful or authentic existence, are in constant conflict and battle with the will, norms, standards, conceptions, ideas, preconceptions, and expectations of the society of which they are a member. From the day we are born, we are subject to the ‘tyranny of the other.’ We are born into a particular family which is full of expectations and ideas and conceptions of how we should act and who and what we should be. We live in a society where our peers, our church, our government, employer, and the general aspects of our particular culture, all expect us to act in a certain way and to believe a certain thing. And we cannot be nonconformists or we risk being ostracized by those who make the rules and regulations and laws of our communities. We all live the lives of “Watanabes” or worker bees!

Would Watanbe just have gone along doing what he was doing until the day he died, had he not been awakened to the idea that his life was to be cut short and there was more to it than he had realized? The narrator in the movie states the sad irony that: “the nobility of this misfortune because it teaches us the truth – we only realize how beautiful life is when we chance upon death.”  Much like the men in the Tolstoy story, the mourners at the wake refuse to waste the Sake and relish the idea that there will be room opening up in their work place so as to be able to move up in life! Toya, the young girl he used to work with tells him one day that she is bored with her existence at her job and chooses to move along, as she realizes her life is valuable and she wants to be living it doing what she wants to do. This seems to be the impetus for Watanabe to make his shift in the way he finishes his life. Ironically the swing he makes is much like the swing where he sits during his last day on Earth, moving hither then yon, up and down and away from his earthly life.

 

 

 

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Rashomon

Rashomon is a film by legendary Akira Kurosaki made in Japan in 1950. The starkness of the setting and the endless rain make produced in black and white make for a look at the differences in perceptions of witnesses to the rape of a Japanese woman in the woods. One thing rings at the end of the movie that most men have accepted at some point in their lives: “If you are not selfish you cannot survive”. This film shows human weakness and selfish egoism, as well as how fleeting life is from moment to moment.

The first thing noticeable is the building set where two men are sitting and contemplating an event that just took place in the courtyard. Another man comes upon the scene and the viewer listens to the exchange of differences in the accounts of the event discussed in detail. Immediately we are told that there are many disasters, like wars, floods, famines and other manner of ill in the world, but the worst kind of event we all are subject to is man’s inhumanity to man.

Immediately, I sense the horror of the atomic bomb’s destruction which had occurred only a few years before the making of the film as one of the sets. The other is the woods, which is always a dark and dangerous place, in all myths and stories of yore. We come back to the “Rashomon” or the building set many times and each time there is a sense of foreboding felt between the three men in the scene. The mise en scene is simple, the setting stark and this reminds us of the harsh realities of life. It is said in the film that even the demons have left “Rashomon” as they have given up on the lies and deceptions men inflict on the other. Losing faith in the human soul is worse than a disaster, as what have we left if people cannot be trusted?

There are several existential themes in this movie, “the ferocity of men”, “everyone lies and is selfish” and people do not wish to get involved. During the movie the explanations of those who witnessed the crimes in the woods all have different stories that come from personal agendas. The woman is viewed as a selfish, conniving whore and even her own story is how her husband refuses to look at her after her assault by the bandit in the woods. A medium recounts the “dead mans” side of the story in which the husband saves face by suicide. The bandit has another tale and the woodcutter another. Plain and simple, it shows how we all see things dependent on our agendas and the view we have on life.

The end of the tale is even more poignant. After what have been hours and hours of rain, the men argue about how selfish the woodcutter was in not doing anything but watch what happened in the woods. The other man, a priest is having his own crisis of soul and then a baby’s cry can be heard nearby. One of the men goes to the baby and instead of picking it up to care for it, takes the amulet and kimono it is wrapped in and plans to steal it. The woodcutter decries the listener for being evil in doing such a thing and the man reminds him that he too has been selfish, where is the ivory dagger that was lost in the woods that everyone mentioned in their testimony? The onlooker looks ashamed as the other man leaves. The priest picks up the baby and then men stand in the rain watching a continued cleansing of the area pounding in rain. As the scene shifts the onlooker tells the priest he will take the child and the priest believes he will harm him, but the man tells him he has 6 other children, what is one more? The priest believes in the goodness of man and now has a renewed faith in that belief. The child, representative of a new beginning, also reminds us that life is cyclic and one day he also many have to make choices that is judgments of ethical behavior.

Of this film Akiru Kurosawa has written about how his script was not initially understood by the makers of the film. He wrote: “Human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves. They cannot talk about themselves without embellishing. This script portrays such human beings–the kind who cannot survive without lies to make them feel they are better people than they really are. It even shows this sinful need for flattering falsehood going beyond the grave—even the character who dies cannot give up his lies when he speaks to the living through a medium. Egoism is a sin the human being carries with him from birth; it is the most difficult to redeem. This film is like a strange picture scroll that is unrolled and displayed by the ego. You say that you can’t understand this script at all, but that is because the human heart itself is impossible to understand. If you focus on the impossibility of truly understanding human psychology and read the script one more time, I think you will grasp the point of it.” (http://www.criterion.com/current/posts/196-akira-kurosawa-on-rashomon)

There is a type of effect called the “Rashomon Effect” that was introduced after the movie came out that refers to the subjectivity or perception of a recollection of an event. The observers are known to offer very different, but equally plausible accounts of what happened even though described in contradictory ways.

 

 

 

 

Lathe of Heaven

Lathe of Heaven

 

Just now powerful is the mind? If one were to consider this question they might realize that all things begin in mind before manifesting in reality. In order to invent something in the physical world, one must ponder it in the mental world. In the genre of science fiction, one questions the possibilities of world that can be created at a time in the ever present now, or the future. This existential reality is one we may deem worthy of evaluating as we discern the power of a dreaming mind. In the movie, “Lathe of Heaven” we find author Ursula LeGuin’s 1977 make into a cinematic event, replete with symbols, as well as the question of morality and ethics.

George Orr has a prophetic ability to change reality merely by dreaming. Not wanting to make manifest the dark and dismal realities of his dream visions, he believes suicide might be the antidote to the power inherent in his nightly dreamscapes. The harsh reality of a future world that is depicted in stark black and whites brings the future into a world of stark contrasts and dismal imagery. As time progresses, we find an unethical doctor who takes advantage of George’s power to change reality by making his own dreams made manifest for his own personal gain.

Some of the stark contrasts are most evident in the repressed sexuality of Dr. Haber’s secretary Penny. Aiming to suppress her sexual urges for her employer, she dresses conservatively in the beginning of the movie, and as she is unleashed from the grasp of her neurosis, works her image as one that is “hot to trot” much like Lady Godiva, an image utilized throughout the entire movie. This secretary undergoes a transformation or “trance-formations” that enable her to exhibit herself expressly to both Doctor Haber and George Orr.

Manny, or Manfred is a character whose presence appears to follow a heroic sidekick archetype for Manny, and one begins to wonder if this man is not the father to George Orr, as he is an effective father figure. Manny protects George and is a strong player in the universal game of chess. The chess pieces turn different colors throughout the movie, but Manny remains the strongest player on the board. It becomes evident by the end of the movie that Manny accepts his “part” in the play of George’s life and is aware of the ever present changes through George’s dream visions. He is also the first one to identify a therapist George will seek help from as “the rapist”, if you divide the word in this way. Dr. Haber does rape George by affecting all the changes he wants in the world, including, but not limited to, his notoriety and his wants for a devastated world. He does not value the world as it is and affects change in it that does not always “work as planned, in a straight line” as George would explain.

Dr Haber’s world becomes more colorful throughout the film, as evidenced by his clothing color choices. Both he and Ms. Heather LaLache are juxtaposed as adversaries and typify the balance between good and evil. The use of the phrases “good old days” and “hot to trot” bring some reflective humor to the movie and show the passage of time we all face in our own personal lives. The mention of the importance of staying “in the now” cannot be overemphasized as a means to enjoy life in the moment and not lurk in the past or worry over future moments that many not occur. These existential questions are often brought to the forefront in such a way throughout the movie without the audience being confused or preached to, which is always the hallmark of good cinema.

One of the key features of this movie is fear of change. George does not want to sleep and have a dream that will “change his world”. This fear of change is a rampant issue in society all of the time. If we take it one step further, we could say we also fear that “our dreams” will change our lives and it may not be for the better. Other people can try to manipulate our dreams and this also can affect the future in our own lives. This existential metaphor clearly is delivered in this movie. Even at the end when Haber decides he wants to take control of his patients mind, or his dreaming mind anyway, he loses all sense of his own memories and becomes a pathetic patient himself, living the delusion of being a doctor. His “doctor” is his own secretary and George becomes an “orderly” who tries to being some semblance of “order” to Haber’s life in a world of chaos and confusion.

One of the most stirring images we are shown in this movie are the nebula like jellyfish pulsating in the universe of the mind. The dark and still waters of the ocean are our subconscious mind which is also the keeper of secrets and the hidden nature of man, sometimes corrupted by the attempt at controlling others. The universe, vast and pulsating reflects our higher nature, the one in touch with the oneness of all things and the keeper of our higher wisdom. Taken together, these images remind us of the fleeting qualities of life and the strong inclination to try to make sense of a world that is riddled with chaos and instability. Because it is set in the future, we do not have to be forced to realize it confronts our reality in the present moment as well, but offers us a glimpse into another world, one in which we fear change will take things from us, exists and is not as scary as we might believe it to be.