Zorzi gives a vivid account of the rise of the Venetian Empire and its eleven-hundred year ‘Golden Age,’ using historical quotations, pictures, diagrams, etc. He traces the history of Venice, from its beginnings as a refuge for Romans, escaping from the barbarians that destroyed their Empire, to its own imperial dominance and mastery of overseas trade. Venice has an almost mythic quality to it, which it why Daphne du Maurier chose to set her short story, Don’t Look Now, in Venice. Zorzi writes of Venice’s beginnings, “Tradition and legend […] surrounds the founding of Venice in a mythology which is almost reminiscent of the Biblical account of the origins of the world” (10). The mysterious quality of the city makes it a perfect setting for Don’t Look Now, which toys with reality and makes us question our historical vision. Zorzi explains that Venice was seen as an “overbearing entity, which aroused hatred suspicion, worry and fear” (7). He describes Venice as an ominous figure, menacing those around it. Roeg captures this negative character of Venice in the film, making the city complicit in the death of John Baxter.
Zorzi explains that the Venetians were “descendants of the Romans that had opted for the freedom of the seas and lagoons rather than bend to the will of barbarian monarchs” (68). Venice is described as a safe-haven, a place for people to escape to (from the crumbling Roman Empire). Don’t Look Now captures this aspect of Venice, because John and Laura are refugees in a way. They are attempting to escape from their pain and sorrow over the death of their daughter by ‘escaping’ to Venice.
Understanding the history of Venice also illuminates certain moments of dialogue in the film. For example, when John says, “The deeper I go, the more Byzantine it gets,” he is referring both to the difficulties that arise as his renovation of the church progresses and the fact that Venice was built by Byzantines (i.e. citizens of the Roman Empire). The devotion of the police officers is also better understood, because, “An extremely strong sense of justice permeates Venetian civilization right from its beginnings” (137)...
Von der Lippe places Don’t Look Now into a genre specific to Venice. He compares Don’t Look Now to Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, Ian McEwan’s Comfort of Strangers, etc. and finds common threads in them which he weaves into a genre. Much in the same way that film critics found similar styles in American crime films and called them “film noir,” Von der Lippe sees these works as Venice-specific works (a term which he does not actually use). In these works, Venice is defined by its labyrinthine design. Venice is also described as a place of escape; as Von der Lippe writes, “All of the travelers have left their northern homes in search of that which has been lost.” Venice is where their search takes them, but, unfortunately, they will never find what they are looking for in Venice. Von der Lippe sets up Venice as the only logical place where Don’t Look Now could be set. Venice is a disorienting place and a place of escape, and Don’t Look Now is about a couple escaping their troubles, searching for answers, and getting lost in their search (although it is only John who gets lost). Von der Lippe shows that it is not just Laura who is impervious to the trappings of Venice, but all of the women in these Venice-specific works. He writes, “Most often it is the women of these tales who are strong - who traverse the labyrinth with relative ease and confidence.” He does not go into detail as to why it is the women who are able to “traverse the labyrinth,” but he describes in depth how the women do this in each work.
Von der Lippe focuses most of his essay on the recurring theme of the labyrinth in the various works. He argues that, “central to the continuing fascination with Venice and the dominant metaphor in this archetypal tale is the “labyrinth.”” As we have seen in other essays concerning Don’t Look Now, the twisting, confusing geography of Venice is central to Roeg’s film...
Wisker analyzes a few of Du Maurier’s short stories, including Don’t Look Now. Instead of solely focusing on the short story, Wisker explores themes and images in the film adaptation as well. The most important aspect of her analysis of Don’t Look Now is her explanation as to why John Baxter follows the murderer (to his demise). No other criticism or analysis of the film or short story, that I have read, offers a reasonable explanation as to John’s actions. Wisker explains that it is John’s “protective paternalism” (28) that causes him to try to help what he thinks is a young girl, because she reminds him of the daughter that he could not help. The film better illuminates this theme by making a visual connection between Christine’s red raincoat and the murderer’s red jacket. Wisker explains that, “John’s own suppressed torment at the loss of his daughter transfers into a desire to see this child safe” (28). John has no illusions that the hooded stranger he is following is the ghost of Christine, but he does think it is a little girl. John’s actions are explained as the actions of a man trying to redeem himself in his own eyes, by saving someone who reminds him of his daughter.
Wisker’s connection between the two sisters and the Fates, figures of Ancient Greek mythology, is another insightful analysis. The Fates were three sisters who controlled the lives of mortals by cutting their ‘life threads.’ Wisker writes, “We can read the twins as the fates with the thread cutting sister missing, appearing at the end in the pixie-hooded murderous dwarf” (28). Roeg expounds this theme in the film. First of all, he makes the dwarf a woman, whereas the gender of the dwarf is never explicitly mentioned in the short story. Secondly, the woman he gets to play the dwarf resembles the two sisters; she is stocky like Wendy and has a vulture-like visage like Heather. She could very well be their long-lost sister (who happens to be a dwarf). Finally, the way in which she kills John...
Harrison, Stephanie. Adaptations: From Short Story to Big Screen. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2005.
Harrison’s book neither deals directly with Roeg’s film, nor with du Maurier’s short story that inspired it, but it is essential to any analysis of Don’t Look Now. The process by which a director adapts a short story into film is important, because a short story is just that, short. A director must take something that rarely lasts over fifty pages and turn in into a film that usually lasts over two hours. A director must take the story and ‘run with it;’ in some ways making the story his own. Harrison analyzes 35 short stories and the films they spawned. She separates the films and analyses into sections based mainly on genre (Horror, Western, etc.). Don’t Look Now is a hybrid film, so it would not snugly fit in any of the genres that Harrison chooses, but it does have horror, drama, erotica, and auteur elements to it. Harrison describes four different auteurs (Altman, Hitchcock, Kubrick, and Kazan) and their individual styles of adaptation. She calls Altman, for instance, the “translator” (3), because he attempted to stay as true as possible to the original story. There is little to no literature written about Nicholas Roeg, so it is impossible to know whether or not he would fit in with any of the different auteurs.
One point I found very interesting in Harrison’s analysis is her idea that audiences are less hard on films based on short stories for being true to their source material, because “few short stories are embedded in the public’s consciousness in a way that popular novels are” (xvi). In the case of Don’t Look Now, both the story and the film seem to have been lost from the public consciousness (due, in part, to the success of The Exorcist, which was released the same year as Roeg’s film). Harrison’s book, as I said above, never mentions Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, but by looking at the process by which other writers have adapted short stories, we can get a sense of the different approaches to it and how Roeg many have gone about doing it. Roeg took a fifty-four page short story about a man’s blindness to his abilities and his fate and refashioned it into an unsettling drama/thriller about a married couple and ...
Hutchinson, Tom. Horror & Fantasy in the Movies. New York: Crescent Books, 1974: 13-36.
Hutchinson goes beyond merely mapping out the history of horror cinema, and dedicates the first chapter of his book to revealing the deeper meanings beyond certain horror films. Behind the blood and monsters, Hutchinson sees social commentary and much more, which the average viewer is completely unaware of. He events of The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and concludes that its underlying message is, “that we ought to co-operate or else” (23). Hutchinson writes that Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), another 1950s sci-fi film, “carries a warning about loss of identity, an all-too-grim idea in a world where individuality is ironed out into uniform characteristics of thought and yes-saying” (23).
Hutchinson begins his analysis with the birth of cinema and the fantasy shorts of George Meliès. He moves into German Expressionist films, such as Robert Weine’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1926) (19-21). He also refers to Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963) and Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People (1942) as further examples of horror films with social messages (23). Hutchinson argues though, that one cannot simply voice these messages, or warnings, to the audience directly. As he says, they must be “wrapped up in trappings of tinsel before they will be accepted” (28).
Don’t Look Now (1972) is one of those films whose meaning is “wrapped in trappings of tinsel” (28). Hutchinson explains that, “[Donald] Sutherland here carries the seeds of his own destruction within himself, but will never know it” (29). Reflexively, we are placed in the same position as Sutherland, because we are also unable to interpret the signs to recognize the future (e.g. our doom). Hutchinson’s argument is that, “[Sutherland] is time-trapped in the way that we all are, unable to move beyond his three-dimensional context” (29). Hutchinson ties into a theme explored in other sources I have encountered, that of time and space (in Don’t Look Now). He, unfortunately, does not give the theme an adequate explication (quickly moving to the next film), but he does place the film in relation to other horror films that do more than just scare. One is easier able to understand Don’t Look Now, when placed in the context of other horror films...
Daphne du Maurier’s short story deeply influences not only the events in Nicolas Roeg’s film of the same name, but also the themes Roeg explores in the film. The plots of the story and the film are basically the same, although (obviously) there are scenes in the film, which do not come from du Maurier’s story. The opening sequence of the film (which shows Christine’s death), for instance, is an invention of the director, Nicolas Roeg. Du Maurier’s story begins at the café, relegating Christine’s death to the memories of John and Laura. Surprisingly, the film stays very true to the short story and the added scenes do not deviate from the overall direction of the plot. The sisters, in the story, are identical twins (although the ‘seeing’ sister is grayer than the other) and remain mysterious characters throughout. In the film, their paths cross many times with the Baxters (John and Laura) and Laura has many conversations with them. The female characters, Laura and the sisters, have a much larger role in the film than the short story, which focuses almost entirely on John and his struggles.
The main differences between the film and the short story are the addition of a character, Bishop Barbarrigo, and John’s job restoring the church. In du Maurier’s story, John and Laura are on vacation in Venice and John’s job is never discussed. A tertiary result of this is that there is no need for the Bishop character, whose job is to oversee John’s renovation of the church (in the film). The central role of churches and church figures in the film bring a religious element to the film that is absent in the short story. The theme of faith (and lack of faith) is therefore also absent. The film creates a sense of dread using ever-present murders and strange coincidences (such as John’s near death experience on the church scaffolding). The short story explores the themes of prophecy and ‘second sight,’ but there is not the same eerie sense of uneasiness. The fact that the film leaves Johnnie’s illness ambiguous (instead of saying it is appendicitis as the short story does) plays into the theme of the supernatural and the occult...
Color plays an important part in Don’t Look Now, especially the color red. Roeg weaves red throughout the film, from Christine’s plastic raincoat to the Band-Aid on Johnnie’s finger, from the lettering of the “Venice in Peril” sign to the bathrobe of the sisters’ neighbor. In Du Maurier’s story, the color red is not mentioned, so the use of the color is all Roeg’s doing. Beyond merely linking Christine to the murderer, the color red also serves a more symbolic purpose. Roeg ties the color red to the blind sister, Heather, and her psychic visions. The fact that Heather can see Christine’s red jacket is not as mysterious as the fact that she knows what the color red is. If she has been blind since childbirth, which her sister, Wendy, intimates to Laura and John, there is no way she would know what red looked like. Heather is already semi-divine in her ability to see the future, but the presence of color in her prophetic visions ties her into the tradition of Christian visions.
Benz’s text was part of a 1972 conference in Switzerland call the Eranos conference. Famous psychologists, theologists, phenomenologists, and other types of scholars from around the globe met to discuss “The Realms of Colour” (ix). Benz, a well-known protestant theologian and church historian, focused his lecture on color and its relation to Christian visions, such as the prophecies of Revelations (170-171). At times hard to follow, Benz basically explores the connection between the vivid colors and physical descriptions in Christian visions and their relation to God and mortality.
Benz explains that, “As a rule the eyes are closed in the visionary ecstatic state; the physical capacity for sight through the eye is eliminated” (159). Heather’s visions definitely follow in this tradition, because, as a blind person, she does not have the capacity for sight. The “ecstatic state,” which Benz references, is ambiguous, but could be interpreted as the epileptic-like trance that Heather falls into when experiencing her visions...
Dempsey begins his review by comparing Roeg’s film to the source material, Daphne du Maurier’s short story. He blames the film’s “creaky plot” on Du Maurier, who (he claims), “specializes in romantic sludge” (39). Dempsey understands that the film’s weak plot is not the fault of Roeg, so he is not too harsh in his criticism of Roeg’s handling of the plot. He states that, “too often the gears grind when Roeg tries to shift from this old-hat storyline to the subtext of fear and uncertainty that he has built into it” (39). Dempsey actually compliments Roeg for creating a fascinating film from a plot, which he is admittedly not fond of. The saving grace of the film, according to Dempsey, is Roeg, more explicitly, his style. Dempsey writes that, “Roeg’s style pitches us headlong into [John and Laura’s] disorientation” (40). Dempsey allocates most of his review to explaining of Roeg’s style, which Roeg achieves through editing. Dempsey goes so far as to compare Roeg to the famous Russian montage filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, because Roeg too “lean[s] heavily on editing for his effects” (40). The effect that Roeg produces with montage is the same effect described by James Palmer in his essay, “Seeing, Believing, and “Knowing” in Narrative Film: Don’t Look Now Revisited.” Using montage, Roeg “undercut[s] our total allegiance to reason” (41); in effect, making us mistrust out vision the same way that John mistrusts his. Roeg’s use of montage has the opposite effect of Eisenstein’s, undermining the action, instead of reinforcing it. Dempsey describes, “Roeg’s montage does not say that two shots are connected; it says that they might be” (41). The idea of not knowing, of being forced to puzzle it out, is the essence of Don’t Look Now and is the same theme discussed in Palmer’s essay.
Dempsey’s review, unlike any other analyses of Don’t Look Now that I discovered, features an in-depth analysis of the love-making scene, which is probably the most well-known scene in Don’t Look Now. He argues that, the intercutting of sex shots with shots of the couple getting dressed, “makes the sense doubly erotic-yet also melancholy” (41). We get the sense, from the intercutting, that, “no matter how intense their love or how satisfying their sex may be, John and Laura still cannot save themselves” (41)...
Wilson, Kristi. “Time, Space, and Vision: Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now.” Screen 40(3) (1999): 277-94.
Wilson is a feminist film critic (she lets the reader know from the start), so her analysis of Don’t Look Now comes from a completely different perspective than other available analyses. She argues that the film represents “failed masculinity” (294), embodied by John Baxter and his failure to prevent his death. John’s failure comes from his inability to interpret space. The first hard evidence of this that Wilson brings up is the book John has written, Fragile Geometry (Laura is reading it in the opening sequence). Wilson argues that the title of the book reflects John’s own failure at understand the “fragile geometry” of time and space. Roeg’s montage, with its questionable linearity, visually represents this “fragile geometry.” Roeg blurs the lines between the real and the unreal and the past, present, and future. Wilson refers to the effect of Roeg’s montage as “slippage,” because Roeg moves between real and unreal, for example, so fluidly, that the audience rarely picks up on it. She articulates the effect of this “slippage” on the audience, when she explains:
All that seems solid where the film is concerned, whether we are referring to Roeg’s visually unconventional presentation of the narrative, or his character’s sense of architectural/geographical control, proves to be illusory. (294)
She argues that the sequence, in which blood appears on John’s slide, “provides a literal example of physical slippage between background and foreground” (290). Wilson sees John as a synecdoche for all men, in his inability to recognize “slippage” (i.e. recognize omens and portents), because all of the women in the film are attuned to the “slippage” and recognize when the unreal world (e.g. the spirit world) enters the real world. I disagree with this assumption, because I don’t see all the women as recognizing the “slippage.” Heather does, because she has the gift of ‘second sight;’ the other women merely believe that she can see the “slippage”...
Palmer argues that Roeg’s film makes us question how we ‘read’ (i.e. understand) films in the same way that John questions his understanding of reality. Palmer writes that, “in Roeg’s film one may wonder if anything is what it seems” (14). We are shown events that may or may not occur and images that could not possibly exist in real life, which have the effect of undermining our sense of reality. Palmer puts forth that, “Don’t Look Now suggests that the physical world can mislead and, by extension, that the encoding of ways of seeing and interpreting a world presented in narrative film can also be called into question” (16). He interprets the dust that blows into Wendy’s eye (and obstructs her vision) as a metaphor for the calling into question of one’s method of “seeing and interpreting.” The film is self-reflexive, because it is about questioning one’s vision; one’s modus of interpretation, and the viewer is forced to question these things as s/he watches the film. The sequence where we finally see Heather’s blind eyes highlights this self-reflexive quality to the film, because we are only able to understand after we have seen after a later scene in the film. The proximity of the shot of Heather’s eyes and the shot of John and Laura leaving their home in the rain confuses the viewer as to who is seeing what, John or Laura (19). Only after we learn that John is psychic are we able to go back to this scene and reinterpret it, understanding that perhaps it is John who sees Heather’s blindness with his ‘second sight.’ Palmer also analyzes the opening credit sequence to show the self-reflexive quality of the film, that only by seeing the only thing are we able to go back and understand it...
This is not the only point in which Wilson makes reference to the film he is writing. While Wilson’s notes are often simple descriptions of the themes in Lawrence’s life, at some times Wilson tries to figure out how best to make these themes work in a film. In the final ‘section’ of the article, Wilson comments in depth on the character S.A., who was very important to Lawrence, both as a friend and confidant, but whose identity remains a mystery. Wilson wrestles with this character’s imagined personality and how he should fit S.A. into the script, eventually decided that, “if it can be said that S.A. stands at Lawrence’s left hand, then our story requires a British character who stands at his right.” In this imaginary British character, we get an amazing look at the way in which Hollywood rewrites history in order to sell a film. Wilson notes, “Our British officer will inevitably be a composite character, with perhaps certain attributes not found in any of the actual men (Young, Newcombe, Joyce, etc.).” This character that Wilson wants to create is not a historical figure and is written in to serve as a foil for Lawrence. Wilson doesn’t describe why exactly he needs a British man to sit at Lawrence’s side, since he already has (an Arab) one in S.A., but perhaps Wilson has an assumption concerning the audience’s reaction to having an Arab as Lawrence’s sole confidant. Wilson further imagines the character to be “a man who (like our audience, we hope) would be baffled and intrigued by his mercurial companion-in-arms and through him we would try to fathom the enigma.” Wilson creates this imaginary, composite character is order to give the audience someone to relate to, subtly insinuating that the audience will not be able to relate to the Arab S.A. He may be correct in his assumption (we are dealing with early 1960’s America after all), but the film itself has no such character, so we will never know how audiences would have reacted.
Hodson dedicates much of the chapter on the film adaptation of T.E. Lawrence’s life, Chapter 7, to describing the effect of the blacklist on the film. Sam Spiegel, the producer, originally chose Michael Wilson, a blacklisted writer, to write a film adaptation of the life of T.E. Lawrence. Spiegel had won an Oscar for On the Waterfront, a pro-blacklist film, while Wilson, although living in exile in France, had managed to keep writing films, even though he was blacklisted. In hindsight, it is ludicrously ironic that Spiegel, who made a film shunning ‘unfriendly witnesses,’ like Michael Wilson, would hire him and actively try to convince Hollywood executives to let Wilson write the script. Wilson wrote a few versions of the screenplay, but director David Lean, a Brit, believed Wilson’s script to be “”too American,” and failed to capture the complex character of Lawrence.” Lean found another writer, Robert Bolt, to write the screenplay, which eventually became Lawrence of Arabia. As it turns out, Bolt borrowed a lot from Wilson’s screenplay is crafting his screenplay, even though he denied it. Despite the fact that Bolt’s screenplay was basically co-written by Wilson, “his name was not listed in the screen credits for Lawrence of Arabia, presumably because he refused to sign a statement recanting his radical past.” The blacklist has an interesting relationship to the film, but Lawrence’s own history proved to be the most dubious element in the film’s production.
Hodson recounts the battle between Spiegel and Lawrence’s brother, A.W. Lawrence, over the film’s representation of T.E. Lawrence, which adds a new dimension to the film’s rewriting of history. Even though the film was based on T.E. Lawrence’s own autobiography, his brother still wanted to rewrite history and make Lawrence even more of a hero. Another problem with the film’s historical value comes from the information that was available. As Hodson describes, “England had not yet lifted an embargo on various government records pertaining to [T.E. Lawrence].” Lawrence’s story was altered, not only, by Hollywood, but by his own brother and the British government, so there was really no way that the film was going to have much historical accuracy.
Hodson further chronicles the film’s “license with history,” as well as its reception, but my favorite part of Hodson’s book is his description of the film’s manifestations in pop culture. The parallels this book shows, between 1960s America and today’s America, are uncanny, especially when it comes to the film’s marketing. As Hodson explains, “Fashion was another angle Columbia Pictures and American retailers worked in promoting “Lawrence mania” in the United States.” Product tie-ins are something I think of in relation to today’s idea of corporate synergy, but apparently the idea was alive in the 1960’s as well.
Lawrence’s life, as Crowdus explains, is still the subject of debate, so much of the ‘history,’ that the film is based on, may in fact be falsehood. Crowdus’s explanation for this is that, “Lawrence […] provided conflicting, ambiguous, or half-truthful accounts of the same incidents to biographers and friends.” As a result of this, Robert Bolt, who wrote the second (and final) screenplay for Lawrence of Arabia, “base[d] his screenplay solely on Seven Pillars of Wisdom,” Lawrence’s autobiography, “despite being convinced that the book contained considerable exaggeration and not a few outright lies.” This revelation serves to remove much of the blame for the film’s rewriting of history on Bolt, because Lawrence himself rewrote it.
The Hollywood system takes its toll on historical fact, because, “Many […] incidents have […] been dramatically simplified to comply with the genre requirements of big screen spectacle.” Although it was T.E. Lawrence who began the rewriting of his own history, the restrictions imposed by Hollywood further erode the validity of much of the story. Crowdus also singles out the casting as another reason for the film’s historical ‘falseness,’ explaining that the casting of (the tall and handsome) Peter O’Toole “immediately eliminates a key motive for the overcompensatory physical efforts of a pocket Hercules like the real life Lawrence.” There are other problems that Crowdus has with the film’s representation of history, but he does have some good words for the film.
The film gets some things right in its depiction of Lawrence, such as Lawrence’s “sado-masochistic [sic] tendencies,” which Lawrence discusses in Seven Pillars of Wisdom. O’Toole’s performance, especially in the torture scene, captures this side of Lawrence. The inclusion of this darker side of Lawrence is noteworthy, because it shows that although Sam Spiegel, the film’s producer, was intent on making a Hollywood ‘blockbuster,’ the film did have uncomfortable elements that certainly would not have appealled to every moviegoer. By including some historical facts, the film not only keeps true to history, but it takes risks that are uncharacteristic of a major Hollywood film.
Crowdus ends his analysis of the film, by critiquing the film’s depiction of Arabs. He uses the scene of the meeting between the Bedouin leaders in Damascus, as a key example of the film’s racist undertones and its colonial implications. The film has strengths and flaws, as noted by Crowdus, but in the early, praiseful paragraphs of the article, we see Crowdus’s true views on the film. Although Crowdus has many problems with the film’s rewriting of history, there is still a reason that it is one of the most beloved and respected Hollywood films.
PARTIAL SYNOPSIS--> THE ENTIRE WORK IS TOO LONG TO POST THE ENTIRE THING!!!
The “Tragical History of Doctor Faustus” is referenced briefly in Ikiru, in the scene in which Watanabe meets the writer, but the play offers a richer understanding of the film if the two are seen as opposites of one another. The basic plot of the story is that a man sells his soul to the devil in exchange for all the world’s knowledge and eventually goes to hell for it. The two stories do share some similarities, for example, the known time of death of each character and the absence of God as a ‘way out, but it is the differences that allow for a deeper understanding.
The writer presents himself as a ‘free Mephistopheles,’ which sets up the initial comparison between the two works. The Mephistopheles analogy does not hold up, because the writer functions in a different manner than the demon Mephistopheles. The writer is not the keeper of all arcane knowledge and is admittedly not even a very good writer. His jaunt with Watanabe, through the nightlife of Tokyo, provides Watanabe with no deeper understanding of himself or his situation, which parallels with Faustus in that Faustus also gets ‘nothing’ in the end from Mephistopheles, because no knowledge in the world can save him from his fate. Watanabe actually comes to a similar conclusion, realizing that earthly pleasures will not cure his true pain, which comes not from the cancer, but from the knowledge that he has missed out on life. The false Mephistopheles, the writer, is the inversion of Faustus’s Mephistopheles and this analogical fowl-up has importance in its revelation that the film and play are inversions of one another.
Faustus’s search for knowledge leads to his downfall and arrival in hell, whereas Watanabe’s search for understanding leads to his salvation. The initial ‘Mephistophelean’ adventures of both Faustus and Watanabe are revealed to be fruitless, but it takes Faustus until the end of the play to realize it, but he is damned anyway, so it doesn’t matter. Watanabe thinks he is damned, but unlike Faustus, he has a path to salvation. The inversion here is that Faustus’s journey is a descent, while Watanabe’s is an ascent; this is a theme discussed in Goodwin’s analysis of the film.
The fact that the film’s Mephistopheles works for free could be Kurosawa saying that in a modern, secular society like Japan, the answers to man’s questions do not lie with God, but with man himself. Faustus was forced to turn to the ruler of hell in order to further his knowledge, but Watanabe, unlike Faustus, finds the knowledge within himself. He tries to find the answers he is searching for, the meaning to his life, in other people, like the female coworker, Toyo, but he discovers that he can only rely on himself for the answers. The gap in time between the two works may account for the difference in fate of the Protagonist (that is if you view them as complimentary pieces).
The only problem with the “pokkuri” understanding of Watanabe’s death is revealed later on by Long, “Dying without the presence of other (kodoku nashi, or “lonely death”) is considered a terrible fate.” This interpretation adds understanding to the “wake scene,” in which the various coworkers of Watanabe try to convince themselves that he did not know about his cancer. The coworkers do not want to believe that Watanabe would willingly experience such a terrible fate, so they try to show that he did not do it willingly. It is very hard to understand the film in terms of both “pokkuri” and “kodoku nashi,” so maybe the best information that can be gleaned from Long’s book is that “preparation for death may mean arranging for property distribution, laying the groundwork for role inheritance, or doing activities the person has always wanted to do.” This offers a completely different take on Watanabe’s actions than Richie, who saw him as initially searching for solace. Through this interpretation, Watanabe’s adventure with the writer could be seen simply as a way of preparing for his death, although the film itself does not seem to suggest this. While none of these terms may have direct application to Ikiru, they do offer an interesting point of view of the culture behind the film and potentially provide some insight into the film that no other book offers.
Richie’s analysis of Ikiru focuses on the translation of the title, Ikiru, which is “to live.” Richie touches on Kurosawa’s fondness for Dostoevsky, an existentialist, in order to frame Ikiru as a story of a man trying to validate his existence. As Watanabe “layer after layer peeled away,” we realize that it is Watanabe’s actions that make him exist both while he is alive and posthumously. Richie explains how Kurosawa highlights the “irony of the film,” by splitting the film into two parts: one told by an omniscient narrator while Watanabe is alive and one told by the attendees at his wake. The men at the wake, mostly Watanabe’s co-workers, misrepresent Watanabe’s actions at first, but when they finally begin to understand what Watanabe accomplished and why, they are too drunk to follow through with anything. Only one of the office workers takes Watanabe’s actions to heart, but as Kurosawa shows us, after being reprimanded, “he disappears behind his piles of papers as though he were being buried alive.”
An interesting element that Richie brings up in his analysis is the music used in the film. The classical piece used in the opening, is known as a ricercare, which, Richie explains, “means to search for again, to hunt for, or to follow.” While Richie acknowledges that there is nothing to suggest whether this was intentional or not, “this, after all, is what the film is about.” Watanabe’s search for meaning in his life is the impetus behind the action in Ikiru. Perhaps because of this, Richie’s analysis seems correct, because we all, as humans, search for meaning in our life and hope that our actions can speak for themselves both during our lives and after we are deceased.
Richie’s final conclusion (which is actually a quote by Richard Brown), that “the meaning of [Watanabe’s] life is what he commits the meaning of his life to be,” is a very positive take on the film, but the films beauty comes from the fact that it can be read many ways. Richie harms his argument though, by using lengthy quotations from the film, which are not always completely relevant and ending his analysis with a description of the film by Kurosawa himself which does little to enhance Richie’s argument and only serves to show Kurosawa’s unhappiness with both the film’s creation and the final product. The negativity of Kurosawa’s own analysis of his film puts a damper on the positive reading by Richie and the sense one gets after seeing the film that he or she has just seen one of the greatest films of all time.
Discussing the film Drunken Angel, Kurosawa recounts, “As background to the characterizations, we decided to create an unsightly drainage pond where people threw their garbage” (156), which is an image that returns in Ikiru, although it has a different allegorical meaning. Many plot elements and images from Kurosawa’s films were taken straight from his life (a point made by Goodwin in his book ), and Ikiru is no different. Kurosawa says of the studio he began his career at, “Management theory at P.C.L. regarded the assistant directors as cadets who would later become managers and directors” (95). The bureaucratic elements in the management system at P.C.L., that Kurosawa criticizes, has echoes in the stagnant and immutable Japanese civil service in Ikiru.
Events from his life also influenced Kurosawa in the existential themes he deals with in Ikiru. Kurosawa recounts, in the chapter “A Horrifying Event,” an early scene from his childhood, when he and his brother walked around the city looking at the death and destruction caused by the Kato Earthquake. His brother uncomfortably forces him to look at the hundreds of dead bodies, but when Kurosawa goes to sleep, he does not have any nightmares. When the young Kurosawa asks why he didn’t have any nightmares, his brother responds, “If you shut your eyes to a frightening sight, you end up being frightened. If you look at everything straight on, there is nothing to be afraid of.” This message has deep significance to Ikiru, because Watanabe is only able to live when he confronts his cancer head on. When he lies in his bed at home and cries himself to sleep, when he goes with the writer to experience the decadence of modern Tokyo, he is, in effect, trying to ‘shut his eyes’ to the cancer and ignore its existence. Only when he faces it head on, does he realize that he has the power to give his limited life meaning. There are many other events in Kurosawa’s life that have relevance to Ikiru, because it is a film about life itself and the search for meaning in life. Kurosawa’s past offers insight into not only why the author chose to write about this subject, but also why he comes to the conclusions that he does.
While the book doesn’t have as much relevant information to Ikiru as other books I read, it does present some new information concerning the film in its own right, not on its aesthetic principles or themes. The book is able to ground the film in relation to other Japanese films of its time, which no other book does, which is valuable in a complete understanding of the film beyond its importance as an Akira Kurosawa film.
Goodwin also shows how Kurosawa uses editing techniques and objects as narrative devices: “the photograph of [Watanabe’s] wife at the center of the altar is the psychological frame through which Watanabe begins to look into his past in narrative flashback.” In the flashback in which Watanabe and his son are follow his dead wife’s hearse, Goodwin states that, “Metaphorically, the sequence places death as an immediate prospect within life and it suggests the narrative’s own patterns of approach and withdrawal from its protagonist’s death.” Both of these are examples of scenes and objects that offer a self-reflexive view of the film that acknowledges the techniques of filmmaking.
Goodwin’s book is different from the other works in the Bibliography, because it analyzes specific images and scenes in Ikiru, searching for allegorical meaning and self-reflexive commentary. The book definitely takes the position of Kurosawa as an auteur, suggesting that Kurosawa purposefully creates a continuity among the symbols and images in the film, in order give a deeper meaning to the film.
Russell also shows the similarities in setting among various Kurosawa films. She writes, “Ikiru is also an important film in Kurosawa’s cinema because it deals directly with the issue of urban development.” Most of Kurosawa’s non-period films have an urban setting, but the city itself is integral to the plot of Ikiru, because Watanabe’s quest is against Tokyo itself, the stagnant bureaucracy, the icy social interactions, etc. and this is all embodied by the cesspool, which is a product of urban life. Russell also notices that the “extreme weather conditions […] In city films, they soften the urban setting into a site of humanist compassion, exemplified by the final soft snowfall in Ikiru.” The urban setting provides a good backdrop to the actions of Kurosawa’s gangster films (“gendai-geki” ), but it provides the impetus behind the action in Ikiru. Russell’s article separates her discussion of Kurosawa into two parts, his movies about “men with suits” (of which Ikiru is one) and his movies about “men with swords,” which is ironic considering the two-part structure of Ikiru and many other Kurosawa’s other films. Russell makes some interesting points that are not touched on by other authors, because, like Prince’s book, she analyzes the film in comparison to other Kurosawa films.
The book also has relevance to the film in its analysis of the immutability of the bureaucratic system, Jacoby writes, “the attempt on the part of democratic movements to break out of this bureaucratic closed sphere always ends by leading back into it;” evidence of this comes from both the women who are unable to make any progress in fixing the cesspool in their neighborhood and Kimura, who rises in an attempt to follow Watanabe’s example, but ends up right back at his desk where he started.
A possible explanation for the two-part structure of the films if that, as a bureaucratic, “the individual must […] undertake an essential schism within himself.” Jacoby is saying that the bureaucrat must make a distinction between the ‘bureaucratic’ self and the ‘social’ self, which is what Watanabe has been unable to do. The two selves are one and the same in Watanabe, and when he separates the two, by deciding to do something about the cesspool (which is in contrast to what his ‘bureaucratic’ self would do), the film separates in two. Now this might be inferring too much, but the text does offer many insights into the film that none of the other authors have made. While the book deals neither with cinema nor Ikiru, it provides an understanding of the process of bureaucratization and the bureaucratic system that allows for applications to the film. By applying these concepts and theories to the film, one comes away with a unique understanding of the film.
Yoshimoto follows this with a shot breakdown of the opening scene in Watanabe’s department and surmises from the shots used by Kurosawa that, “Watanabe is consistently denied the subject position of the look; instead he is placed in the position of the other’s look.” This establishes a theme that Yoshimoto then expands on, the theme of Watanabe as a subject, which is a offshoot of the theme of self-reflexivity. Another self-reflexive image Yoshimoto recognizes is in the silent scene in which Watanabe leaves the hospital. “On the wall behind Watanabe are many identical posters, advertisements for “Morinaga Penicillin Ointment.” The medical reference reminds us of the immediately preceding scene at the hospital, and the word “penicillin” also emphasizes the incurability of Watanabe’s disease.” Kurosawa also allows for self-reflexivity in the ‘nightlife scenes,’ “Mirrors are sued to disorient our perception of scenes’ spatial unity.” All of these examples highlight Kurosawa’s use of self-reflexivity in the film, which bring the viewers attention on the process of watching the movie. Yoshimoto argues that Kurosawa is commenting on the film itself and the audience’s perception of events in the film. The audience members thus becomes aware that they are watching a film, which succeeds in distancing them from the protagonist, Watanabe, and calling into question the images on the screen (i.e. the ‘stories’ told by the coworkers at the wake). In relation to this last idea, Yoshimoto writes, “[Ikiru] demonstrates the problematic relation of narration and subjectivity.”
The most interesting self-reflexive element in the film I found was the actual structure of the film. Yoshimoto writes, “when the protagonist of Ikiru abruptly disappears about two-thirds of the way through, his death surprises us as something utterly shocking, even though it is totally expected,” and this is because “We assume that biological death and closure of our lives somehow coincide with each other. What surprises us is that this is hardly the case.” Yoshimoto’s argument concerns self-reflexivity in Ikiru and how this aids the goals of the film. The questions that the two-part structure forces the audience members to ask themselves are just one example of the various techniques Kurosawa employs to force the viewer to change with Watanabe; the movie itself becomes catharsis.