Lyman, Rick. “Akira Kurosawa, Film Director, Is Dead at 88: Akira Kurosawa, Director of 'Rashomon' and 'Seven Samurai,' Dies at
88.” New York Times 7 Sep. 1998: A1.
This obituary of acclaimed director Akira Kurosawa appeared in the New York Times September 7, 1998. As in accordance with the format of obituaries, the author, Rick Lyman, chronicles the details of Kurosawa’s death, life, and fame. He is humanized with demonstrations of his perfectionism, humble family life, and personal influences and experiences that help explain how this great man and his masterpieces came to be. Particularly informative was the anecdote provided about a trip taken in his youth with his brother, Heigo. The two visited the ruins of the once great city of Toyko after a massive earthquake and firestorm of 1923. When his brother forced the young Kurosawa to stay firm and look, Kurosawa developed the outlook that would define his aesthetic enterprises throughout his life. He learned that “‘to be an artist means never to avert one’s eyes.’” Such steadfast investigation into the physical world and the life that inhabits it brought about his unforgettable shots of the forests scenes, for example, in Rashomon. The influence of his brother Heigo is stressed in this article, mentioning Heigo’s taste of story-telling and speculation as to the emotional impact of Heigo’s suicide. Rashomon is mentioned as also introducing the now formulalistic style of narration, namely the recounting of one event through difference characters perspectives. The complex intertwining of characters and recolations highlight the unifying theme of what Kurosawa terms a “‘sinful need for flattering falsehood.’” Kurosawa communicates the plight of humans to always desire to better themselves with lies to listening ears, and laments the inability of humans to contentedly coexist with one another. Such themes bring Kurosawa’s work out of the brilliance of their setting into the history of cinematic culture and universal intercourse.
The benefit of obituaries in studying an artist and an individual piece of his work is that it allows one to put the two in the context of his life and body of work as a whole. The film Rashomon takes on a whole new perspective when placed into this longer framework. However, the individual analysis of the film itself is very insightful and would be valuable when used to specifically study of the film.
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.
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.