The Sounds of Living
From gangsters to scriveners, throughout this class Losers In Literature, we have encountered and discussed all types of characters. Ikiru is a 1952 Japanese film directed by Akira Kurasawa. Ikiru or ‘to live’ is the story of a bureaucratic man who faces a terminal diagnosis. Kanji Watanabe, the protagonist played by Takashi Shimura, is perhaps the most impactful and persuasive character that we have experienced. This black and white film has won numerous awards for its powerful story and charismatic acting. Ikiru, viewed as political cinema, came into film during a time of Japans post war reconstruction and was seen to call for a new understanding of culture and self-awareness. In this essay I will explore the techniques used by Akira Kursawa to bring depth to the development of Watanabe’s character and meaning to the film. This is an analytical review of the film Ikiru and an interpretation of the techniques used to build such a profound and moving character. In the very beginning of the film opens with an x-ray picture of Watanabe’s stomach and reveals to the audience that he has stomach cancer. This simple opening sets the stage and begins the anticipation that surrounds this diagnosis. Shortly after the narrator adds onto the growing anticipation by explaining how Watanabe is not actually living anyway, he is a slave to his bureaucratic job, “Ah, here is our protagonist now… he’s simply passing time without actually living his life. In other words, he’s not really even alive” (Motoki & Kurosawa, 1952). From the very beginning Akira Kurasawa has primed the audience with knowledge that gives depth and perspective to Watanabe’s character. Moving forward to when the anticipation becomes reality, Watanabe learns of his stomach cancer. He already knows the truth, revealed to him by another stranger in the waiting room. This stranger describes stomach cancer symptoms familiar to Watanabe and jokes about how the doctors always cover it up with "ulcer diagnoses." When Watanabe receives the news from the doctor of his “ulcer” the look of despair in Watanabe's face is incredibly powerful. Wordlessly he communicates the shock, hopelessness, and fear with his lowered eyes and body language. Worst of all, after the diagnosis Watanabe realizes what the audience already knows; he has lived a life of utterly uselessness. All he has accomplished in the past 30 years as a time killing bureaucrat at the Tokyo City Hall is rise in the ranks to section chief, and all he does day after day is move papers from one pile to the next, authenticating each with his signature stamp. The priming and anticipation created by Akira Kurasawa from the beginning of the film in conjunction with the emotional response and close-ups of Watanabe’s face wracked with despair, reinforces a powerful emotional tie to Watanabe. In the next scene after Watanabe’s diagnosis, his despair and shock is portrayed through Akira Kurasawa’s use of silence. As Watanabe leaves the doctors office to walk home down a bustling street, the expected loudness of the city is filled with silence. As he steps down off the sidewalk to cross the street the silence is lifted and the crash of sound is so jarring it lends depth and a connection to audience the immensity of raw emotion that Watanabe must be experiencing. This tidal wave of sound is one of many instances in the film where Akira Kurasawa uses sound as a mean to portray and provide increased depth to the emotion experience of Watanabe’s character. As mentioned before and throughout the film, scene after scene, Akira Kurasawa builds the audience’s emotional ties to Watanabe. His son is seen as ungrateful for all the hard work Watanabe has done as a single parent. He has flashbacks that are memories, which are painful emotional experiences, depict his wife’s funeral and scenes of his son growing up. He throws himself under his covers as if to retreat from reality and shut out the pain. At this point...
Cited: Sōjirō Motoki & Akira Kurosawa. (1952). Ikiru. Japan: Toho Studies.
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