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Breaking Bad's Walter White modelled after Ikiru's Kenji Watanabe

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    Vili Maunula

    Not quite newsworthy enough, but still interesting, so I’m putting this here. According to a North Shore News, the lead character of TV series Breaking Bad was modelled after Watanabe from Ikiru:

    He drew on several influences to create Walter White. Chief among them was the lead character in Ikiru, a 1952 film by Japanese master Akira Kurosawa. The film tells of a career bureaucrat who learns he is dying of cancer and wants to make something of his life before he croaks.

    Breaking Bad is about a high school chemistry teacher who, after being diagnosed with lung cancer, decides to do something with his life. His chosen path, however, is quite markedly different from Watanabe’s.

    Have you watched the series? I started it, but stopped watching after a few episodes. Not that I didn’t like it, but other things came up and I sort of forgot about it. Maybe this will give me an excuse to pick up where I left.

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    Fabien

    Usually not a series watcher – except for animes, sometimes – I watched all three existing seasons of Breaking Bad.

    In this, I found about drug dealing the same type of interest based on morals and ambiguity that I found earlier in Death Note about death sentence (knowing that, in the same time, death sentence was still active and particularly contested in Japan): you can’t help supporting, at times, the lead character, knowing that his actions are immoral or illegal, and you get recurrent justifications about these, and you see when you would say “stop, this one goes too far”.

    (The alias of the lead character – Heisenberg – seems to be a reference to Werner Heisenberg and to his uncertainty principle, which illustrates well the ambiguity of the story/concept.)

    I don’t understand what are the motives of the authors, and between justification of an immoral process and pondering or confronting different points of view on a same subject, I can’t choose, but it is clearly interesting if you take it with a good amount of reflection.

    Before reading the article you gave above, the series did not make me think about Ikiru at all.

    Like you, I think that Kanji Watanabe and Walter White struggle toward very different goals, though they indeed both struggle after learning that their lives will quickly come to an end due to disease.

    About this disease topic, I would rather compare the series to The Quiet Duel, where a diseased individual destroys his relatives’ and other individuals’ lives, or to Drunken Angel, where a “bad” individual reacts in his manner to disease and is supported and contradicted by other individuals.

    Both these films and the series are really great about human reactions toward a “big disease of the era”.

    (And the different diseases of the different eras bring questions about random or behavioral factors – like in unsafe behaviors.)

    I will have to watch the films again to go further on this, but I don’t think I will watch the series again, I liked it, but had some difficulties over time with the duration and the usual TV tropes (season 2 has a nice next-door-brunette, you know), though I could give it a try with season 1, which is the best in my opinion.

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    Vili Maunula

    Although I have in this past half a year watched more TV series than ever before, I never got back into Breaking Bad. Maybe I should try again, now that I have finished The Wire, which pretty much stopped me from watching anything else until I got through it and the extras on the DVDs. If only to see the brunette that you mentioned. 😉

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    Ugetsu

    Funny thing, this thread passed me by when you first posted it – I hadn’t even heard of Breaking Bad. But I’m now obsessed with it! I finally caught up with the last episode in Series 5(1) last night. I was very surprised to read in the Guardian that Vince Gilligan quoted Kurosawa as an influence and googled ‘Breaking Bad Kurosawa’ and came back to this site!

    When I first read that I assumed Gilligan was referring to stylistic influences – the rapid flowing camerawork and editing which is so very instinctive, but I see now it is thematic. This tumblr article gives more information – it does indeed seem that Ikiru is an inspiration. It hadn’t actually occurred to me until half way through episode 10 of series 5 when there is a scene where Jesse is found in a daze in a playground – the scene seems to me to be clearly influenced by the last scene in Ikiru.

    Gilligan does say that he sees Walter White as an example of someone who takes the opposite road to Watanabe, even though their motivation is the same – the sense of freedom and disorientation from knowing the clock is ticking in your life. I’ve speculated in the past that Kurosawa in his films revisited characters in various films speculating on what would have happened if they took a wrong turn – for example, Lord Hidatora in Ran could be seen as Kambei in Seven Samurai if he had succeeded in his aim of becoming a Lord before he learned humility (yes, I know nobody particularly liked that theory). But I do think that Gilligan and Kurosawa shared the same interest in examining how even the basic characteristics of a person can change according to circumstances.

    Anyway, glad to see that the best of modern storytellers are still finding inspiration in Kurosawa.

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    Vili Maunula

    Breaking Bad is still on my to-be-watched pile. My wife and I actually started it at some point, but after a few episodes put it aside since it felt thematically so close to another series that we were watching at the time, Weeds, which has sadly now ended.

    Maybe once we have caught up with the latest seasons of Mad Men and Californication, and perhaps finished the first season of Boardwalk Empire, Breaking Bad could be next on the list.

    It’s incredible how many quality series there are these days! And what they have done to me is that I now watch much fewer films, as there is always an episode of something to watch.

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    Ugetsu

    Yes, it is a bit of a Golden Age I think. I don’t know how everyone can keep up, I don’t have a TV but I still struggle to watch even a fraction of the shows I’d like to see on Netflix and DVD, let alone all the films I want to see.

    Breaking Bad is still on my to-be-watched pile. My wife and I actually started it at some point, but after a few episodes put it aside since it felt thematically so close to another series that we were watching at the time, Weeds, which has sadly now ended.

    Maybe once we have caught up with the latest seasons of Mad Men and Californication, and perhaps finished the first season of Boardwalk Empire, Breaking Bad could be next on the list.

    Seriously though, put Breaking Bad above those others! I love Mad Men and I’ve liked the bits of Californication I’ve seen (I’ve always found Boardwalk Empire a bit disappointing, but I’ve only seen the first series, I’m told it gets better), but BB is simple at a different level of storytelling once it gets going. Its an amazing mix of comedy, thriller, allegory, drama and satire, and the best thing is that it gets better the further into it you go. For me, series 1 was pretty good, series 2 very good, but once new characters like Gus Fring and Mike the Cleaner are introduced going into series 3, it becomes as good as TV can get. It also helps that it very obviously got a much bigger budget after series 2, so it becomes cinematic in scope, the cinematography and editing are fantastic.

    BTW, don’t get too attached to that brunette Fabien mentions, she comes to a very unpleasant end… 😯

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    Vili Maunula

    Ugetsu: Seriously though, put Breaking Bad above those others!

    We probably should, everyone is talking so much about it. I just don’t like having more than a couple of series “on” at the same time, apart from checking into the first couple of episodes of a new series, and then putting it on hold for some reason (as happened with Breaking Bad).

    Broadwalk Empire is actually another one of those series. The first episodes looked interesting but weren’t as good as to get us addicted, so we ended up binging on, I think, The Americans instead. Which I think is a really good balance of serious drama and exciting popcorn spy entertainment. A bit like Homeland, in that regard.

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    Ugetsu

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    Vili Maunula

    Hah, that’s funny. It actually reminded me a little of Threatened, the last song on the last album that Michael Jackson released in his lifetime — it mixes bits and pieces of Rod Serling’s narration from Twilight Zone to create a rap. The borrowings are for the most part a little longer snippets though than is the case with the BB / R. Kelly remix.

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    lawless

    Homeland, really? I watched the second season after it won all those Emmys and mostly wondered why. I mean, Claire Danes is wonderful and fully deserved her first season Emmy based on what I saw in the second season, but Damien Lewis’ character wasn’t as interesting as he was made out to be or could have been, and I thought his acting in Life was far more amazing and nuanced. And the writing in the second season was notably uneven; some of it was good, even great, but a lot was crap. I was curious enough to want to watch the third season, but the person who actually records the shows didn’t put it on the queue and I don’t care enough to bother catching up.

    Then again, I mostly watch TV for entertainment and avoid shows that deal with dark and difficult subjects that don’t have some fantasy element to them or a strong central personal relationship, as is the case with Sherlock (assuming one would classify it as dealing with dark and difficult themes, which is mostly a stretch). As a result, I never had an interest in watching shows like Breaking Bad, Weeds, Dexter, or Mad Men, and while intellectually I’d like to watch Oz and The Wire (of which I saw most of the first season), I’m not motivated enough to bother. For someone who likes foreign films as much as I do, my TV preferences are generally mainstream and middlebrow or geeky.

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    Vili Maunula

    lawless: Homeland, really?

    Indeed! The second season was definitely weaker than the first one as the focus of the show had to shift, and the writing wasn’t as constant as in the first season. But I still liked it enough to look forward to the third season, which premieres next month (or so I think), which might explain why your recorder hasn’t picked it up yet.

    It’s an interesting thought how much you may have missed or how much extra you may have picked up compared to me, if you went into the second season without having seen the first one, which was basically a season long introduction to the characters. It is the kind of a show I would not miss an episode of, as it would be like missing a chapter in a book. But then again, I also watch something like Whose Line Is It Anyway? chronologically, and get uncomfortable if I think that I missed an episodes somewhere, so there is that. 🙂

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    lawless

    Given the discussion of Breaking Bad, here’s a link to a discussion of Anna Gunn’s receipt of death threats and the like from fans disgruntled by her portrayal of Walter White’s wife, Skyler. Scary stuff.

    But the main reason I’m bringing this up is to point to the Maureen Ryan HuffPost piece on this topic and what she writes about shows like Breaking Bad and Mad Men that take white heterosexual men as their protagonists and focal points, putting characters like Skyler and others into the position of being antagonists who fans dump on for getting in the beloved character’s way no matter what terrible things he does or how much he’s endangering her and their children, as is happening with her and Walter. To quote:

    It’s true that there are more interesting female characters on the screen than there were even a few years ago. But it’s too soon to tell if the recent wave of programs with unapologetically complex female characters, female creators and/or female ensembles is the opening of the floodgates or a temporary fluke. Television writers, showrunners and executives have been overwhelmingly white, straight and male for decades, and those numbers hardly ever budge. Writers don’t write about things that don’t fascinate them, and executives generally don’t commission scripted shows that don’t speak to them on some level. Hence plumbing the depths of experience of women — or gay characters and people of color — just hasn’t been a consistent priority for ambitious cable dramas and populist fare alike.

    I’m not saying that those of you who watch and enjoy these shows are wrong to do so; I’m just saying that certain voices are drowning out others. In addition, I watch TV for entertainment. If I want to something hard-hitting, dark, or intellectually challenging, I’ll read a novel or a book of non-fiction. As a result, I watch shows like Major Crimes (team-based crime drama headed by Oscar-winner Mary McDonnell); Defiance (post-apocalyptic sci fi show set in a town where the cleverest strategist of all is a traditional Castithan wife played by Jaime Murray); and The Good Wife (self-explanatory) — well-acted, well-scripted (usually) middlebrow shows with some twist or interest in social issues. Something relaxed enough not to remind me of how screwed up the world is (or people are), but dark and cynical enough to show me glimpses of it. There are plenty of men on these shows, but they aren’t necessarily the focus.

    More food for thought: I hate Strong Female Characters (New Statesman). As the subtitle says: “Sherlock Holmes gets to be brilliant, solitary, abrasive, Bohemian, whimsical, brave, sad, manipulative, neurotic, vain, untidy, fastidious, artistic, courteous, rude, a polymath genius. Female characters get to be Strong.”

    Interestingly, Julie Benz tweeted links today to both articles above from the set of Defiance where she’s shooting the next season’s episodes. Six degrees of separation, anyone? (Or in this case one degree of separation.)

    As for Homeland, Vili, I’d been led to believe that it had started up again because of an interview I read with Morena Baccarin. I am interested in seeing what happens, especially with Eli (do I have that right — Mandy Patinkin’s character), but I might not stick it out if the quality isn’t there. Plus I’m already getting behind on shows and the network’s fall season hasn’t even begun.

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    JD

    I’ve been a BREAKING BAD fan for years, but didn’t get a chance to watch IKIRU until roughly a month ago. I saw several paralells between the two, but only within the impending death of the protaganists due to cancer (beyond that, they couldn’t be more different in terms of style, form and content). I wasn’t at all surprised to find that Vince Gilligan was inspired by the film.

    First off, there’s the milque-toast beginnings: both Watanabe and White start out completely boring, dull, helpless and kicked around by life and those around them. They’re depressed, and despite certain accomplishments/accolades (hanging on both their walls), they feel like they’ve wasted a large portion of their lives. This changes when they’re diagnosed.

    Secondly, Watanabe “breaks bad” himself when he joins the author for a night in town, engaging in activities that surprise both the audience and himself. This happens to White throughout BREAKING BAD, particularly in the first season.

    Then there’s the hat: the physical manifestation of rebirth. Both of these characters transformed significantly after the news of their terminal illness, and their hats end up having huge visual significance.

    Watanabe and White both keep their illnesses a secret from their families (though White ends up telling early on in the series, whereas Watanabe never tells).

    Because of their limited time to live, both characters are able to face their enemies in ways they never even dreamed of before – they fearlessly stand up for themselves, even when threatened with death. Watanabe manages to make the gangsters back down, and Walt learns he can be intimidating in a variety of scenarios (the “this is not meth” and “say my name” scenes, against Tuco and Declan respectively, immediately come to mind).

    There are other, smaller details I’m currently forgetting, but those are the highlights. They’re both masterpieces, that’s for sure.

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    Ugetsu

    JD

    Then there’s the hat: the physical manifestation of rebirth. Both of these characters transformed significantly after the news of their terminal illness, and their hats end up having huge visual significance.

    Thats an excellent point, I had forgotten the symbolism of the hat for both men. I must go check out Ikuru again to see if its the same hat!

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