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Ikiru: Fathers, sons and daughters

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    Ugetsu

    An element that has intrigued me about the film is the nature of the later relationship between Watanabe and his son, Mitsuo, and daughter in law, Kazue. I find it particularly interesting that Kurosawa leaves a huge gap in the film in a place where Ozu would no doubt have made into an entire film – the process whereby a loving father and son became distant and vaguely hostile, with a huge gulf of misunderstanding between them.

    We first see Mitsuo as a boy at the funeral, clearly too young to understand what is happening.

    The second flashback scene is Mitsuo at about 12 years old playing baseball. Watanabe is clearly the proud dad – up until Mitsuo makes a mistake and he sits on the bench with a sad and somewhat ambiguous look on his face. I’m still trying to understand why we are shown this scene – is it a foreshadowing of the later years where Mitsuo lets Watanbe down when he needs him most? Or is it simply showing that moment when a father and son stop to idealise each other and realise they are human? A common motif in lots of stories is that event in most of our lives when we realise that our fathers are just regular guys, not the superhero we think he is when we are little. Maybe there is also that moment in a fathers life when he realises his son is similarly ordinary. Was Kurosawa indicating that this moment is an important epiphany in the father/son relationship?

    The third scene is dramatic and must have struck a chord with the contemporary audience – Watanabe seeing his son off to war. There is a moment of hesitation between the two of them. What is this scene saying? The simple observation that war permanently breaks up families? Or that the moment when a father sees his son off on his first independent adventure is a crucial moment when ties are broken?

    Then, there is a huge gap in our family story. We don’t know what Watanabe or Mitsuo did in the war, except we know they survived. We don’t know anything about how Mitsuo met Kazue. We just know that the three of them are living together in an awkward family situation. I think significantly, Kurosawa went out of his way to show that Mitsuo and Kazue are a loving couple – especially with that scene where she throws herself on the bed next to him, asking for a hug – that must have struck the audience of showing that they are a modern ‘love’ pairing, not some traditional arranged marriage.

    However, while this couple are in love like Yuzo and Masako in One Wonderful Sunday, they are charmless in comparison. Their griping and low level plotting against Watanabe is unpleasant. I think significantly, it is Kazue who is suggesting asking Watanabe for the money to have their own house, indicating that for sure this is a daughter in law who feels no strong empathy with her father in law.

    It seems assumed in many writings I’ve read about the films that they are intended to be very unpleasant characters. I do wonder though about this – it seems to me that they are frustrated and uncomfortable in the house rather than being malign in their intentions. This must have been a very common situation in post war Japan (if I’m not mistaken, its a big issue in contemporary Japan too).

    I think its very significant that the plot point that Ozu would have undoubtedly considered the most important element if he had been making the film is entirely absent in Kurosawa’s film. Why did father and son fall out? Did they sour on each other during the war? Is it implied that Mitsuo came back from war a damaged, harder man? Are Mitsuo and Kazue intended to represent a more cynical, less responsible generation? Or is it Watanabe who is at fault – a man who tried to cling on to his son after he became an adult, refusing to accept that when a man marries his primary attachment should be to his wife, not his father? Watanabes refusal to marry may well have poisoned his own relationship with his son, turning him into a burden on the young couple, rather than accept his ‘natural’ role as a benign future father/grandfather figure to the new generation.

    We next see Mitsuo and Kazue at the funeral, where they are central, but largely passive figures. They seem genuine in their grief, but presumably they are traditional enough to know that they must put on a show of mourning for their guests. They both seem genuinely offended at the notion that Watanabe would not confide in them – and both seem astonished at the revelations about Watanabe and suitably impressed when they find that he was a much more substantial figure than they had thought.

    But then, they more or less disappear from the film, as the focus of the final scenes turns to the playground and the Town Hall and the little bureaucrat who alone but ineffectually carries Watanabes flame.

    So what was Kurosawa trying to say about this little family? Mitsuo is clearly a central figure in Watanabes life, and something went wrong to make him the embittered husk of a man he became. Kazue also seems significant in that she seems to be the key wedge between the two men. Perhaps some subtleties are lost on us – non-Japanese, but it seems to me to be significant that she has not adopted the ‘natural’ role of a widowers daughter-in-law – that of the woman of the house. She seems to have a slightly odd relationship with the housekeeper – partly bossing her about, but also perhaps feeling frustrated that the housekeeper answers to Watanabe, not to her. Is it significant that it is Kazue who complains that the housekeeper does not live-in? Is it implied that a problem with the household is that there is no proper maternal figure in the house with real authority?

    I know there are far more questions than answers in my post. I feel that Mitsuo and Kazue are far more than background figures. Something happened between Mitsuo and Watanabe to turn this family sour but rather than give us a direct narrative hint at it, Kurosawa seems to leave this huge unanswered hole in the story. I feel that the elaborate flashback scene is clearly intended to show this family as a central part of the film – its not just about Watanabe. I assume Kurosawa intended the audience to fill this narrative hole, and as such it would have reflected the concerns of contemporary Japan. But what exactly was he trying to say?

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    Vili Maunula

    Ugetsu: So what was Kurosawa trying to say about this little family?

    “Talk to each other.”

    I don’t think that anything specific happened between the father and the son. Quite the contrary, actually. My view is that they grew apart largely because nothing much happened between them: the father was so busy at work all the time, doing nothing, that he didn’t have the time for his son.

    It may have been because of his son that he worked so hard, but did he ever stop to consider that in addition to financial support there was other kind of support that his son needed? The short flashback scene about the son’s medical operation illustrates this well.

    I totally agree with you that the relationship between the father and the son is very much at the core of what the film is trying to say. The way Watanabe has chosen to support and interact with his son is emotionless, dead and wasteful. It is not life.

    The baseball scene is indeed a curious one, but I really like your interpretation of it being Watanabe’s realisation that his son is just human. It also makes us wonder whether Watanabe really is ready to fight for his son, or to be proud of him faults and all.

    The scene where the son leaves off to war is, I think, mirroring the one with the son’s medical operation. In the operation, it is the father who is leaving the son. In the train scene, it is the son leaving the father behind. In the first flashback, it is the mother who is leaving the son and the father.

    I don’t think that the film needs to say more about the relationship between the father and the son than it already does. I also don’t think that Mitsuo or his wife are bad people. What they say when Watanabe overhears them is obviously not very nice for Watanabe to hear, but then again he was not meant to hear that. I think that we all have frustrations with our parents and our parents-in-law. We may talk about them with our partners or friends, but not necessarily with the people we actually should talk to, i.e. the parents or the parents-in-law themselves.

    It is interesting that when Watanabe is reborn and realises that it is not too late for him to make a change, he chooses to put his remaining energies into helping strangers, rather than trying to mend the relationship with his son. I suppose that he is, perhaps understandably, still offended by his son’s misunderstanding about what Toyo meant for him. But in the end, in the envelope he does leave Mitsue exactly what he overheard him say that he wanted from him. So, maybe we can say that he did try his best there as well.

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    cocoskyavitch

    Ugetsu, wonderful idea for a thread!

    Since the family flashbacks are all in Watanabe’s head-we might ask what Kurosawa is telling us about the character-and to me it is about Watanabe’s regrets. When he felt ashamed of his son’s failure in baseball-his remoteness faced with his son’s surgery, and his inability to connect more deeply as his son goes off to war-Watanabe is reviewing all the ways in which he failed his son! He might as well say, “I’ve made a bloody mess of that, and any coldness and remoteness I get springs from the seeds I myself have sown”.

    Some wonder why Watanabe does not work to repair the relationship-but it seems to me he believes that this is a “done deal”-that the character of his son is a direct result of his upbringing-and noboby but Watanabe is responsible for that.

    Ugetsu-good point about no female head of household…this makes us think Watanable was not a remote man from some deep character flaw-rather he was ill-equipped to give his son an interior life, since he himself was literally at a loss (having lost his wife-the mother of his son) and Watanabe never learned the skills of nurturing that are necessary to raise a child.

    You know-far from feeling that there is a narrative hole, or that Kurosawa is eliding the content that Ozu would spend a whole film on-I am, rather, astonished at the intimate details of a life lived. Oddly succinct-but incredibly painful and searing and true!

    The flashback scene must be meaningful to many people who appreciate this film. We’ve read discussions here already stating that the achievement of Watanabe was not really satisfying enough for some of our friends. I’m not sure how I feel about it as an achievement-the thing that was done…does seem small and fleeting, actually-it seems destined to become a sump again, or a parking lot…change happens, right?

    What I am certain of is that the real achievement is Watanabe’s finding something he can care about…his getting involved and going the distance to make something happen. If there is any moral to the story, it isn’t really that you can do some good if you try (after all, the name of the film is not the “Good Guy”) the moral is that to care and try is to live.

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    Ugetsu

    Vili

    It may have been because of his son that he worked so hard, but did he ever stop to consider that in addition to financial support there was other kind of support that his son needed? The short flashback scene about the son’s medical operation illustrates this well.

    ooops, sorry, I completely forgot to mention that scene. It is indeed important in hinting that Watanabe was the one who started to grow distant from his son first, not the other way around.

    The scene where the son leaves off to war is, I think, mirroring the one with the son’s medical operation. In the operation, it is the father who is leaving the son. In the train scene, it is the son leaving the father behind. In the first flashback, it is the mother who is leaving the son and the father.

    I really like that – I was wondering if there was some sort of ‘pattern’ to the scenes, and you’ve identified it exactly I think. I think perhaps Kurosawa was illustrating a very Ozu -like pattern of the inevitability of parting and ‘moving on’ in families.

    It is interesting that when Watanabe is reborn and realises that it is not too late for him to make a change, he chooses to put his remaining energies into helping strangers, rather than trying to mend the relationship with his son.

    The way I interpret this is that Kurosawa is identifying the importance of doing more than ones duty. To do everything you can for your family is laudable, but its not exceptional. It is part of every family members duty. Likewise, I think its strongly implied that Watanabe was good at his job (the fact that his job was pointless wasn’t his fault). In acting for these women he never knew, people who could be safely ignored if he chose to do so, he was carrying out a much greater act of good than if he’d sacrificed himself for his son and daughter in law. I think this is what he realised when Toya pointed out to him that his son had never asked him for his sacrifices, so he had no reason to be grateful. Kurosawa is saying that to be good, to ‘live’ is to do more than do ones duty as defined by society – it is to go beyond your duty.

    Coco – great response, I agree with you entirely.

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    lawless

    Hey everyone, I agree pretty much in their entirety with Vili and Coco. This movie doesn’t dwell on what Ozu might have made an entire movie of (and in some ways, isn’t that what Tokyo Story is?) because the estrangement between father and son is part of the explanation of how Watanabe came to be this pathetic creature who only existed but didn’t live. It’s mostly his lack of emotional resources — his inability to bond and connect with his son — that caused the estrangement. That wouldn’t be an uncommon reaction from a workaholic father whose wife had died; she might have borne the brunt of the emotional caretaking in the family. It is for this reason that I think his son faults him for not remarrying.

    The gulf between them regarding their living arrangements, which is also reflected in their varying adoption of Western garb and customs (I don’t think the fact that the son and daughter-in-law only appear in Japanese clothing in the funeral scene in which they learn how little they knew about Watanabe is a coincidence), doesn’t excuse their cutting him off and failing to listen to him. Depending on whether you think Watanabe was in their part of the home to tell them about his condition the day he got his diagnosis (he seems so shellshocked to me that I’m not sure he would have gotten much further than weeping), they squelched at least one, and possibly two, attempts on his part to tell them about his cancer.

    I think Kurosawa expected the audience to strongly disapprove of the son and daughter-in-law’s behavior since it is so disrespectful. That would be true even if Watanabe hadn’t overheard their conversation about wanting him to use his retirement savings to buy a new house.

    There are more details in my reaction post on the main Ikiru entry, but this disapproval would be due to the fact that Matsuo and Kazue are living in Watanabe’s house, presumably at his expense (though presumably they pay or chip in for food), with maid service provided by him (since Kazue complains about her, implying Kazue is not in a position to force her to do things differently or to fire her). I assume Matsuo works (I don’t know about Kazue), and even if they help contribute to household expenses, it looks as though they’re getting a sweetheart deal.

    Now, to my mind, the right way to deal with wanting a house of their own that suits them, rather than making do with Watanabe’s house, is to find such a house using their own funds and move there. If the point is that they’re expected to house and look after Watanabe (who, after all, is still working), then they negotiate this with him and offer him room in their house. I don’t know how culturally appropriate it is for children to expect parents to assist them with purchasing a home that will be shared intergenerationally, but at the very least they should discuss it with them ahead of time rather than out and out expect to be able to use their retirement money for it.

    I see this more as an outgrowth of the estrangement rather than an example of a father keeping his son and daughter-in-law from establishing their own household. From my limited knowledge, living in the parents’ home is far more common than living in the child’s home.

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    cocoskyavitch

    The really sad thing, lawless, is how estranged the son and wife are from old Watanabe….making discussion something to be avoided.

    Their scheming does cast a bad light on the son and wife…they look like horribly ungrateful people without much compassion-I acknowledge that’s how it looks. But, I have no desire to judge. We know what they don’t about Watanabe’s mortality and his own inner life-all they have are their defense mechanisms to keep on keeping on despite a rather unhappy household vibe with a distant old dustball shell of a man. This all strikes me as so psychologically true and so incredibly painful!

    I find many scenes cringe-worthy. The party scene with Watanabe walking down the stairs whilst celebrants sing the birthday song…his singing of life is brief…his crazy desperate looks at Toyo. She does tire of him…and it is a bit creepy…a hand from the grave pulling at the lifeblood coursing through the young woman’s veins.

    On the other hand, it is so real, so true, so…painfully true.

    “Over the years I have seen Ikiru every five years or so, and each time it has moved me, and made me think. And the older I get, the less Watanabe seems like a pathetic old man, and the more he seems like every one of us.”~Roger Ebert, well-said.

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    Amnesty11

    This is great. I’ve come to this discussion all too late, because everyone has said it all. But may I say here that this is one of many things I had a problem with in the film. I was frustrated with Watanabe’s choice to not mend his own ties with his son instead of taking on a societal need. I guess altruism is a wonderful thing, but bottom line, he should have fixed it with his son before he died. He should have had the courage, somehow to at least tell him. Well, should have, schmould have…he didn’t and couldn’t and that was the point, I know.

    One of the few moments in the film that actually did move me was that incredible scene at the train station. My god, Matsuo is looking out desperately into a sea of faces for his father, his urgent need to connect with him before the train takes off is almost unbearable to watch. And all along his father is right in front of him staring at him as hard as he can, as if he could somehow take a part of Matsuo from him and keep it for himself if he just looked long and hard enough. But he didn’t SAY anything. And when Matsuo realizes that his father is right before him, his indelible look of joy and deep understanding says everything. Everything. They had SOMETHING together, really a total connection. And maybe that connection is what Watanabe thought they would have forever but then the dratted daughter in law came along and changed everything. (We can assume – and also I like the theories mentioned above, that Mitsuo resented his father for not re-marrying and for not finding a way of nurturing him in the ways he needed.)

    So maybe it’s not so surprising that Watanabe doesn’t tell him about the cancer after all, just sits and stares, as he does throughout much of the movie, in many scenes where i wanted him to say something. (“Only Connect.”) He could never communicate with words to his son but they seemed to have that other powerful way of communicating which was now defunct and so he was too old to start “talking” and “expressing his feelings” in any other way.

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    Ugetsu

    Amnesty

    I was frustrated with Watanabe’s choice to not mend his own ties with his son instead of taking on a societal need. I guess altruism is a wonderful thing, but bottom line, he should have fixed it with his son before he died.

    While it was presumably not ‘intentional’ of Watanabe, to an extent I think the film addresses this in the final scene where we see Mitsuo and Kazue looking at Watanabe’s crumpled hat in some wonder. Watanabe did make it up to his son posthumously, by showing that he was more than just some boring old man who wouldn’t give up his money. Perhaps the intention is to indicate that showing a good example to the younger generation is more important than ‘connecting’ with them.

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    cocoskyavitch

    Perhaps the intention is to indicate that showing a good example to the younger generation is more important than ‘connecting’ with them.

    That’s right Ugetsu, maybe being a person the son could honor is the thing.

    Let’s pretend Kurosawa’s choices were different and that Watanabe confesses to his son he is dying, and they make some sort of rapprochement…and when the funeral scene comes, the son thinks “dad was a loser…and we only got together when he knew he was dying…”

    I should think the dignity of Watanabe withholding the information and redefining himself through his last acts-left the son with a dad he could admire. A big gift-arguably more valuable than some sad last days staring into the maw of death together.

    Having said that, I think the kindest thing a person can do is minister to the sick and dying. So, one other very nice thing-the path not chosen-is to allow the son to tender to his father, and stare into the face of death with him! That is one way the son could have redeemed his own life-but that opportunity was not offered him.

    Should the dad have sacrificed his own desire for his son? Should he have put aside a search for meaning so that his son could care for him? And, then, what if the son could not live up to that care? It would be a terrible opportunity for failure…I don’t suppose you would ever forgive yourself if you failed at something like that! Perhaps Watanabe sensed the gulf was too deep to bridge…

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    Amnesty11

    I don’t know. I think Watanabe and Matsuo had such a deep connection by the time Matsuo was an adult (as witnessed in the Train Scene) that had Watanabe confessed everything, they probably would have built that playground together. AND Matsuo could have tended his father and maybe the wife would have felt something more for the old man because of this and she would become a more reflective person instead of so selfish. Who knows? Why don’t we all write a script together? 😆 J

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    cocoskyavitch

    <b>Amnesty</b>, so many possibilities, right?

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