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Ikiru: Nippon Beer and Critique of Post-War Society

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    Vili Maunula

    There is something in this composition that haunts me whenever I see it.

    Nippon beer

    It is at about 00:43:40, and it has often started a thought process which I am now trying to bring into a completion in this post.

    One obviously interesting aspect of the shot is how we see the faces of both the pulp writer and Watanabe, despite their positions relative to the camera — Watanabe’s face is in the mirror. But that is not it. What actually grabs me even more is the beer advertisements.

    On the foreground, in Japanese katakana script, we have “Nippon Beer” (nippon biiru) written on the mirror. In the background, this is repeated with western script. Because it is a reflection, the western writing is reversed.

    Now, it is kind of interesting that the Japanese writing reads left-to-right, while the western writing reads right-to-left. Their roles have, in a sense, been reversed.

    [Japanese is, of course, often written left-to-right. Actually, at least in my school maths and physics text books were written left-to-right, top-to-bottom, and bound like books are bound in the west. Text books of history, language, and such matters were, meanwhile, written top-to-bottom, right-to-left, and bound in the traditional Japanese way — the opposite of western book binding.]

    If we wanted to find support for the view that Kurosawa was an “anti-western film maker”, this image could perhaps well be included in the argumentation. We do, after all, have the perfectly good Japanese text on the foreground, coupled with its bastard westernised version which, in the end, is so wrong that Kurosawa actually gives it us backwards.

    But we don’t want to go there. Well, not entirely.

    What the seemingly innocent Nippon Beer advert here echoes is the sometimes overlooked fact that Ikiru seems to give quite a lot of attention to Japan’s post-war reforms, and doesn’t portray them in an entirely positive light, either. This, of course, is not unique to Ikiru, but I think that the West/Japan dualism is perhaps even stronger here than in any other Kurosawa film of the period.

    At the heart of the story we have a bureaucracy that does not seem to do anything. As much as we might be tempted to say that this is true of any bureaucracy anywhere, this is not any bureaucracy anywhere, but the post-war Japanese bureaucracy that, according to Prince’s Criterion commentary, had been reformed under the occupation. The endless departments that the women at the beginning of the film are taken through are, apparently, the result of these reforms. And Kurosawa does not seem very positive about them.

    Interestingly enough, it turns out that Nippon Beer is also the result of reforms brought by the US occupation. In 1947, the occupation government passed the Law for Elimination of Excessive Concentration of Economic Power, which was targeted at breaking monopolies and promoting fair and more open competition within Japanese markets. In 1949, DaiNippon Beer Company Ltd, which was the largest Japanese beer producer (at best producing 70% of Japan’s beer), was subjected to the law and the company was broken into two separate companies: Nippon Breweries Ltd and the Asahi Breweries Ltd.

    Although Nippon Breweries retained Sapporo and other famous brands, they immediately decided to introduce a new brand to the market: Nippon Beer. Next year, following the lifting of an advertising ban in Japan, the company started an aggressive marketing campaign for the new beer, and this is probably why we have Nippon Beer also in the 1952 movie. (source)

    But it is not just the bureaucracy where the western influence is felt. There is much more to it. In fact, there is something like an active contrasting of Japanese and western signs in the film.

    Take for instance 00:22:20, where Watanabe is ringing the small bell for his wife’s home shrine, and which is contrasted with the foreign pop music blasting from Mitsuo’s room upstairs. The rooms themselves actually offer a similar contrast: Watanabe’s is the prototypical Japanese tatami room with just the bare essentials, while Mitsuo’s room upstairs is very western with its chairs and a table and, of all things, a bed. Mitsuo’s wife does, in fact, comment how she “just hate Japanese houses” (00:19:50), which may explain their westernised style.

    Contrasts like these are numerous in Ikiru, and some of them have more direct meaning than others.

    Take for example the two most meaning-filled songs in the film. “Gondola no uta”, Watanabe’s signature song, is a classic pre-war Japanese tune whose lyrics directly mirror the urgency that Watanabe feels — he wants to live before he dies, but for a long time does not know how to do it. That is, not until he becomes enlightened. Interestingly enough, this enlightenment happens in a western style coffee shop with “Happy Birthday”, perhaps the most famous of all English language songs, being sung on the background (and repeated in the scene that follows).

    [Did you, by the way, know that “Happy Birthday” is under copyright by Warner Chappell Music? I wonder if Kurosawa paid for the license.]

    Yet, perhaps it is worth noting that whereas the Japanese song is full of meaning and beautiful symbols, “Happy Birthday” is devoid of almost any meaning or symbols — indeed, it is just a mindless repetitive tune. This, in fact, seems to be true of also the other western songs in the movie.

    “Come On-a My House”, which the two women (prostitutes?) sing in the car, is an excellent example of not only the mindlessness and repetitiveness of these tunes, but also their inappropriateness. It is also worth noting that it is (in a way, understandably) for the most part the youngsters in the movie who are the most westernised, and in that sense the most mindless. Even Toyo, the girl through whom Watanabe becomes enlightened, is very western in her tastes, especially when it comes to stockings!

    Concerning the west/Japan divide, there is also something that I have often thought about when it comes to the three members of hospital staff who are present when Watanabe hears (or doesn’t hear) about his condition.

    Doctors in Ikiru

    To me, it has always seemed that the head doctor looks strikingly foreign (as in “non-Japanese”). Similarly, the nurse’s face and clothes make her look very western to me. In contrast to the two, the young man on the other hand looks extremely Japanese. Curiously, he also seems to be the only one with any level of emotional connection to Watanabe’s cancer. The two others appear not to care.

    There is actually an interesting point that Prince makes in his commentary track about cancer in early 1950s Japan. According to him, it was a disease strongly associated with Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He in fact goes as far as to say that cancer was identified as a sign of social dysfunction, a symbol of post-modern Japan, and that it was therefore considered something of a “western” disease. If this is how the contemporary audience was seeing Watanabe’s condition, I’m surprised that the film got past the occupation censors!

    So, there certainly are a number of instances where Ikiru appears to be critical of the west. Yet, I would still maintain that it is still not so much the west that Kurosawa is critical of but rather the Japanese adaptation of the west, the rate in which it was being done, and the inappropriateness of that enterprise in cases where it was mindlessly carried out. Perhaps that is why the western Nippon Beer needs to be shown to us backwards, in contrast to its Japanese counterpart. Maybe not. But this is more or less where my train of thought now comes to a full stop.

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    cocoskyavitch

    Nice train, Vili, and a riveting ride. I would just point out that the “young doctor” in the scene reproduced above, is none other than our beloved Katsushiro from “Seven Samurai” -the actor Ko Kimura or Isao Kimura.

    I have noticed, often, that there are characters in Kurosawa films that actually don’t look a bit Japanese, and, actually, I think this is the case with some Ozu characters as well. I don’t think Setsuko Hara looks particularly “Japanese’ in many of her films.

    And, yes, I find it odd and noteworthy. Is it that both Ozu and Kurosawa thought Western films superior?

    Now that you mention it, Vili, the intrusion of the West into the East is one of those things that drew me to post-war Japanese film in the first place. The collision of two cultures is a huge part of the fascination these films hold for me. I think about the kids playing cowboys and indians in “High and Low“-seriously the first time I saw that I was ….like “whaaaa?” And, the desireable, ill-gotten western fancy dress in “Stray Dog“-an item of lust…

    Don’t get me started. Kurosawa clearly had the West in mind, often, and it seems to me, that it does play a role in almost all his films. Western music shows up a LOT.

    And, if I may just interject, Vili, you noted:

    Come On-a My House”, which the two women (prostitutes?) sing in the car, is an excellent example of not only the mindlessness and repetitiveness of these tunes, but also their inappropriateness.”

    It’s actually a pretty shockingly racist song, if you look at it in some lights. I remember recoiling in embarrassment when viewing “Ikiru” for the first time. It appears to be the western take on the “Oriental” prostitutes’s come-on to the G.I…oddly, it was written by an American guy with Armenian background-(and this next part is so crazy) the guy who was “David Seville” and did those “Alvin and the Chipmunks” albums!

    Yeah, the influence and presence of the west in the films of Kurosawa-a fascinating subject! I cannot draw a conclusion-I think Kurosawa’s own feelings were complicated. For example, in the first scenes of the women being detoured through the various departments as they search for someone to hear their petition to clear the sump-at one point the ladies are fed up and say, “This is democracy???!!!” or something like that-they show disgust and throw the word out. I get the impression that “Democracy” is something good and noble and the bureaucracy is neither of those things. Then again, in “Stray Dog” when the lady thief says “I’ve got my rights”-it’s a clear dig at western democratic processes that protect the criminal.

    Anyhow, regarding the cancer itself-it may, as you say, Vili, be a dig at the west and the bomb-and, simultaneously be a “sickness of the seat of the soul”-as I propose in another thread.

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    Ugetsu

    Its not a subject I’m an expert on, but I’m reminded of one writer who described the Japanese relationship to western culture of being a self inflicted psychic wound, inflicted by the deliberate cultural suicide of the Meiji Restoration. The very strange and intense love/hate relationship the Japanese have to western culture is one that is very hard to fully grasp – in my experience there is an intensity to it that no other culture shares. I’ve read a little about the destruction of old Kyoto (which happened only in the last 2 decades) and the shocking lack of concern about this in Japan – the almost gleeful way in which certain sectors of Japanese society like to sweep away ‘the old’ is very disturbing.

    I’m reminded of the very funny scene in one of Ozu’s movies (you know, the one thats just like all the others), where two drunken Japanese men, puzzled by the western dress and acts of young women ‘these days’, speculate on what would have happened if Japan won the war. They think of fat American women wearing kimono’s and boogie woogie music played on the shamisen. They agree its just as well Japan lost!

    Vili, your observations are very acute, but I don’t think there is anything unique to Kurosawa, I think its pretty much the universal theme of Japanese cinema of the period, Kurosawa was just typically more imaginative in its depiction. But I think you are right in drawing our attention to the slightly negative hint always given to western ways. It was the most striking thing I noticed when i first saw Ikiru a few years ago – the way in which western imagery got sharper the deeper the movie fell into the underbelly of Tokyo life. I assumed that this was really a reflection of life at the time, whereby maintaining traditional japanese ways was a luxury of the upper classes, who could afford to stand aloof from the urban mob, who like it or not were exposed to the West, mainly via American soldiers. At the time Ikiru was made, the Japanese economy was starting to strengthen, almost entirely due to US military purchases of supplies to pursue the Korean War.

    I think there is a doctoral thesis or two in this topic alone.

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    Vili Maunula

    Ugetsu is right that the mixture of Japanese and Western signs and symbols is not unique to Kurosawa. It would, indeed, be interesting to do an in-depth comparison of Japanese post-war films with an eye on these things, and see where Kurosawa is actually situated in comparison.

    I don’t really have much knowledge of the immediate post-war period (what I know pretty much comes directly or indirectly from Kurosawa), but having lived in the country I am certainly aware of the almost effortless manner in which the Japanese assimilate cultural, linguistic and other aspects of foreign countries, and make them their own. I don’t think that this is anything new either, as so much of what we consider Japanese culture is ultimately a mixture of Chinese and Korean borrowings.

    Not that any country is an island in this sense, of course. Somehow the Japanese just seem so strikingly good at it.

    In any case, it is interesting how Ikiru is first and foremost considered to be a story about an individual who is struggling for meaning or an identity. And yet, there appears to be this very strong societal undercurrent in the film, which suggests that perhaps what Ikiru is presenting to us does not need to be given the narrow interpretation of a humanist quest for individual enlightenment, but should rather be seen as a work that actually quite prominently has something important to say also concerning the society in (or for) which it was created.

    Not that this is a particularly shocking or even novel idea, but it is a view that I feel is perhaps not stressed quite often enough.

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    Ugetsu

    Not that any country is an island in this sense, of course. Somehow the Japanese just seem so strikingly good at it.

    I think the Japanese genius has always been based on taking cultural (or technological) ideas from other countries, and reinventing it so much that the originators of the idea don’t even know its theirs.

    Not that this is a particularly shocking or even novel idea, but it is a view that I feel is perhaps not stressed quite often enough.

    I agree completely – I think Ikiru is a much more complicated film that is usually portrayed. While Watanabes search for ‘meaning’ is personal and universal at the same time, it takes place in a very dynamic social situation (i.e Japan undergoing its post war convulsions). In this way its very like Stray Dog. I don’t think Watanabe’s job is just ‘background’, its all part of the narrative and its meaning. As usual, Kurosawa had a hell of a lot to say and was masterful in cramming it all into 120 minutes of film.

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    cocoskyavitch

    Vili said,

    “Interestingly enough, this enlightenment happens in a western style coffee shop with “Happy Birthday”, perhaps the most famous of all English language songs, being sung on the background (and repeated in the scene that follows).”

    In reviewing that scene again, I note that as Watanabe descends the stairs, the singers appear to be singing to Watanabe. It isn’t until the young woman appears at the base of the stair, looking up, that we realize the focus of the celebration. (Kurosawa’s symbolism may seem heavy-handed, here, but, after all, it is the anniversary of the young woman’s birth, but it is an actual rebirth of Watanabe…and he wants to make the singing of “Happy Birthday” score Watanabe’s waking from his mummified state).

    In the next scene “Happy Birthday” is reprised quietly as Watanabe rescues the women’s petition to make a park of the sump-the song is meant to underscore the rebirth of Watanabe.

    In some ways the film is amazingly simple (story, intent). In some ways the film is amazingly complex (attitudes toward the west and interpersonal relationships). Both of you, Vili and Ugetsu, have articulated the complicated and conflicted attitudes toward the west illustrated in the film.

    I would also like to just mention the absolutely brilliant ensemble piece at the wake for Watanabe. There are such complicated things happening there-everything from self-deception, an attempt to rescue a reputation and bruised ego, denial, fear of the power structrue of the bureaucracy, an atempt at honesty…very complicated but rich in truthful observation.

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