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Ikiru: Trains

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    Vili Maunula

    While I’m digesting one or two larger topics about Ikiru, I thought that I’d kick off this month’s film club with an observation and a related question which on the surface can appear small and innocent, but may on further elaboration actually have an interesting level of depth to them.

    The observation is this: in Ikiru, the sound of a passing off-camera train is heard during two crucial scenes. One is at around 39:40 when Watanabe asks the writer for some help to spend his money in Tokyo’s night life. The second instance is at 56:30, where the two share their last scene together, exchanging looks that appear to communicate their understanding that whatever Watanabe is searching, it cannot be found in bars and night clubs.

    Using the train sound therefore seems like a very deliberate way of bookending the Tokyo night life sequence. I wonder then, what (if any) would you think is the actual significance of its use? Does the train somehow stand as a metaphor for what takes place in between those two scenes, or even for Watanabe’s condition as a whole? Or is it just an auditory effect where the distracting nature of the noise, rather than its perceived source, is important?

    Off-camera train sounds are of course far from being unique to Ikiru. There are similar instances for example in Drunken Angel and Stray Dog (although none that I would have noticed being used as narratively), while in High and Low a train is not only used as a bridging narrative design, but one piece of the detectives’ puzzle also involves tracking down the origin of a particular trolley car sound.

    Then, we of course have Dodesukaden, where the titular imaginary tram is pretty much the narrative centre of the story. And finally, there is Runaway Train, which never got made by Kurosawa, but the script of which takes an out-of-control train as something of a metaphor for life.

    I had never really thought about this before, but there actually is a relatively high number of trains in Kurosawa’s movies. Or am I just imagining this? Any thoughts regarding the topic would be very welcome. And could I perhaps also ask everyone to keep their eyes open and ears pricked for any train references in the film club films that will follow?

    To close off, here is a somewhat related Kurosawa quote that I managed to dig up:

    The lead [in Runaway Train] is the train itself. I am still attracted to the sound of the Odakyu Express and I have to stop when I see it. Since the story itself is pretty simple, we can view it from several different aspects. I guess modern people, especially Americans, have a desire to escape from somewhere. I want to entrust this to the train going out of control. (from Galbraith, p. 444)

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    cocoskyavitch

    Extra-diagetic sound in Kurosawa is almost always intentional! Mr. Kurosawa was highly attuned to the way sound affected images. I vote for the train sounds in Ikiru working as you suggested, Vili, bookending the short story of Mr. Watanabe’s one night of dissolution on the town.

    Beyond that, we can speculate as to the meaning of the sound itself…and come up with themes and variants. The whistle for some may signify that the train is “moving on”. Further, the sound may serve simultaneously as a call and as a warning. You either get aboard or get out of the way. I’m sure that Kurosawa liked the idea of it being both a siren call to “somewhere else” and a warning that this dangerous metal beast was coming, and you’d better watch out or it’s curtains for you! Perhaps in Ikiru, the train “moving on” means that life is moving on and away , leaving Mr. Watanabe behind. Perhaps the illusion of “leaping aboad” the dissolute lifestyle has evaporated, and Mr. Watanabe is re-confronted with the reality of his impending death.

    Train sounds feature largely in other films and theatre: in “Picnic” it tears the hero from his love.

    Trains have tremendous symbolic power. And who doesn’t feel that? I love trains-traveling the summer before last for 48 hours on a train from Cluj, Romania to Istanbul, Turkey was one of the more memorable journeys. Oh, the small incidents of meeting other passengers, the Romanian conductor and his family commandeering staterooms, the hilarious picture of his kids running in their underpants madly up and down the corridor outside my stateroom (later, at the last Romanian border, the conductor was given a solid dressing-down by the border police for allowing his portion of the train to run amok. Later, at the Turkish border, the hippies in Turkish part of the train were left on the platform-ejected from the train, and something was wrong, some visa or money or something. I feel fairly certain that one of the dreadlocked travelers was high-he was singing and dancing on the platform in little circles, oblivious to everything. Someone should have shown him the film Midnight Express!)-the small sink and mirror in the corner-the bunk above, and my friend and I lying and watching the world whiz by, jumping up to see the towns we stopped in-this one with exotically beautiful Eastern-Orthodox domes, this one with gothic articulated belltowers-green forests giving way to broad fields of sunflowers, then farmers in traditional Arttaturk 1920’s apparal-the vest and cap now to be seen mainly in the countryside and not the city. Train travel is the best-we would pretend to find husbands in any small Turkish border town we stayed in for what seemed like too long a time for how small the population must be at these places. A guy who had two cows would be picked out as a rich suitor. There is the romance of the train, the promise of amazing sights along the way-and at arriving at a new destination-someplace you’ve only half-imagined.

    When I was a kid, it seemed a common cartoon gag showed our heroes on the track being pursued by a train. The “heroes” comedically ran away from the train straight down the track. I always thought “that’s so stupid-just get off the tracks!”

    The thing now, is that the tracks seem to find you-I don’t know if I’ve gentled or if I have more compassion or understanding for those folks hell-bent on self-destruction, but it seems to me that it’s really not at all as clear that you just jump off the track as it was when I was a kid. It seems that the train tracks bend around in some spooky way, and that you find yourself facing the train. You might even have a creepy feeling that it might happen…and then, like some slasher film, or a Disney shark, it’s quietly right behind you.

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    Ugetsu

    The observation is this: in Ikiru, the sound of a passing off-camera train is heard during two crucial scenes. One is at around 39:40 when Watanabe asks the writer for some help to spend his money in Tokyo’s night life. The second instance is at 56:30, where the two share their last scene together, exchanging looks that appear to communicate their understanding that whatever Watanabe is searching, it cannot be found in bars and night clubs.

    Great observation, I must admit I never noticed this. On my first two viewings, the second scene puzzled me – I didn’t quite understand what was behind that look they shared. It was only on my most recent viewing that I realised that it was as you say. I think you are right that its meant to signal the end of this part of his search. I suppose its a bit more poetic than the earlier signal of the end of his night – many of us have realised that you don’t find salvation in bars and nightclubs when throwing up behind a pillar!

    I wonder how common the use of the train as a metaphor this was in Japanese film? Ozu of course used trains all the time as a visual indicator for the passing of time.

    I love trains-traveling the summer before last for 48 hours on a train from Cluj, Romania to Istanbul, Turkey was one of the more memorable journeys.

    As usual Coco, you describe everything so vividly! I took an overnight on the Vienna to Belgrade train, tucked up in my sleeper with Graham Greenes ‘Stamboul Trail’. I doubt if the carriage had been upgraded since the book was written. I wish I’d made it to Turkey.

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    Vili Maunula

    Thanks for the responses!

    Coco, I think that you pretty much nailed it. What you write about the cartoon trains is so eerily true…

    And thanks for the anecdote, too — it made me want to leave my work and just hop onto the next train heading to Romania. You haven’t considered a career in advertising? 😉

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    cocoskyavitch

    Another Train

    Vili, I am laughing… I do the marketing (web and hard copy) and outreach (classroom visits, study abroad fairs, advising) for our study abroad programs! So, my career is part in advertising, part in teaching, part in administration, part in showing kids around the world. On a day like today, it feels like it’s mostly about problem-solving. Nevermind about my problems today, I indulged in a weekend viewing of some Ozu-and it occurred to me that he penultimate scene shows Setsuko Hara on a train, listening to that thrilling/frightening scream the engine emits, and looking into the distance while holding a watch given to her by the father-in-law.

    In this case, the train is not just a “pillow shot”-in that harrowing scream the train expresses the loneliness of being.

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    Vili Maunula

    Coco, your work sounds hectic, but it must be really rewarding as well in combining creativity, human interaction and travel. The administration part is something that I could do without. 😉

    It just occurred to me that in Dreams, we of course have a train as a metaphor for artistic drive (the van Gogh sequence).

    I have been thinking about Ugetsu’s question about how common the metaphorical use of trains is in Japanese films, and while I can’t really answer that with my limited knowledge of the subject, I started to ponder how central a place trains have in the Japanese national identity as a whole. After all, some of the most iconic pictures of Japan are those with Fuji on the background, rice paddies on the foreground, and a shinkansen train at the centre of focus.

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    cocoskyavitch

    You’re right, Vili, the prevalence of images of trains in Japanese film (and woodcut!) indicate that it is an important part of the national consciousness.

    The train scene in High and Low comes immediately to mind. The nature of that high-speed train is a plot point-the police will have to plan to cover the drop awfully carefully to capture any information on such a rapid train (they do-and, isn’t if funny that the technology that fails is that of film! One of the cameras used to record the pickup fails!).

    I note, too, that trains feature strongly-almost as characters-in Japanese literature. (Gosh, I am no expert, I’m just saying that in my limited exposure trains show up a LOT). I’m thinking about how in Kawabata’s Snow Country the protagonist sees an image reflected in the train window…it is a woman’s face that begins to be an obsession as the miles roll away (anyone who has traveled by train will imaginatively leap into the seat beside the hero-what an intimate observation! No wonder Kawabata received the Nobel Prize for Literature!).

    I was watching Ozu’s I Was Born, But…, and noted that in this film and Ohayo the children walk alongside railroad tracks-trains in fact, punctuate Ozu’s films fairly regularly-critics call the transitions between the action “pillow shots”, but Ozu has a pretty big vocabulary when it comes to the symbolic use of trains and train tracks! I don’t for a minute think they are just randomly chosen images (just as I don’t think the clotheslines that Ozu often uses between scenes are content-free). Part of the appeal in those early Ozu silent films are the rural-city contrasts, bridged by trains.

    There are reasons that Ozu returns again and again to certain images, and the very rich symbolism of trains (they can knit far-flung regions together or tear families apart!) that includes national pride in industrial accomplishment and modernization is quite serviceable to Ozu’s vision.

    Utagawa’s charming woodcut of a train along the shore of Takanawa gives the train the pride of place-up front with closely observed detail, while retaining a childlike delight in this remarkable conveyance.

    And, if you do a google search for Japanese trains, you are likely to come across an image of Fuji and a high-speed modern train! Just like you said, Vili-it’s right there smack-dab in the national identity!

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    cocoskyavitch

    It occurs to me how ironic it is to talk of trains when the U.S.A.’s imagination and fortunes were once tied to trains (manifest destiny, anyone?). Trains were a huge part of our identity, too. Then, that form of transportation was obliterated by Henry Ford’s little project. And, now, the “Big 3” are in Washington D.C. begging with hats in hand for a few billion bucks so as not to go the way of the train…

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    Ugetsu

    Now that I think of it, there are quite a few scenes in Naruse’s films with trains. There are quite a few in Repast I think, although from memory he doesn’t use the sound or appearance of trains in the same evocative way that Ozu or Kurosawa does. Trains seem to be everywhere in Ozu.

    I don’t know about culture and literature, but one thing that struck me strongly in Japan is just how much trains are as a part of life. I don’t just mean for travelling – there is such a dense network and so many are constructed on elevated structures that its hard to avoid the sight and the noise of them wherever you are – it must have been all the more so in the days of steam. Even in a historic city like Kyoto, the railway station and the main line is visible from just about everywhere (and no, thats not a good thing). So I suppose its unsurprising that its a constant feature in Japanese movies, much as the car is in Hollywood.

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