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Playing at the film club: Ikiru (Kurosawa, 1952)

Ikiru: Visual voice over narration

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    Vili Maunula

    Background visuals in Kurosawa’s films fascinate me. This can make watching something like Ikiru slow going, as some parts of the film are absolutely jam-packed with visual information. The film is 143 minutes long and I must have seen it over a dozen times, but it still took me over four hours to watch it yesterday as I kept repeatedly pausing the film to inspect what’s on screen.

    Ikiru is in fact quite a good example of the kind of things that Kurosawa films do with background elements that seem to be there to enhance the narrative. A fairly straightforward example is the contrast between Watanabe’s work environment and his home. This is the very first shot in the film where we see Watanabe:

    We get a reversed view a little later:

    Those stacks upon stacks of papers make Watanabe’s work place a pretty hectic looking, uncomfortable place.

    Now, compare this with his home:

    Clean, barren, empty.

    Note that neither Watanabe’s work environment nor his home should be taken as the norm here. Here are a couple of examples from other departments at the city hall:

    Neither is his home necessarily a typical Japanese home — just a floor above him, at his son’s place, the decor is much busier:

    The contrast between his home and his work environment seems to underline the notion that Watanabe has no life outside of work. Home is pretty much just a place to sleep in, there is very little else in there. At the same time, work is cluttered, oppressive, claustrophobic. It’s not a happy existence.

    Another pretty straightforward example of a meaningful background is in the wake. Here’s a great framing:

    Watanabe may no longer be alive, but he is still in almost every frame, thanks to that photo. He is observing, if not judging, what’s going on. Several characters keep glancing at the picture throughout the wake.

    A third example of a fairly straightforward visual background is the scene at the cafe when Watanabe tells Toyo that he is dying. We have that birthday party going on at the background, culminating in that wonderfully on-the-nose moment when the suddenly reborn Watanabe descends the stairs as the party behind him sings “happy birthday” — not to him of course, but to the person climbing the stairs off-screen.

    Songs and music play a big role in this film to provide counterpoints and commentary on what’s happening. Just think about the different renditions of the song “Gondola no uta” that we hear in the film.

    But these are all quite obvious examples. What I’m really interested in are the seemingly random little visual things; the signs, the paintings, the posters, the scribblings on walls. And Ikiru has plenty of those.

    Take this shot, for instance. It’s the first time that we see the deputy mayor.

    Just look at how wonderfully his pose matches the tiger in the painting behind him! We met this man about one second ago and through this single visual association we already know so much about him.

    Here’s another one. We are presented with this framing when Watanabe, needing to throw up, tells the taxi to stop.

    There are a couple of signs in the background, but the most interesting one is right above the hood of the car. Written right-to-left, it simply says ストップ or, in English, “stop”. Just where the car has indeed stopped. Furthermore, this is where Watanabe’s night of partying ends, or at least where we stop following his party lifestyle. One section of the film ends here.

    Or how about this scene for some more complexity:

    This is the very first scene after the hospital. Watanabe has just learnt that he has cancer and is going to die. Everything is silent, all we have is visuals. And what do we see?

    On the wall, there is a poster for penicillin (ペニシリン), the one with a woman. At the time, the drug was something of an American symbol of reconstruction in the US-led Japan, begging the question if the film wants to somehow associate Watanabe’s just-discovered cancer with Japan’s post-war environment. And if one does want to follow that particular train of thought, it’s also worth noting that the actual English word “construction” appears on screen just a couple of seconds later:

    As I understand it, cancer has had a strong association with Hiroshima and Nagasaki, for obvious reasons.

    Unlucky for Watanabe though, the Western miracle drug penicillin can’t cure cancer. But speaking of luck, look at the truck behind Watanabe in the earlier image. Or actually, let’s rewind a couple of seconds so that Watanabe is not blocking the text:

    It’s a three-wheel truck by Mazda — I know this because it says “Mazda” in the back and the letters 三輪トラック on the side literally mean “three-wheel truck”. I actually spent over an hour trying to identify the exact model of the car but with no result. If you happen to know anything about Japanese automobiles, or have better search skills than me, let me know if you can figure out what it is. Not that I think the model is in any way relevant, I just got a little bit obsessed about it yesterday evening.

    Anyway, what I think actually is interesting about this truck is how the letters are printed on the side. Since the printing surface is not smooth, there is a mandatory break between characters, dividing them into the two groups of 三輪ト and ラック. Now, ラック (rakku) on its own can stand for the English word “luck”. And a very prominent visual feature it is here.

    If you think that this is a bit far-fetched, look also at the sign right next to the truck: it’s advertising Japan’s favourite luck based game, pachinko (パチンコ). We will of course later visit a pachinko game center not once, but actually twice in this film – first with the writer, and then again with Toyo.

    So, the scene that immediately follows Watanabe’s cancer diagnosis appears to want to make us think about the concept of luck. Perhaps to underline that what has happened to Watanabe could happen to any of us? It’s all about how the cards get dealt.

    Luck later reappears as a concept very prominently in another important scene. Take a look at this:

    It’s the scene where Watanabe meets the author. Throughout their talk, a poster looms in the background very noticeably. Unless I’m mistaken, it says 千客万来. Literally, the characters stand for “flood of customers, roaring business”, but you may be more familiar with the concept through maneki-neko, the Japanese good luck cat who is associated with this phrase as it brings commercial establishments customers and money. In Watanabe’s case, is it perhaps foreshadowing what is to take place, as he is just about to embark on a quest to search for meaning in commercialism, entertainment and sensual pleasures? Is it a reference to his bad luck again?

    Afterwards, Watanabe meets Toyo on the street. They decide to walk to his house to get her the stamp that she needs to quit her job. As they start walking, check out how she directs us to look at two signs:

    She herself isn’t actually directly looking at either sign, but her eyes instruct us to do so. In fact, she even half-stops her walk for the second sign.

    I wonder what to make of this. The first sign advertises dressmaking, the second salt. Or, more specifically, the first sign advertises western dressmaking (洋裁, I think this is where Toyo actually later gets her stockings from). And the kanji for salt, 塩, in theory also carries a metaphorical connotation, that of hardship or trouble. It seems that I’m back on my post-war occupation hobby horse again.

    Speaking of which, this framing of two Nippon Beer ads (one in Japanese and another in English) always makes me pause:

    I was going to write more about this, but funnily enough, when I googled it, I found out that I have actually already written about this scene before. Back then, ten years ago, I seem to have used the beer sign as a starting point to argue that Ikiru offers a critique of post-war Japan and the American presence there. Interestingly, back then my younger self appears not to have noticed, or thought relevant enough, the penicillin poster that I mentioned earlier.

    Mirror reflections are actually something of a motif in the party night sequence. In addition to the above beer scene, we also have these two:

    One other sign bothers me. It’s the camera shop ad with the big letters DPE (most likely standing for “developing, printing, enlarging”, or ディーピーイー).

    We see a sign for the same shop again about ten minutes later when Watanabe has bought the stockings for Toyo:

    The signs are very prominent in these two scenes, inviting an eager interpreter to make something out of them, or at least of the very visible letters DPE. But I got nothing. I suppose sometimes a cigar can be just a cigar. Perhaps, most of the time it is. Or perhaps the sign is simply used to give us some sense of location.

    Anyway. Some commentators writing on Ikiru have expressed puzzlement over the film’s voice over narrator, a device that the film uses only at the very beginning and once in the middle. What or who is this voice and why does it disappear? Perhaps the incorporeal narrator actually never really disappears. Maybe his commentary continues throughout the film, only in the form of visual and textual prompts. Maybe not.

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    Fortinbras

    Thank you for this, really observant.

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    Longstone

    Hi Vili , some very interesting observations, I haven’t watched the film again yet this month but will now be looking out for these points as I watch . The first observation you make regarding how empty and tidy Watanabe’s home is and that you don’t think this is typical of a Japanese home, I think you are correct for a modern home especially in the city ( by modern I guess that’s post war and onward when small city dwellings became more normal rather than the large old style wooden houses ) But I also think the totally empty uncluttered traditional Japanese home is typical of a certain aesthetic that had existed for centuries previously in Japan . Perhaps this is a way of telling us that Watanabe comes from that older tradition and has maintained those older aesthetics in his house.
    I have just been reading a short English translation of an essay by the Japanese novelist Tanizaki Junichiro called “In Praise of Shadows” which discusses his distaste of the changing aesthetic from traditional Japanese architecture to a more Westernised style. This was first published in 1933, pre-war and nearly 20 years prior to the setting for Ikiru. The two screen captures you have posted from the house seem to capture exactly what Tanizaki is lamenting the loss of.
    Edit , I’ve made an assumption here that Ikiru is set roughly around the time it was made ?

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    Vili Maunula

    That’s a very good point, Longstone. There absolutely is a difference between a traditional Japanese room (Watanabe’s room) and a more western style room (Watanabe’s son’s room). The wife actually even remarks about how she hates Japanese houses and the couple talk about how they are planning to buy a modern (i.e. western style) house, possibly with Watanabe’s pension as a guarantee for the loan.

    So, you could definitely say that there is meaningful contrast not just between Watanabe’s work place and home, but also between the two generations — the pre-war and the post-war generation, if you will.

    That said, naturally also a traditional Japanese room can be cluttered and lived in, but Watanabe’s isn’t, so in terms of the busyness of the respective spaces, I would say that there definitely is a strong juxtaposition between Watanabe’s work place and home.

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    Ugetsu

    This is fantastic Vili, very convincing argument. One thing I think both Kurosawa and Ozu had in common was an interest in the subliminal impact of background writing in their films – Ozu’s post war films are also full of little written clues as to what he really means (or guides to the viewer). Perhaps it was a habit directors of the period developed to get around censorship. Of course, we know Kurosawa gave enormous thought to his sets and camera placing, so I’m certain there is nothing ‘random’ about those little phrases.

    By a coincidence, I’m half way through a book set in that period, Thirst for Love by Yukio Mishima. It is full of fascinating insights into Japanese houses of the post war period and also refers to the association for Japanese of that period of Hiroshima with illness. One of the characters actually reminded me a little when reading it of Watanabe. It certainly seems that the younger generation were put off by certain aspects of the older style of Japanese home at the time – there was a massive rebuild of quite poorly built but still more ‘modern’ housing. But I suspect the bareness and lack of character in Watanabes house is deliberate.

    As for the truck, I assume its a Mazdago – this was Mazda’s first vehicle, a copy of a Mitsubishi design. For some reason I can’t post links, but there is even a Finnish fan club for the truck! You’ll find it at http://www.mazdago.net.

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    Vili Maunula

    Ugetsu: Of course, we know Kurosawa gave enormous thought to his sets and camera placing, so I’m certain there is nothing ‘random’ about those little phrases.

    I would think so, too. I also think that even if some seemingly meaningful background element was actually introduced by a prop maker and might not have been something that the director specifically ordered for the scene, ultimately a director of Kurosawa’s calibre and meticulousness must have thought through each framing and made decisions about what to include and what not. And some of these things, like the penicillin ad, are simply too meaningful to be something that Kurosawa would have just left there randomly.

    Ugetsu: As for the truck, I assume its a Mazdago

    But that’s the thing: isn’t Mazdago an open truck, which the truck in the picture doesn’t seem to be? I first thought that it was the T2000, but then realised that the film came out before the car was manufactured.

    Ugetsu: there is even a Finnish fan club for the truck! You’ll find it at http://www.mazdago.net.

    Thanks! 🙂 Although it actually looks like a general Mazda owners’ club. Still, maybe I should ask them.

    Ugetsu: For some reason I can’t post links

    If the issues persist, please let me know in this thread and I’ll see what I can do.

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    Ugetsu

    Ah Vili, you are quite right, I only just realised the ‘closed’ versions of the Mazdago are later than Ikiru. The internet is strangely silent on whether they had some enclosed variations before the K360. I can only think that maybe they put a ‘Mazda’ logo on it for some licensing or commercial reason.

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    BMWRider

    And I was just talking about this on the other thread, spot on. I bet that Kurosawa sketched out in his head what he wanted his sets to look like in this era, of course we know later he took to canvas to record his ideas.

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    Fabien

    Beyond all the thoughtful and critical dimensions, thanks very much for the spotting and translating work, Vili. This is really precious.

    I’m adding just a thought on the technical and practical side.
    These last fifteen years or so, I have been searching for original versions of numerous films and for adequate subtitles, and I have been confronted to a cruel lack particularly of the latter.
    I also discovered how varied could be the levels of precision in the subtitles, and that some of them could be rich of song, melody, sound, visual and writing descriptions.

    I’m not sure of the smartest way to approach this, but, would it look foolish to gather such informations like the above in a subtitle file, so that more Kurosawa discoverers could profit from this?
    I, myself, would have had some difficulties achieving what you’ve done, Vili, although I know kanas and am not stranger to kanjis, and, helped by your thoughts, I believe even more that these visual translations are important to fully understand the movie.

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