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Ikiru: Where is credit due?

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    In a comment to the Ikiru film club announcement, chomei asked something that I too have sometimes pondered about:

    And who is the strange man who Watanabe meets in the clinic?

    This is indeed a very good question, and I don’t remember that much has been written about this man. He is quite overtly a narrative device rather than a proper character, but it kind of works as the film plays it so expertly for its curious mixture of comedy and pathos.

    Within the confines of the film’s universe, had the man not been there, we wouldn’t necessarily have a story to tell. Watanabe would believe that he has an ulcer, continue his zombie-like existence, and finally drop dead. The end. At best, it would be somewhat comparable to Matsunaga’s story in Drunken Angel, or Susumu’s storyline in The Quiet Duel, the two previous Kurosawa films where central characters are battling potentially fatal diseases.

    Perhaps a more interesting alternative take is the following. What would have happened if Watanabe had been wrong to believe this man? What if, in an alternative universe, Watanabe didn’t actually have cancer but thought he did, even after doctors tell him that it’s just a mild ulcer? He would probably follow the same narrative path of partying, pestering Toyo, and finally getting the park built. But then he doesn’t die. He goes back to the doctors to ask how much longer it will be until the cancer kills him. The doctors, somewhat amused, ask him what he is talking about, since he really only has a mild ulcer. What then? Where does Watanabe go from there? Does he continue along this new path of self-actualisation that he has carved for himself believing that he is about to die, or does he — like his colleagues in the released film — go back to being the bureaucrat zombie, with no external force now pushing him to do something more?

    In a yet another permutation of the story, what if we have the above setup (Watanabe has no cancer but believes he has cancer) but he stays in the cold park and happily freezes to death, believing that it is the cancer that has finally come to collect him. Is the man in the waiting room now responsible for Watanabe’s death, at least on some level? And if he is, is he also responsible for the park having been built in the film as released?

    This is the same question that the bureaucrats at the wake are debating. Some want to claim credit because surely no single man can build a park on their own. Others want to give all credit to Watanabe since clearly nothing would ever have happened without him.

    In many ways, Watanabe wasn’t the initiating force. He wouldn’t have pressed for the park to be built had it not been for the cancer, or the man in the waiting room, or Toyo. Chomei calls these Watanabe’s messengers, and that is a good label.

    But you can of course continue to play this game ad infinitum. Watanabe wouldn’t have built the park had he not become a bureaucrat (some credit undoubtedly must be give to his teachers), he would not have become a bureaucrat had he not been born (surely some credit must be given to his parents), and so on, and so forth.

    In the end, we don’t really know how much credit should be given to the different parties. We actually can’t know. The film makes this point with the structure of the third act. All we get are recollections, the accuracy of which is unclear to us. In Scandal, Kurosawa had looked at how object truth can become twisted when viewed through someone else’s point of view. In Rashomon, he took this further and presented a narrative that questions the very existence of objective truth. On some level, Ikiru continues this and presents us with a story that explicitly rejects placing any meaning, or at least function, for objective truth.

    Because, ultimately, it doesn’t really matter why the park got built or who built it. In a way, it doesn’t really even matter that it got built. On a basic level, the only thing that really matters is that Watanabe found all-encompassing happiness, however briefly. And it also matters that what gave him this happiness will bring happiness to other people, something that the film underlines with its coda.

    Chomei wrote in his comment that he sees Ikiru as a Buddhist parable in disguise. As I arrive here with my train of thought, it appears to me that I have ended up repeating what he said, just in more words.



    I really like the idea of the film as a Buddhist parable, but I don’t know enough about Buddhism to say what the exact parable is. It could just as well be a Christian parable – that life gains meaning by your good works. But it also seems much more than that. Perhaps its structure itself – with the protagonists death in the middle, its meaning only becoming clear through a circuitous route – is a clue.



    Well, I can’t really claim to know that much about Buddhism, either. But the film does seem to emphasise that Watanabe died, not just happy, but in some sort of a state of bliss, which I suppose could be associated with some kind of enlightenment.

    The Criterion subtitles render the policeman describing Watanabe as “so perfectly happy”, but I would really appreciate it if someone with actual Japanese skills could tell us what he says in Japanese (it’s at around 2h 16m 20s). I don’t understand the word used.

    Together with this bliss we have the way Watanabe behaves, at least in the people’s recollections, towards those that he interacts with. He is repeatedly ignored and even threatened, but he perseveres, always remaining calm, determined, non-reactive. I find his lack of reactions interesting, especially since in the second act of the film Watanabe seems to be doing almost nothing but reacting. As I understand it, at least some forms of Buddhism teach that the path to enlightenment can be found in gaining control of your cravings and aversions by training your body and mind to stop reacting mindlessly to external stimuli. But I may be reaching here.



    At the beginning of the Wake sequence we see a succession of three still shots of Watanabe’s picture above the alter starting with a closeup and becoming smaller. Later after the women leave we see the reverse, three cuts with his picture becoming bigger and finally dominating the entire screen.

    One of the main tenets of Buddhism is reincarnation. A person lives perhaps billions of lives before achieving Enlightened, Nirvana. This is what the historical Buddha achieved after meditating under the Bodhi Tree. Enlightenment means that you are removed from the endless cycle of birth and death to which all humans are subject. Enlightenment means that one has become a Buddha.

    My understanding of Japanese Buddhism is limited and imperfect, but I believe that at Japanese Buddhist funerals it is assumed that the deceased has achieved Enlightenment, whether they were good people or bad. What Kurosawa is telling us is that Watanabe is truly a Buddha, an Enlightened being. The writer tells the barmaid that cancer is Watanabe’s cross and that he is Christ, and many Buddhists believe that Jesus was a Buddha.

    There are also a number of scenes where we see Watanabe’s face bathed in almost white light which again I think indicates that he has achieved the ultimate status, he has become a Buddha.

    Another aspect of this film that I find interesting, if not confusing is Watanabe’s clothing. The son says, at the kitchen table reading the newspaper, that they are in the midst of a severe heat wave yet Watanabe always seems to be wearing an overcoat. Since it took 5 months to build the park construction started during the summer and ended in the winter, so at the beginning of the movie we would have been in the middle of summer making Watanabe’s overcoat and scarf very odd, not mention the writer who bundles up in the nighttown section. Another reason to think that this film can be seen as a parable.

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