From Wastelands to Playgrounds

Akira Kurosawa's 1952 'Ikiru' takes on a largely disregarded theme by its horns: the indolence of everyday existence. The film extends it to a sporadic but animated individual search for meaning in the wake of an abruptly condensed life facing terminal illness. Sudhir Raikar recounts the eternal masterpiece to cherish its unassumingly insightful life lessons.

Aug 19, 2013 08:08 IST Sudhir Raikar

Loosely based on Leo Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Kurosawa's Ikiru is the poignant tale of Kanji Watanabe, an ageing section chief at the Tokyo City Council who's been diagnosed with an incurable gastric cancer. In his 25 years at office, Watanabe has never missed a day and yet his presence has hardly been felt by anybody including himself. He rubber stamps his hopeless authority on piles of papers with unfailing regularity only to nourish a mounting pile of no consequence. His colleagues do the same in their individual capacities but unlike Watanabe, they are a boisterous lot, ceaselessly engaged in evading public grievances with scornful smiles ahead of bureaucratic lassitude.

Watanabe's cancer forces him to take a good look at his hitherto unexamined existence and that's where his uneventful life takes a new turn, not in dramatic fashion but through gradual insights emanating from sore discoveries concerning his personal and professional equations as also the futility of his distinguished civil service.

He embarks upon a selfless mission of constructing a children's playground in a deprived area infested with filth and mosquitoes. Our transformed section head now moves from pillar to post like a man possessed, pleading before numerous municipal heads across different sections, only to bring the larger cause to fruition. Ironically enough, his first and only bureaucratic feat is cherished only after his demise but proves lasting in its significance. The children's park has become the world's playground in every sense.

Watanabe's story unfolds in nomadic fashion from the point where he's vaguely made aware of his cancer at the doctors clinic. Every episode thereafter helps him take stock of his squandered life in some way or the other. Relieving his bank account of 50,000 yen, he sets out on a wayward search for redemption.

Led by a sympathetic small-time novelist, he gets a glimpse of Tokyo's nightlife and tries to drown himself in women and wine for a while but to no avail. He tries to strike a chord with his only son but the latter's insensitive and dismissive stance brings a dead end to the journey even before it begins. It takes another partially vain attempt - to befriend a happy go lucky erstwhile office colleague lured by her gay abandon - that indirectly leads him towards a befitting purpose." When I make toy-rabbits, I feel I am playing with every kid in Japan, why don't you do something similar?" She remarks innocently and hesitantly, more to escape the uncomfortable gaze of his languidly probing eyes. But her casual suggestion sets him thinking what could he possibly make anything, meaningful or otherwise, in his bureaucratic office of all paper and no action? And eventually his focus turns to the proposed kiddie park, withheld all this while thanks to the civic apathy and the inaction that follows it.

One can't but marvel at Kurosawa's deftness in harmonizing the poignant content with stylistic presentation. The film begins with the symbolic image of an X-Ray when the voice over informs us of the protagonists cancer as also the fact that the latter is yet unaware of the fatal ailment. Subsequently, Watanabe is led to the clinic and left alone to lock horns with the episodic adventures. The voice over returns midway, this time to inform us about Watanabe's demise. Thereafter, he surfaces solely through the vague and prejudiced interpretations of his inebriated colleagues assembled at his funeral service. It is through the maze of their clumsy conclusions, astutely flashbacked at times, and the successive visits of Watanabe's unlikely admirers from the local populace that we come to terms with his tragedy and triumph, both intertwined with each other. Kurosawa refrains from worshipping Watanabe as the God sent harbinger of change and urges you to join him in studying the deep rooted customs, rituals, hypocrisies and vested interests that collectively colour Watanabe's seemingly weird transformation from a taciturn bureaucrat into a citizen activist. Every scene, every dialogue, and every transition delicately helps us join the dots of Watanabe's turbulent life and its larger significance, best viewed than reviewed.

Takashi Shimura's portrayal of Kanji Watanabe remains one of the best ever in world cinema to this day. No wonder, he was a Kurosawa regular having played contrasting roles in the eleven films he did with the master filmmaker. His enquiring eyes, his feeble mannerisms, his progressive stoop and the fag-end croaking voice have immortalized Watanabe for a worldwide audience.

Given the heart-breaking story line, Ikiru could have so easily drifted towards garish melodrama but Kurosawa's creation has no room from empathy rooted in pity. His drama is highly intense but never sentimental; his message is profound but not judgemental. And unlike the popular filmic plots revolving around the dreaded disease of cancer, the protagonist's ailment is not at the forefront, it's merely employed as a life-threatening trigger for the life-changing transformation that follows it.

Ikiru instinctively moves us on different plains as we travel with the protagonist from start to end, albeit not in sequential fashion: we lament the tragedy of a wasted life, we laugh at the absurdity of civic affairs, we question the endurance of family ties, we inspect the worth of working relationships, we rebel against the impotent establishment and we celebrate Watanabe's fag-end achievement but most important, we are inspired to re-examine the meaning of our own lives in the guiding light of his example.

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