Monday, March 19, 2007

163. Tender Mercy

I am not turning Japanese, but I am having great difficulty turning away from Japanese cinema. However, before we move on to, for instance, Casino Royale and Daniel Craig's version of the bully-boy Bond, there's Akira Kurosawa's Ikiru/To Live (1952). Kurosawa always frightens me a little: He is capable of almost excessive tenderness (although the longer I live, the less I think there can be too much of that particular indulgence) pinioned beneath the bald-faced truth of suffering, and the grunting weight of those who inflict it as though they were simply breathing, flat and regular. And I do not mean to reduce Kurosawa's movies to purposeless dichotomy. He knows that mercy begins in suffering--and then he does something about it. Sometimes, he increases the suffering, as in High and Low (1963) and Ran (1985), and sometimes the suffering rises like a wind beneath sails, and moves everything in victory, as in Akahige/Red Beard (1965) and Yojimbo (1961).

In any case, danger abounds in Kurosawa, not the least when he turns a jaundiced eye toward the willfully weak, as in Ikiru. In its narrated opening, we are asked to frown at the bureaucrat with stomach cancer, Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura, constantly pained, like the snake-bitten Samuel Jones (Tommy Lee Jones) in The Missing (2003), always half-hunched, grimacing, making an effort just to look you in the eye). We are told Watanabe has wasted his life, he is already dead, and so on. It seems almost cruel--until we move from his desk to the extended montage in which a group of local women are sent from department to department within the impenetrable bureaucracy, thwarted in their attempt to have a fetid cistern filled and made into a park. It is a compelling piece of work, inexorable in its circuit and return to Watanabe's desk, where he still sits, greasy and staring, silent and still. He may not be the villain, but he'll do.

Kurosawa, though, will not forget that pain also has its circuit, as it moves--at least in Ikiru--from fear to mercy to victory. As Watanabe confronts his death, he first locks himself even more deeply inside; there's a perfect scene, after he discovers he has cancer, in which he inches along a city street, surrounded by others, passing a construction site, within which flashes of light burst--all in complete silence. And then he steps into the street, is almost hit by a truck, and the noise of the world drops on him like lightning, loud and paralyzing. At that moment, his interior world, which is all he seems to have--and which has failed him--begins to slide off his frame. He does at first turn to the past--which, like everything inside him, lets him down, as he considers his wife's death and small but lasting errors with his son. And then he resolves to live in the moment, and we get the middle section of the movie, in which he tries to, not live, but live it up, drinking and nightclubbing. But this, too, is bitter in his mouth--literally: as he says of the sake he pours down, it "is like paying myself back with poison for the way I lived all these years." And then he latches onto a young and bright-eyed fellow-worker, Toyo (Miki Odagiri), cute as a kitten but desperate to escape the bureaucracy. He spends a week--and plenty of yen--with her, clinging to her until his grasp frightens her. As he explains his attraction to Toyo, "Once when I was a child, I almost drowned. It's just like that feeling. Darkness everywhere, and nothing for me to hold onto, no matter how hard I try. There's just you." He wants her to show him what to do. All she has is her new job, in a factory that makes windup bunnies. At first she disdains it, insisting she's just like him, simply going to work, eating, sleeping. But then she confesses that when she's in the bunny factory it is as though she is "holding every baby in Japan." Cute stuff, but more: Watanabe's eyes widen, and he realizes what he must do.

His pain becomes fear, his fear leads him to seek escape--but where? After all, he carries his doom with him, in his gut. So fear becomes a dead end (so to speak), and he has to return the way he came, and find--not mercy, but a way to give mercy. As in Akhige, Kurosawa places his sufferer in the face of suffering, and provides an opportunity to live. Watanabe goes back to his office--at "Human Relations," of course--and dedicates himself to that park, to one small real thing in the real world.

Watch the rest of the story yourself, all told in flashback, after Watanabe's death. His wake really works, as his acceptance--of both death and the job that needs doing--is itself awakened. And how lucky he is, with something to do, something he can actually lay his hands on--and in the twisted bowels of city government, no less, where one would expect to find nothing but its own kind of cancer. Watanabe, though, bringing his disease with him, can smell out corruption, and knows how to lower his sweaty brow and carve away the stink. Again, watch what he finds, and what Kurosawa gives us. It is tender in many ways, like love and like a wound, bright and waiting for the right hands.

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