After the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, says the terrific commentary on the DVD for Ikiru, stomach cancer was the #1 cause of death in post-war Japan. The protagonist of the story, Kanji Watanabe (superbly played by Takashi Shimura) is a minor functionary who discovers he has less than six months to live. His life hasn't been a success, by his standards, and he vows to change. His journey of self-examination and determination drive the title. Ikiru: To Live.
Made in 1952, Ikiru was directed and co-written by Akira Kurosawa between his more well-known films Rashamon and The Seven Samurai. I kept spotting it on various Best of lists and since I've never seen a Kurosawa film that wasn't at least good, I popped it on my Netflix queue. Boy, I'm glad I did.
The film explores many topics, from the collision of Japanese and American culture to the relationship of a father to his son. Mostly, it's about a man waking up to his life and determining what he can change and what he can't. As an optimistic film, Ikiru is more honest than the effective but cloying It's A Wonderful Life. As the story of a dying man, the film is more optimistic than All That Jazz.
The 143 minute film is slow and deliberate, especially at first, in Japanese with English subtitles, and it took me several tries before I just sat down and watched the whole thing. Then watched it again with the commentary. Kurosawa's cinematography and sound design have been copied and may not be astonishing and groundbreaking half a century later, but all the techniques are used to great effect: There are no tricks, just storytelling.
So be prepared for a film that wouldn't get made in today's Hollywood. That being said, I highly recommend Ikiru. On the Shockwave Radio Theater scale of 9 to 23, Ikiru gets a 23. Whatever I might have felt about knocking a point or two off for pacing is more than made up by an intelligent commentary by Stephen Prince, author of The Warrior's Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa.
2046 is in theaters now, at least some of them. The most striking thing about 2046 is the odd cinematography. Cuts in the middle of shots cause a jump, smoke curls upward in slow motion, people hang out in parts of the frame... this seems to be part of the narrative structure for a film that leaps around in time.
2046, in Japanese with English subtitles, is a lush film about a hack writer who doesn't know what he wants. To be blunt: He's an idiot. Chow Mo Wan (played by Tony Leung Chiu Wai, who insisted on growing a mustache so he wouldn't be too much mistaken for his character in the previous Kar Wai Wong movie) manages to woo and win some of the most beautiful women on the planet. But he doesn't want them. Except when he does. Or not.
Much of the dialog in 2046 is said twice, once by Chow and once later (earlier?) by one of the women. Indeed, the narration at the beginning and ending of the movie are repeated... almost. I'll leave it up to the viewer to determine meaning, if any.
I don't mind confusing movies -- heaven knows I've written enough non-linear radio plays -- but at some point the audience should be given enough hints to get it. "Of course you can have subtlety in cinema," said Frank Capra (I think), "but you have to be obvious about it."
2046 is not really science fiction, though there are science fiction elements, and the allegory is either too heavy handed for me or simply doesn't work. Maybe it's just another movie about stupid people doing stupid things, in which case I can live without it. Maybe it's just an excuse to put beautiful women on the screen in various erotic situations, in which case it's playing in the wrong theaters but I appreciate the effort. Maybe it's I'm missing something, in which case I've missed it and the movie hasn't made me care enough to find out what. On the other hand, I kind of liked it. There was enough there on which to hang several post-movie discussions. The cinematography is annoying at times but memorable. The acting is good, though it's hard to tell since I'm not sure what they were trying to convey. I'm not going to give a blanket recommendation nor tell you to avoid the thing and anyone's reaction to it is likely to be subjective so I'm going to give it a very wide rating: On the Shockwave Radio Theater scale of 9 to 23, I'd put 2046 somewhere in the 14-19 range.
Political quick thoughts for August, 2005:
- Christian extremists have long been jealous of their Islamic wahhabi counterparts. Finally, Ayatollah Pat Roberston succumbs to temptation and issues a fatwa!
- Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction (a brief spot of flesh in long shot) cost CBS $550,000. How much do you think Ayatollah Robertson's highly illegal incitement to terrorism will cost the 700 Club? I'm betting $0: Republicans are always soft on crime when it's theirs.
- According to the latest Ipsos Poll the percentage of people who approve of George W. Bush's conduct in the war in Iraq (37%) is roughly the same as the percentage of people who believe in UFOs (34%). Coincidence?
- George W. Bush takes more vacation time than the French.
- Bush's refusal to meet with Cindy Sheehan demonstrates, once again, how little he cares for our troops or their families. Once again, Bush runs away from his problems. Once again, Bush surrounds himself with sycophants and people who can't spell sycophant. Once again, Our Glorious Leader has no clothes.
- Beware people who think Mel Gibson makes documentaries and Michael Moore doesn't.
- Those who purport to believe in Intelligent Design really ought to read Robert Heinlein's The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag collected in the book of the same name. I was unable to dig up a good plot summary on the net, but trust me. None of this Flying Spaghetti Monster nonsense, this is real fiction!