Japanese Cinema

Ikiru(1952)

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This is my favourite Akira Kurosawa film. It makes me stop and think about life every time I watch it. This film helps you realise that we should all stop and take in what is around us(the sky, the animals, the flowers etc), work is necessary to pay the bills, but there is more to life than your job.

Treasure life with all your heart, because one day you will no longer be here to appreciate it. Afraid that no one will remember you after you have left this earth? Then do something to help others while you’re living, that will make sure your name and deeds are remembered after death.

Takashi Shimura gives a performance that really moves me, he makes you feel his characters pain, anguish and eventual peace with his situation. Shimura is one of the most expressive actors in film history and his performance here should be used in an acting masterclass. Every look, every expression speaks volumes and affects the viewer as we see this mans loneliness, pain, joy and fear.

Kanji Watanabe(Takashi Shimura)is an office worker whose greatest pride in life is his work and his work record. He begins to suffer from terrible stomach pains and is diagnosed with terminal cancer. This news really hits him and he is adrift in life.

Watanabe’s work no longer brings him any joy, and he is desperate to find out the secret to enjoying life, he will learn that there is no such secret. He begs a young office worker(Miki Odagiri)to help him understand how to live, she is frightened by him and doesn’t understand what is driving him.

Watanabe doesn’t realise until later that enjoying life doesn’t mean laughing and going out partying; it can simply be nothing more than appreciating a sunset or sunrise, admiring the beauty of flowers, sitting and watching  what’s going on around you etc.

Life is the very world around us, the air we breathe, the snow, the rain etc. He also learns that he can leave something in this world that says he was here, he sets out to build a park for the local children. In one of the most iconic images in film history we see Watanabe sitting quietly on a swing as the snow falls around him, he is sitting quietly in that moment.

My favourite scenes are the following. Watanabe singing the song with tears in his eyes. When he discovers(before the doctors can tell him)that he is suffering from cancer, the fear and realisation in his eyes really gets to me. All the scenes between Watanabe and the young office girl. The ending showing the park being used as intended.

One of the most moving films there has ever been. This film is so real to me(by that I mean I find myself connecting with Watanabe throughout)his pain and emotional journey don’t seem like a film plot, they seem like a real experience. Shimura’s performance is his very best (in my opinion)he was a one of a kind actor; his face is a kaleidoscope of emotion and he really lets you see and share his characters grief, fear and happiness.

One of Kurosawa’s best films, this story should be one that anyone, from any country can enjoy as the story is so universal.

Any other fans? If you’ve never seen it, I highly recommend it.

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Detective, Japanese Cinema

Maddy’s Pick For The Weekend 2: Stray Dog(1949)

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If you thought that Akira Kurosawa’s films were all historical epics, featuring swordfights and Samurai, then you really need to think again. Kurosawa also made several dramas and thrillers set in the present day(40’s and 50’s Japan.)

Two of my favourites of these are Ikiru and The Quiet Duel.  Stray Dog is another great favourite, and it is a type of film that I dearly wish Kurosawa had made more of. I love his Samurai films, but I find these other films have become even more special to me and it is these films that I keep returning to again and again.

Set during an oppressive heatwave, this Noir/Thriller features Kurosawa’s regular lead actor Toshiro Mifune, as the sweat soaked, keen, rookie detective Murakami. When his police gun is stolen from him he doesn’t stop trying to track it down. As time goes on, Murakami finds that his gun has moved on from the pickpocket who snatched it and into the criminal underworld.

Murakami becomes guilt ridden when the gun becomes linked to crimes. It is at this point that he has to ask for help in his search for the gun(and in a way his own redemption). Murakami is helped by veteran detective Sato(Takashi Shimura at his best, perfectly conveying wisdom).

This is such a good film, exciting, moving and very thrilling. There is some striking photography by Asaichi Nakai, and strong performances from pretty much everyone in the cast; even people who feature for a small amount of screentime make a real impression. The film is shot on location and shows us the good and bad sides of the country; it also shows us a side of Japanese life we don’t see too often on screen, nightclubs and dancehalls.

The film rarely lets up on it’s edge of your seat thrills, but there are some quieter moments to be found too. A scene that always stays with me after viewing, shows the grief stricken husband of a woman killed by Murakami’s stolen gun sobbing in his wife’s garden; we see (as Murakami does)the terrible impact such a crime has on the victims loved ones, interestingly Sato seems distant in that scene, which shows that he has seen so many similar things; he has in a way become used to and hardened against such things. Sato tries to teach Murakami that he can’t get personally involved in every case, if he did the emotions would break him apart; but the older detective also knows he can’t teach that, it is something that has to be learnt by bitter experience. Sato and Murakami’s odd couple relationship also predates the buddy cop plots which are so common in films and series today.

The finale in the field is tense and deeply moving, as we find ourselves feeling some pity for someone we should hate. If the film tells us anything it is that crime is a destroyer and waster all round, there are only losers in such a life, both the victims and the perpetrators lives are ruined and altered by criminal activity of one sort or another.

Strangely enough, Kurosawa himself never actually regarded this film very highly for some reason, I’d love to know why, as it is one of his very best.

A great one to watch over the weekend. If you’re not really into Japanese cinema this would serve as a great introduction, give it a go and share your thoughts.

If, like me, you are already a fan of this flick then please share your thoughts.