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Japan, 1952 (MIFF 1960, Programme 2)

Director: Akira Kurosawa

After Rashoman, Akira Kurosawa adapted Dostoevsky's "The Idiot" for the screen. When this film failed to win critical approval in Japan, he made Living, a modern story which established him as the most Western in attitude of Japan's directors, and which was voted the best film of the year by Japanese critics.

In a simple and direct opening, we learn that an elderly, methodical, dried-up civil servant has cancer. He has six months to live. In deliberate detail his situation and background are explored. Realising that his life and work are without direction, and that he is nothing but a nuisance to his married son, he makes a desperate effort to dispel his loneliness. A simple casual acquaintance helps him squander his savings on drink and night-life, until a chance encounter with a lively and spontaneous young girl gives him his answer. She enjoys making toys because of the pleasure they bring; he finds similar fulfilment in deciding to force his lazy and corrupt colleagues to put through a scheme for the construction of a children's playground.

Kurosawa tells this ordinary, yet deeply human story, with rare compassion and a total lack of melodrama or purgative violence. It is one of his finest achievements. We are shown not only the last despairing days of Kanji Watanabe, but also his spiritual rejuvenation and the effect of his actions on other people. Kurosawa's method allows him to make his comments on human frailty through a slow accumulation of detail and a warm understanding of human relationships.

The best scenes - the funeral of the clerk's wife, the meetings with the young girl, the whole piecing together of the playground project through flashbacks from the dead man's funeral - have a purity of effect and a bare force of style which achieves a profound poetic intensity. This intensity gives the film, in spite of minor faults, the authority and completeness of a masterpiece.

The main deficiency lies in the central character, which is a shade calculated. But there is no denying the success of Kurosawa's experimental construction, with its slow and concentrated development giving way suddenly to flashbacks of clear-sighted, uncompromising character analysis.

Though the film is bitter in its attack on the deadening effect of bureaucracy, and disquieting in its examination of physical pain and degredation, nothing is ever allowed to obscure its quietly philosophical and affirmative purpose. As Watanabe's colleague looks at the completed playground, his thoughts are transmitted to the audience: How did he do it? If death can be the great incentive, then how can the living be made to feel an equal need for positive action and belief? And in the audacious final sequences beginning with the wake, hypocrisy and sham are mercilessly exposed and the life force triumphantly upheld.

See also...


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