#243. Ikiru (1952)

I wrote an essay for Ikiru, and now I can’t find it, but I do have a full page of angsty notes about it and—although I remember the movie well—what I’d forgotten is how much it spoke to my feelings of working at the college. It’s a cozy environment there and I love my colleagues and there’s a feeling of genuine warmth and satiety and purpose when I manage to help a student out of some kinda rut—but oh my god can it be a bureaucratic nightmare.


Lemme elaborate on that in a moment but first, real quick, a summary: Ikiru is about a dude in middle- or late middle-age who, after thirty years of perfect attendance at his bureaucratic desk job, gets diagnosed with stomach cancer.

            With mortality looming, he searches for meaning in what’s been a heretofore uneventful life.

            That’s the gist of it.

            But at the tiem I was watching this movie I had a boss who’s Jamaican-Chinese, an older guy, who was, himself, nearing the end of his third decade on the job and—in accordance with something he’d signed at the start of hist enure—was being forced out before he was ready to go. Some awkward date in the middle of October. They wouldn’t even let him finish the semester.

            We threw a party for him on his last day and he gave a small broken speech, emotional, saying that he wasn’t ready to go.

            It was pretty sad.

            He’s in his early seventies and his name’s Adam, a cool and friendly and reserved guy, and we figured he might go a little stir crazy at home without a job to tend.

            It’s been a few months now and when he pops into the lab on occasion to say hey, or to attend one of the functions for retired faculty/staff, he’s all agleam with energy and smiles but I can’t say for sure if it’s because retirement agrees with him, or cuz he’s happy to be outta the house. Back in his domain.

            And I saw some of old-man Adam in Watanabe (Takashi Shimura), the hero of Ikiru, who’s facing the end of a long bureaucratic tenure and tryna make it matter—but I also saw a lot of myself because I was watching Ikiru toward the tend of my relationship with my ex, which I’ve discussed here ad nauseum, but it’s especially significanct in this case because after she and I went our separate ways she enjoyed a long (-belated) spell of clubbing and hard partying and, from what I hear, all of the things attendant to that lifestyle; and, for a while, I tried to keep up. Went with friends, and often on my own, to bars and clubs across Wynwood and Midtown and Downtown Miami and looked, in all of these liquor-soaked hovels, for some kind of…vitality, fuck, I don’t even know.

            But I didn’t find it.

            Watanabe, in Ikiru, goes looking for the same thing. Endures a long drunken night on the town with a novelist who, as I pointed out in my notes, is a lot like Henry Miller (with whom I was about to become super well-acquainted at the outset of my breakup); he even equates Watanabe with Christ, as Miller was prone to do of himself.

            And Watanabe goes hard that night. Gets trashed. Thinks he’s gonna find some kind of cover-up for what he’s now thinking might have been a wasted life.

            He doesn’t find it.

            No answer presents itself to him, same as no real answer came clearly to me when it turned out that fun was not going to make me feel like I was fixing whatever shortcoming or falw my ex had seen in me. But I’m gonna swell on what I was getting up to at that point because just today (May 16) this website’s analytics are showing me that somebody has gone to that dark October/November period of the blog and read, in succession, all of those wrist-cuttingly griefstruck diary posts that, frankly, I’m afraid to go back and read. I know it’ll be equal parts embarrassing and painful and, lame as this sounds, I still don’t feel well-enugh recovered, almost seven months later, to confront that breakup face-to-face without just falling back into the same hole. (Or maybe what I’m afraid of facing is just the evidence of how I handled it; also the evidence of her moving on.)

            But yeah: my point: since all of this bar-hopping and bingeing was only hurting my wallet and health I had to give it up, settle at my local watering holes for a couple happy hours a week, and, by extension, had tos tart immersing myself in work. In the Project.

            And work turned out to be the answer.

            Not the senseless kinda busy work that only distracts you from a problem. I was picking up the pace with the movies, I was keeping a journal on the site—it was constructive, it was introspective, it was challenging. I was learning a lot.

            And I feel like it saved me—not that I’d have died of grief, I realize now as I did then that it was just a breakup and life would go on. But I was so miserable and sad and came to feel a more genuine kind of communion with all of these movies on account of it.

            Work turns into Watanabe’s salvation.

            At one point he finds some strange fulfillment in doting on a young woman (Miki Odagiri), treating her to things, and when she points out, bitterly, that she doesn’t feel like she’s having as much fun as her peers, I jotted in my notes that the “WHOLE MOVIE IS ABOUT FOMO.”

            Which does kinda seem true, looking back.

            Or it at least highlights how “fear of missing out” is like a staple of one’s quest toward purpose, fulfillment, etcetera.

Which is maybe because a person’s “purpose” is always super personal and hard for other people to appreciate from the outside; it’s tailored to your specific abilities and circumstances and resources; which I guess also accounts for the fact that, when you do finally embark on whatever it is you feel called to do, the process is almost always gonna be lonely (and therefore discouraging) because you’ll never look around and see somebody who’s done it in quite the same way, with the same quirks and tools and limitations and setting. Nor will the people around you have seen someone like you succeed. And they’ll judge you accordingly. They’ll talk.

            Watanabe’s purpose, as the movie has it, is to pull whichever bureaucratic strings he can pull in order to facilitate the development of a beautiful public park. It won’t be there forever, and he won’t be widely celebrated or remembered for it, but it’s the thing that he could work on, in a uniquely capable capacity,y that would benefit lots of people and also outlast him.

            He and I were in very different situations but, nonetheless, there’s a similarity on display. The film is beautiful, though, apart from all that: it’s emotionally stirring, thought-provoking, gorgeously shot—I wouldn’t have guessed that this came from the same hand of the guy who made Rashomon, but maybe the subsequent Kurosawa movies will open my eyes to his more distinctive techniques.

            As for whether I’d recommend it: if you’re a film buff, definitely, and/or if you’re a glutton for portraits of existential torpor.

            If you’re looking for something light—steer clear of this one.


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