Saturday, October 16, 2010

Two Takes on the Same Subject

The bureau chief freely admits to having teared up while watching the last scene of Frank Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life" (1946). It's easy to do so, particularly after a cup of wassail. The film has become part of the American Christmas ritual and the American film canon . The chief has probably seen it five or six times. It's a wonderful mix of comedy, fantasy and sentimentality, with a solid substrata of New Deal populism and post WW II optimism. It asks the question, "What is the worth of a person's life?"

Akira Kurosawa's "Ikiru" (1952) asks the same question but from an entirely different perspective. The American occupation of Japan ended in 1952, the year of "Ikiru's" release, but there's still a sense of residual economic anxiety in the film. Unlike George Bailey (James Stewart) of Bailey Building and Loan, who in the end realizes how many people's lives he's touched,  Kanji Watanabi (Takashi Shimura) is part of a city bureaucracy dedicated to passing the buck. After thirty years of work, his only accomplishment is to have stamped thousands of papers and sent them on to other offices.

"Ikiru" is not a Christmas tale and has no supernatural elements so I will end the comparisons except to point out that George Bailey, in despair, learns he has already accomplished many good things while Kanji Watanabi, in despair, realizes that he has to accomplish one. He has fatal stomach cancer. He's estranged from his son whom he has sacrificed for. He makes a brief attempt at hedonism but is badly suited for it. He decides he will accomplish one thing before he dies, he will get a children's playground built in a working class neighborhood where there in currently an insect-ridden cesspool.

The story of how he does this is shown in flashbacks during his wake. This is a wonderful scene where as the city officials and bureaucrats get more and more drunk, the truth about Watanabi's accomplishment emerges. This is a great film, wonderfully written, acted and directed. I was led to it by a review by Roger Ebert which is well worth reading.

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