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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Change of Life
by Donald Levit

Freed from wartime Imperial censorship, Akira Kurosawa “finally discovered myself” and was in turn discovered by Westerners in Rashômon, followed one film and two years later by Ikiru/Doomed/To Live in 1952. Time and tale centuries apart, both were co-scripted with Shinobu Hashimoto, and the final, too long forty-five minutes of Ikiru’s hundred and twenty copy the former’s flashback multiple tellers/points of view. Along with the director’s earlier policier Stray Dog/Nora inu, they are among eight directors’ twenty-four features in the Lincoln Center leg of globe-circling Japanese Screen Classics: In Honor of Madame Kawakita, known as “Japan’s cinema and cultural emissary to the world.”

Western literature often inspired Kurosawa. Ikiru derives from Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” is scornful of bureaucracy out of Franz Kafka, and finds meaning in existential writers Camus and Hemingway in the individual creation of oneself, a man is what he does, and in the state of mind at the moment of truth, i.e., death.

Such personal responsibility is what the film’s bureaucrats and politicians will not accept, including Kanji Watanabe (Takishi Shimura, from both Stray Dog and Rashômon), paper-pusher chief of one of endless city hall sections which circuitously forward petitions around to each other. While boisterous mothers and babies are shuffled from pillar to post with their request that a pestiferous empty lot be converted to a playground, Watanabe never misses a day or raises his voice or bespectacled eyes to consider his Bob Cratchit clerks. The sole female, and the only one with dreams and spirit, is Miss Toyo Odagiri (Miki Odagiri), and he remains unruffled when she is obliged to repeat aloud her joke that he is “the Mummy,” dead these twenty-five years and present only so they will not see they can function without him.

Few actors besides Shimura, then forty-seven, could pull off the older, round-shouldered protagonist’s downcast face, later “unnatural” and scary to the young woman. Pills ineffective, he is stirred to terror at a fellow patient’s (Atsushi Watanabe) account of symptoms and medical behavior in cases of stomach cancer, and sees through a callous doctor and nurse’s comfortable lies. From a narrator, and brief past glimpses, we learn of the death of his wife and of his brother Kiichi’s (Makoto Kobori) counsel to take a mistress at least, an idea he not so much refuses as passes on in devotion to son Mitsou, seeing the boy through childhood illnesses and wartime military service.


Devastated by the death sentence, he seeks solace with grown Mitsou and his wife Kazue (Nobuo Kaneko, Kyôko Seki), who live with him and whom he overhears bickering about his money and their inheritance and who, later misunderstanding, ignore his overtures about the terminal illness. Desperately alone and realizing that he has not lived, he turns to two guides to life.

The first is a writer of cheap novels dressed like a Toulouse-Lautrec lithograph who sympathizes and agrees, gratis, to be a “Mephistopheles” (Yůnosuke Itô) into the netherworld of revelers, thieves, partygoers and prostitutes. Tipsy, his hat stolen and replaced with a sportier one, a dancer (Harue Kuramoto) sprawled in his lap, Watanabe ends this descent huskily singing a carpe diem from his youth. “Life is so short, Fall in love, dear maiden, . . . For there will be no more tomorrows.”

The second, surprisingly, is bubbly Odagiri, who wonders at his absence from work and seeks him at home for authorization to take another job. Moved -- not aroused -- by her down-at-the-heels stockings, he buys her the unimaginable luxury of new pairs, and they begin a round of amusement parks and game rooms and dinners -- all innocent, but tongues wag and the girl understandably grows tired and spooked by this weird elderly man. He begs one last dinner, at which she dismisses him and he observes a young persons’ birthday celebration, picks up a cheap mechanical rabbit the girl makes at her new assembly-line job, and decides that life must be made meaningful in the time left.

Fast forward to his wake months later, where family, municipal clerks and politicians, the petitioning mothers and a contrite policeman pay respects, drink too much sake, debate promotions and, through different flashback points of view, fill in Watanabe’s crusade to make the playground a reality. Criminals wanted a tavern instead, section chiefs wanted the peace of do-nothing routine, the deputy mayor wanted better geishas and now wants playground credit; the son is upset that his father did not confide in him, the brother convinced that a woman was involved.

The mourned man died, it turns out, of natural causes and did not freeze. In one of the screen’s celebrated closings, the night of the playground’s inauguration, he sits on a swing in the snow, huskily singing a carpe diem from his youth.

Only one clerk remained clear-headed during the obsequies, but at the office next day his rebellion is momentary, faced down by the new section chief. Most men are doomed; only the lucky few escape to live.

(Released by Brandon Films, Inc. Not rated by MPAA.)  

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