The Story: It was Akira Kurosawa's 100th birthday last week, and to celebrate, let us present this scene as an example of the obvious discussion of Kurosawa as a universal artist. Here, he dramatizes an event that is all too common throughout the world—taking on City Hall...to little effect.
The film is his brutal, though life-affirming 1952 film, "Ikiru," about the transformation of a "living corpse" into a living breathing, functioning human being. Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura), a government bureaucrat—just a cog in the City Hall machine—but on this day, he's out the office for a doctor's appointment.
A group of neighborhood women storm en mass to bring to City Hall's attention of an open sewer in their neighborhood that could pose a health-risk to their children. They want it cleaned, covered, and (it would be nice) to have the area turned into a playground.
They start on a sunny day on the ground floor, and work their way through and then up the building to higher levels of authority, shuffled by one department to another, until, the sun going down, they're back where they started with nothing accomplished. They snap. Who wouldn't?
Kurosawa makes us feel the indignity these women feel by putting us in their place—the department heads address us as if we were the ladies and we get to see face-to-face the range of apathy displayed by the Powers That Be, from indifference to irritation to just plain laughing in their (your) face. Kurosawa makes each bureaucrat unique—the guy at Pest Control is pre-occupied with swatting flies, for instance—and rather than using hard-edits between scenes (and floors), Kurosawa jokingly employs scene-wipes; like a sliding door, each functionary is whisked away and replaced with another, often the optical slide matching their own hand movements. It's thrilling—and irritating—to watch.
Not that the women's efforts matter. The last frame in the scene—of Watanabe's empty desk, occupied only by the reams of paper-requests hopelessly log-jammed in process—tells the tale of how successful the ladies in this scene would be if he was there. That is, not at all.
The Set-Up: A committee of mothers comes to the government to see about a dangerous cesspool in their neighborhood that's endangering their children. They have a perfectly reasonable request to have it cleaned up and transformed into a park. And the city bureaucrats are perfectly reasonable in hearing their requests and shuffling them to another, more appropriate department. A lot happens in this scene. But nothing gets done.
Action (of a sort)!
DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC AFFAIRS: But any proposal for creating a park goes to the Parks Department.
PARKS DEPARTMENT: This really seems to be a question of hygiene, so you'd better try the Health Department.
HEALTH DEPARTMENT: Go to the Sanitation Department.
SANITATION DEPARTMENT: See Environmental Sanitation.
ENVIRONMENTAL SANITATION: Department of Prevention.
DEPARTMENT OF PREVENTION: Infectious Diseases.
DEPARTMENT OF INFECTIOUS DISEASES: That's a job for the division of Pest Control.
PEST CONTROL: The problem is seeping waste...
PEST CONTROL: ...which means it's a problem for the Sewage Department at City Hall.
SEWAGE DEPARTMENT: Originally it was a ditch with a road over it, which means the Roads Department.
ROADS DEPARTMENT: We're waiting on a decision from City Planning.
CITY PLANNING: Go to Ward Reorganization.
WARD REORGANIZATION: The Fire Department objected to draining the cesspool.
WARD REORGANIZATION: There are water pressure problems in that area.
FIRE DEPARTMENT: Are you kidding? All we need's a good water supply.
FIRE DEPARTMENT: There's no reason it has to breed mosquitoes and cause rashes. Think what a time we'd have getting that filth out of our hoses. FIRE DEPARTMENT: Of course, we'd love a kiddie pool in that neighborhood.
FIRE DEPARTMENT: Try the Education Department. They should have a Child Welfare Committee.
DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION: But the problem doesn't only affect children. We've had enough trouble just rebuilding all the schools.
DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION: A problem this big belongs with your Ward Representative to the City Council.
CITY COUNCIL REPRESENTATIVE: I'll give you an introduction to the Deputy Mayor.
CITY COUNCIL REPRESENTATIVE: Show him my card and he'll meet with you immediately.
DEPUTY MAYOR: Please, sit down.
DEPUTY MAYOR: Thank you for all your hard work.
DEPUTY MAYOR: The truth is that we truly appreciate folks like you...who know to bring such complaints directly to our attention.
DEPUTY MAYOR: That's precisely what inspired our new Department of Public Affairs. Don't skimp on your complaints.
DEPUTY MAYOR: Hey, you. Show these folks the Public Affairs desk.
DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC AFFAIRS SUBORDINATE CLERK: You'll need to take that up with Engineering.
DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC AFFAIRS SUBORDINATE CLERK: Desk 8.
WOMAN 1: How dare you? Stop giving us the runaround!
WOMAN 1: What the hell's this poster mean? To help us kill time?
WOMAN 2: We call people like you time-killers.
WOMAN 2: All we want is to get that stinking casspool cleaned up.
WOMAN 2: If it's Engineering, Sewage, Health, Sanitation or the Fire Department, Public Affairs should sort it out!
WOMAN 3: Forget it! We won't bother you anymore. You're just laughing at us. What a mockery of democracy.
WOMAN 1: Let's go.
DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC AFFAIRS SUBORDINATE CLERK: Um, excuse me.
DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC AFFAIRS SUBORDINATE CLERK: Unfortunately, the section chief took the day off, and it'd be easier for us if you'd put this in writing.
Words by Shinobu Hashimoto, Hideo Oguni, and Akira Kurosawa (Translation by Linda Hoaglund)
Pictures by Asakazu Nakai and Akira Kurosawa
"Ikiru" in available on DVD from Criterion Collection