Sunday, November 20, 2011

Don't Make a Scene: Ikiru

The Story: In an early episode of "Inside the Actor's Studio," host James Lipton (as he typically does) asked his guest Gene Wilder the customary questions* that end the interview.  When he asked Wilder "What is your LEAST favorite word, the comic actor's answer snapped back, bitterly, and with the clear-eyed directness of experience. 


No comment was necessary.

This is a scene about cancer.  And medicine.  And doctors.  Seen lots of scenes like that in movies (there'll be one like this one, half a world and many genres away next week—a curious reflection of this film, as commonly happens with Kurosawa's films and his way of telling relatable tales).  But it is also about indifference, and that is unusual in movies, even today.  The director-writer of the film is  Akira Kurosawa, and so it is also infused with the Master's combination of humor and tragedy, pathos and cruelty, something he learned in the translations of the Elizabethan and Russian writers that so informed his style of story-telling.  It is ironic in that the the man being informed of his disease (by, ironically, not being informed of his disease) is a government functionary—an ineffectual paper-pusher—Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura), whose way of dealing with a problem is the bureaucratic answer to everything: ignore it, and maybe it will go away.

So, what he receives at this doctor's office is a taste of his own medicine.  And it is a bitter pill.

A reminder that November is National Lung Cancer Awareness Month.  If you don't smoke, don't start.  If you do...stop.


PATIENT: Stomach?

PATIENT: Yeah, my stomach's bad, too. It's what they call "chronic."

PATIENT: These days I hardly feel alive unless my stomach hurts.

NURSE: Suzuki-san!

PATIENT: That man over there -

PATIENT: His doctor told him he has a bad ulcer. But trust me, it's stomach cancer.

PATIENT: In a word, that very thing.

PATIENT: And stomach cancer is practically a death sentence.

PATIENT: The doc usually says it's just a mild ulcer. And that there's no real need to operate. And that you can eat as much as you want, as long as it's easy to digest.

PATIENT: If that's what he tells you, you've got a year at most.

PATIENT: But if you've got these symptoms you won't last a year:

PATIENT: First, if the pain is kind of heavy.

PATIENT: Second, if you can't stop burping unpleasantly.

PATIENT: And your tongue's always dry. You can't get enough water and tea.

PATIENT: And then there's the diahrrea...

PATIENT: And if it isn't diahrrea, well, then, you're constipated.

PATIENT: Your bowel movements go black.

PATIENT: And then....

PATIENT: That meat you used to love so, you can hardly touch it anymore.

PATIENT: And whatever you eat, you vomit half an hour later.

PATIENT: And when stuff you ate last week comes up when you vomit, well, then you're done for.

PATIENT: You've hardly got three months...


NURSE: Watanabe-san. Watanabe Kanji-san.

NURSE: Watanabe-san.


DOCTOR: Sit down.

DOCTOR: Sit down.

DOCTOR: Um...It looks like you've got a mild ulcer.

WATANABE: Honestly...

WATANABE: Please tell me...

WATANABE: ...the truth.

WATANABE: Tell me it's stomach cancer.

DOCTOR: Yeah. I just told you, it's a mild ulcer.

WATANABE: What about an operation? Can't you operate?

DOCTOR: Oh no, there's no need to operate. It'll heal on its own.

WATANABE: And my diet?

DOCTOR: Well, just use your common sense. As long as it's easy to digest...

DOCTOR: can eat whatever you like.

Ikiru (To Live)

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

  1. What is your favorite word?
  2. What is your least favorite word?
  3. What turns you on?
  4. What turns you off?
  5. What sound or noise do you love?
  6. What sound or noise do you hate?
  7. What is your favorite curse word?
  8. What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
  9. What profession would you not like to do?
  10. If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?


Univarn said...

Looks like both of us have had this movie on the mind in recent days. It's always featured in the top 10 and as of late has held on to the top 5 position rather steadfast. Every time I see this scene I'm always quick to point out the young doctor is the young samurai in Seven Samurai even though I'm almost always watching the movie by myself.

Mike Lippert said...

Easily one of Kurosawa's best. Sad some people undermine it because it doesn't have any swords but such is life I guess.

Yojimbo_5 said...

Thanks, gentlemen, for contnuing to read (and comment), despite my meager out put these days (Duty—that is, work—calls). As I've been going through, struggling with Kurosawa, Ikiru has remained at the top of my favorites of his. It is not epic. It is not a Big Myth. But, it is such a consummate human statement about life (and death) and achieving the best in both, that it stays with me, haunting me. Kurosawa made better movies, classic movies, but this one...I love it so.

And wait'll you see what I compare it with this Sunday. Heh. Heh-heh.