Ikiru (1952)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Ikiru</strong> (1952)

(Kanopy Streaming, October 2018) As a third-generation public servant, I know all the clichés, heard all the jokes, can predict all the editorials about bureaucrats—and fiction is rarely any kinder. Few creators understand the trade-offs and constraints of a public service job, nor the satisfaction of doing good in the role: In the rare occasions where a bureaucrat shows up in a story, it’s usually to provide one more obstacle for the hero. All of this may explain my instant admiration of Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru, a quiet and deceptive film as far removed from his Seven Samurai and Yojimbo as it’s possible to be, but far more relevant to my specific circumstances. All of the film revolves around a mid-career municipal bureaucrat who, at the beginning of the film, seems satisfied living out his career until retirement. But he won’t get there: before long, he’s diagnosed with terminal cancer and given a few months to live. After a short period of debauchery (easily the least satisfying part of the film), our protagonist decides to use his last remaining months to do some good. But as we’re anticipating the payoff … the film skips to his funeral, and transforms itself in a very unusual story: A eulogy suspense, in which the remaining characters spend his wake poking and prodding at the dead man’s life while we, the audience, wait to hear whether they will understand his achievements. It all comes together in a strong finale, in which the value of the dead hero is finally revealed. It’s quite the movie, although I suspect I’m most susceptible than most in reading a lot of meaning in the final result. It’s uncanny how a story set in reconstruction Japan can feel as relevant sixty-five years and a continent away, but as far as I’m concerned Ikiru instantly deserves inclusion in the select list of essential works for any public servant. (Office Space; any version of “The Emperor with No Clothes”; any of the stories in Keith Laumer’s Retief series; Yes [Prime] Minister, In the Thick of It and Out of the Loop)

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