Jenny Jones

Class differences in Ikiru

Twentieth-century Japan maintained a hierarchical, class-oriented society. Within each city, different sections represented varying classes, incomes, and social standings. Ikiru (1952) shows the activities and desires of a cross-section of citizens, from a young working-class woman to a mayor. Akira Kurosawa considers Japanese post-war reconstruction an opportunity to build a more equal society. Ikiru’s Kanji Watanabe demonstrates the individual’s ability to fight corruption and poverty.

World War II greatly decimated Japan’s cities. Bombing and fighting left cities uninhabitable, Japan’s industries flailing, and citizens starving (Nygren.) Japan faced the problems of a developing nation: poverty, illness, industrial and political corruption, and intense fear of the bomb. Japan also developed a great inequality of wealth. American Occupation authorities attempted to reform and westernize Japanese society after the war. Japanese citizens began evidencing a greater desire for social equality, continuing after the Allied Occupation ended in 1951 (Prince.) The Japanese New Wave recognized when their government espoused false rhetoric, and the 1950’s became a time of ‘liberal values and opportunities’ (Nygren.) Kurosawa uses his films to show Japan’s potential to transcend class differences.

Ikiru includes characters from all classes. A group of pheasant women represents Japan’s lower class. The women live in the slum, so the actresses wear simple, dark, old clothing, and their hair looks messy. These women come to the Office of Public Affairs and beg the bureaucrats to fill in a cesspool that breeds mosquitoes, smells, and gives rashes to their children. They ask the bureaucrats to build a playground in its place. This situation represents a common problem for post-war Japan. However, low living standards affect the impoverished far greater than the financially secure. The bureaucrats in Ikiru listen briefly to the problem before they shuffle the women onto the next person. Kurosawa films a montage showing a succession of sixteen bureaucrats, each claiming that the problem belongs to another office. The montage provides ironic comedy, but illustrates the government’s ineffectiveness. Kurosawa shows the women for the first time at the montage’s end; they appear disheartened and begin to walk away, before one woman yells out in frustration, “How dare you? Stop giving us the runaround… What a mockery of democracy.” Kurosawa’s characters reflect the real frustrations Japanese citizens dealt with during reconstruction.

Watanabe meets a novelist who knows Japan’s nightlife. They embark on a series of explorations that show Japan’s seedy, westernized side. They visit an arcade, bars, dance halls, and a striptease club. The majority of the women wear short-sleeve dresses and have their hair down and styled. Ikiru’s style changes markedly during this part of the movie. The pace becomes hectic, with many people rushing past as Watanabe gazes around in wonder. Watanabe sees neon signs, hears jazz music, watches young people dance closely and touch, and even gets his hat stolen by a woman. Two women agree to get a taxi with Watanabe and the novelist at the night’s end. Watanabe encounters a certain section of the working class, with the stripper, bar tenders, and club singer. He also witnesses the younger generation’s behavior. Everyone exhibits a sense of freedom, recklessness, and energy; though Watanabe’s night ends in vomiting, his experiences enlighten him to a new part of Japan.

The partying youth contrast starkly with Watanabe’s middle-class family. Watanabe’s son and daughter-in-law wear simple but good-quality clothing. They lead quiet and respectable lives, doing commonplace activities like reading the newspaper and drinking tea at the table. They also, however, exhibit selfishness throughout the movie. The daughter-in-law calls their home “a dump.” Their conversations generally revolve around money, especially Mitsuo’s inheritance from his father. Mitsuo shows no sign of major ambition or courage. He and his wife represent Japan’s middle class (also its largest class), and help maintain society’s status quo.

Toyo further portrays Japan’s working class. She wears stockings with holes in them, because she cannot afford new ones. She admires Watanabe’s house, saying, “Our place crams three generations in two rooms. It’s like civil war.” She works at a factory, where she performs mindless labor making toy rabbits. She admits that her life consists of working and eating, nothing more. As Japan industrializes, more people will live just like Toyo. Kurosawa does give her a positive outlook though; she enjoys making the rabbits because it feels like “playing with every baby in Japan.” Toyo’s work yields value, and her optimistic attitude stands out in Ikiru.

The bureaucrats and the Mayor embody upper-class Japan. They work in offices and wear fancy suits. Kurosawa portrays them as indifferent, mindless, and non-courageous. “The best way to protect your place in this world is to do nothing at all,” says the narrator. The bureaucrats exhibit no interest in actually solving problems or performing their office’s job. They sit lifelessly at their stations, stamping and shuffling papers. Kurosawa makes a definite statement about the bureaucracy’s uselessness. The Mayor acts disingenuously and corruptly. He talks about a geisha party (the film’s most obvious class contrast), and wants to chitchat instead of performing his job. He takes credit for building the park, refusing to even mention Watanabe in the opening speech. He subtly pushes the bureaucrats into praising him at Watanabe’s funeral. Kurosawa clearly recognizes the corruption among Japan’s city offices, and Ikiru’s mayor character portrays the upper class’s negative side.

Watanabe transcends class characterization by changing throughout Ikiru. He begins as another lifeless bureaucrat, but his terminal cancer pushes him to live differently. He determines to replace the cesspool with a playground, and assigns responsibility to his office. He meets with much opposition from his fellow bureaucrats, but he uses courage and determination to accomplish the playground before he dies. His funeral represents a merging of classes. The peasant women come to pay their respects, genuinely mourning Watanabe’s death and thus shaming the Mayor, his bureaucrats, and Watanabe’s family. Watanabe’s accomplishment shows that positive change happens when people from different classes work together. Kurosawa demonstrates that citizens can improve their own society, regardless of class.


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