Ikiru: Cinematography and Mise-en-scène

Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru (To Live, 1952) is a film about a man, Kanji Watanabe, who learns he only has about six months to live due to stomach cancer. The most devastating part is that he has led a truly meaningless and monotonous life. The film documents his search for meaning. Through the use of sound devices and camera techniques such as the tracking shot, the long shot, and the absence of point-of-view shots, Kurosawa reinforces Watanabe’s despair and submissiveness. Kurosawa also presents certain props to reinforce Watanabe’s impending death as well as cluttered settings to emphasize his inability to liberate himself and acquire a sense of purpose.

The opening sequence of Ikiru clearly establishes Watanabe’s personality and his place in the world. It begins with a shot of an x-ray of Watanabe’s stomach accompanied by a voiceover who explains that Watanabe will soon learn he has stomach cancer, and he will realize that he has led a meaningless life. He describes Watanabe as someone who is “simply passing time without actually living his life.” It’s an unconventional way to start a film because the narrator reveals everything we should expect about the protagonist. This sequence is also important because of the absence of Watanabe’s point-of-view shot. When Toyo starts laughing, Watanabe stops what he’s doing to see what all the commotion is about. Rather than watching this scene through the protagonist’s perspective, the camera moves to the opposite side of the room. Watanabe is “denied the subject position of the look; he is placed in the position of the other’s look (Yoshimoto 196).” This camera angle indicates that Watanabe is the subject of the joke.

After Watanabe leaves the doctor’s office where he learns he has an incurable form of cancer, he walks home in a state of despair. The camera follows him as he walks home absentmindedly. This scene is distinct because it is silent, and it’s only later that we learn he is walking by a very busy street. The silence emphasizes his obsessed state of mind (Prince 104). It also illustrates his despair after receiving such dreadful news. When sound is finally introduced in this scene, the camera begins to move away from Watanabe in the same way it did in the opening sequence. Once again he becomes the subject of other’s observation (Yoshimoto 197).

Watanabe walks home/long shot

In this long shot one can barely see Watanabe among the passing cars. Ultimately, it illustrates how small and inferior he is in relation to the rest of the world.

The silent scene is also important because of what is presented in the frame as Watanabe makes his way down the street. In the background there are a series of identical posters which read “Morinaga Penicillin Ointment.”

The reference to penicillin emphasizes Watanabe’s fatal condition (Yoshimoto 197). At the time, penicillin was considered a miracle drug that saved many Japanese people after WWII from dying of tuberculosis (Yoshimoto 197). Unfortunately, Watanabe cannot be saved by any miracle drugs. The juxtaposition of a miracle drug and Watanabe’s incurable disease also enhances viewers’ sympathy.

Watanabe feels miserable because he’s realized that he hasn’t lived his life meaningfully and authentically. He doesn’t know what to do or who to lean on in this time of crisis; he is essentially trapped. This feeling of entrapment is reflected through the use of cluttered and crowded scenes, especially in the bar scene and the nightlife scenes. In an effort to forget about his condition, Watanabe goes to a bar where he meets a writer. The bar is unusually small which creates a feeling of claustrophobia and intimacy between Watanabe, the writer, and the viewers. One of the more striking elements in this bar is the large ladder that seems to divide the place in half.

It is often believed that walking underneath a ladder is bad luck. The fact that Watanabe sits underneath the ladder reinforces his doomed fate.

The writer feels sympathetic towards Watanabe and decides to invite him on an adventure involving gambling, dancing, and drinking. The feeling of entrapment persists as they make their way from one place to another. For example, there are many prison-like images that occupy most of the frame whenever the focus is on Watanabe. Such images include fences, bars, and other barriers.

These barriers suggest that Watanabe is like a prisoner in his own life, and he does not know how to break free and live authentically.

After realizing he’s not going to find meaning by indulging in life’s pleasures or by living through someone else, Watanabe returns to work determined to build a playground; an issue he had previously neglected. Essentially, this scene symbolizes his rebirth. (The “Happy Birthday” tune in the background suggests his symbolic rebirth). It’s also important because it illustrates a shift in the movement of the camera. In this scene, Watanabe sits at his desk and tells two of his employees about his plan to build the playground.

The employees stand on each side of the frame “so that their bodies visually entrap the dying clerk (Prince 109)”, and they tell him that the job should go to the Engineering department. Watanabe, however, proudly says “it’s just the sort of matter that Public Affairs must take the lead on.” For the first time he looks and sounds alive. The camera reacts by approaching Watanabe until he dominates the frame completely. He has shifted from “being a submissive visual element to being a dominant visual element (Prince 109).”

Camera movement/rebirth

Just when we were starting to see a change in Watanabe, the narrator surprises us by announcing his death. From now on, everything we learn about Watanabe is based on tales told by family and co-workers during his funeral. Nevertheless, we had the privilege of watching Watanabe’s transformation and quest for meaning in the first half of the film. With the help of the cinematography and mise-en-scène, Kurosawa is able to articulate Watanabe’s despair as well as his growth.

Written by Lucia Meneses


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