Watanabe is sick to death of his pointless existence wrapped in a funereal shroud of redundant bureaucracy; in death he is finally reborn. Director Akira Kurosawa paints a compassionate portrait of a terminal man who carries the weight of his regretful past, not on his shoulders but in the malignant pit of his stomach.
Kurosawa opens the film with an X-ray and omniscient narration explaining that Watanabe is a doomed man: we see inside of the protagonist before we see outside. Cut to: Watanabe hunched over a small desk, stacks of paper dominating the composition which makes him seem tiny and insignificant. He slowly stamps papers without comprehending them (or caring to) while his subordinates go about their job in anxious silence. Kurosawa conveys Watanabe’s apathy in one sublime shot: he opens a drawer and takes out a yellowing document, ideas to make the Public Affairs Office more functional. But he wipes clotted ink off the stamp with the crumpled paper and tosses it away. Like he has tossed the past 25 years of his life away. A young girl begins giggling and the others look surprised and try to hush her. This outburst of emotion is forbidden, Watanabe asks her to read the joke which made her laugh. But the primeval substance of the joke seems to pass directly through her empty boss; he looks down and gulps more medicine.
Kurosawa explores the inner life of the protagonist and is concerned with his reaction in this extraordinary circumstance, much like Dostoevsky. He explains his past only in conjunction with his cancer, but his sickness is more than physical. Kurosawa utilizes flashbacks in order to show us Watanabe’s patriarchal failings, and this device is only used when he is contemplating his deceased wife. He uses the past as an excuse saying; “I did it all for my son”, but the young girl from his department admonishes him, “Every parent uses the children as an excuse.”
Watanabe soon discovers what he most feared: he has a short time to live. But Kurosawa isn’t concerned with this knowledge because this isn’t a story about his cancer: it is a story of a human being facing mortality at a specific time. No more lies or self-delusions. It is about living in the now. Watanabe goes on a drinking spree and enjoys the superficial physical pleasure but soon grows tired (and sick) of it. He then focuses upon the young girl and does everything to make her happy, but she grows frightened of the attention. This Platonic relationship is misunderstood by his son and the hidden fault line between them shifts, creating an emotional earthquake. But it’s the wisdom of the innocent girl who finds her peace making toys for children, from doing something that affects others, that propels Watanabe towards his salvation.
Early in the narrative, a group of women complained about a sewage pond that was giving their children rashes. Kurosawa’s meticulous and dynamic editing cuts from Public Affairs, to Engineering, to Parks and Recreations, etc…until the women are back where they began. It is an excruciating condemnation of government bureaucracy, the dehumanization of the people they’re supposed to help. Now Watanabe takes up their cause to clean up the morass and build a park: now he begins to live.
The films structure is elliptical; that is, immediately after his epiphany we are transported in time to his wake, learning he died in a park. His co-workers sit around and congratulate themselves on the park they built, but others know it was Watanabe who was responsible, who was the driving force. As each one delivers their insight, we are shown Watanabe and his unflinching desire to see his plan come to fruition. It seems cruel that he did all the work and politicians will take all the credit, until we understand that the credit is meaningless: all that matters is that the park was built. And Watanabe’s accomplishment has value even though only a few recognize his participation.
The polluted pond is now a playground. What once brought sickness now brings happiness. He didn’t change the whole world, but he rearranged the part that mattered. And that’s a fitting epitaph for anyone.
Final Grade: (A+)