I recently subscribed to Netflix so I could catch up on watching a bunch of movies (old and new, but mostly old) that I’ve been wanting to see.  So I might have some random blog posts every now and then about random thoughts on random old movies.  (There may be some spoilers in such posts as these, in case you care.)

The latest film I watched was Ikiru from 1952.  The film tells the tale of an old civil service worker, Watanabe, who is quite bored by his job but bears it anyway.  When he learns he has stomach cancer and has less than a year to live, his life suddenly seems incredibly wasted and he’s not sure how to cope.  Overall, I thought it was quite good, though the pace was a bit slow for me at some parts.  Also, the second half of the film was quite strange.  Half way through the film we jump forward in time to after Watanabe’s death, and are given the rest of the important moments leading up to his death in flashbacks recounted at his wake by those who knew him.  On the one hand, telling the second half of the story in flashbacks allows us to see how Watanabe affected others with his behavior, and allows us to easily skip around to the more interesting moments, without having to see resolutions to each and every scene.  I guess the problem I have with it is that the style of storytelling is just too different from the first half.  I think flashbacks would’ve worked if the director had actually told the entire story that way, instead of just the second half.  Instead, we go from seeing the world through Watanabe for half the film, to viewing him from the outside.  Perhaps that was the point, but I think the story would’ve been stronger if the director stuck with one method throughout.  Or even overlapped them throughout.

One thing I loved about the movie was the cinematography.  There was some awesome use of deep focus, which we seem to get hardly any of in movies today: shots in which almost everything is in focus; what’s close to the screen and what’s far away.  Here are some shots I particular liked:

Watanabe’s head is taking up half the screen, but our focus is on the guys on the other half, as they look at him and are surprised and not very pleased to see him back at work.

A few similar shots, with only three people in each shot, each at varying distances and heights, making each pleasing:

A couple shots with more people, all arranged so we can see all their faces clearly, and know what they’re focusing on:

I love all the enormous stacks of paper in that office in the first shot; probably a bit tongue-in-cheek to show how wasteful such work is, with paper and energy and time. And I love the composition of that second shot, with the faces all arrayed so nicely and clearly. Who these days would take the time to create a shot like that?

Some nice frames-within-frames:

(OK, that last one’s a bit of a joke – because it’s literally a frame.  Heh heh heh.)  I especially love that playground shot.  Symbolic?

Here was a great little sequence.  In the first shot, we have our characters talking in the foreground, a man sitting behind them, and other people way in the back.  As the conversation continues and intensifies, Watanabe moves and blocks out those people way in the back.  As the conversation intensifies even more for Watanabe, he switches sides, coming closer to the camera and turning from the speaker.

Some nice “shots from behind”:

There were some nice two-way dialog shots in which, with the deep-focus, the background between the two characters was quite clear, almost to the point of distraction, yet the subject matter of the conversations kept the attention on the characters’ interactions:

Here’s a very nice silhouette shot.  The focus (and subject matter of the characters’ dialog) is the sky.  Too bad it’s not in color.

This was an interesting moment in the film.  Watanabe is walking downstairs; he’s just had a flash of inspiration.  He’s just come to terms with his death.  It’s a pivotal moment in the film.  It’s the “break into three” after the “all the lost” moment.  So he rushes down the stairs and the people behind him are singing “Happy Birthday” in English to a character who’s off screen.  But the song might as well be for him.  It’s such obvious use of . . . some thematic device.  I almost burst out laughing.  (Actually, not almost, I did burst out laughing.)  He finally comes to terms with his impending death, and this group of happy young people are singing “Happy Birthday.”  It’s almost silly.  I certainly would never have thought of something like that.

In the shot afterwards, we see the girl he was just talking to.  She’s not sure what just happened.  But, with the deep focus, it looks as if she’s watching that group of happy people across the room, looking down on them.  A group of privileged young people around her age that she’ll never be a part of.  It’s almost rather sad.  Someday, when mortality is knocking on her door, she may suffer the same inner-trials as Watanabe.  We don’t really leave her character on a happy note.  Or maybe she’s just sad that Watanabe took her toy bunny.

Here’s an excellent mirror shot.  How else can you have two characters facing each other, yet not facing each other?  Gotta love shots like these.

Then we zoom in on the mirror so we have this great line-up of talking heads with shiny glassware lined up underneath.  Nice.

And, finally, my favorite shot.  Watanabe is dead, and this character has vowed to be more like him, or at least how he was after he changed in the months before his death.  Here, this character just had an opportunity to hold true to his vow.  He stands up and looks at his coworkers as if to say: “C’mon!  Did Watanabe teach us nothing?”  But then he cowardly changes his mind and sits back down, slowly disappearing behind the enormous stacks of paper, letting himself sink back into the drudgery of life.  Sadly, nothing will change for this man anytime soon.