A life in retrospect

Living is a loving transposition to a British setting of an Akira Kurosawa film from 1952, bearing the same title in English (originally Ikiru). Kurosawa’s film has a strong reputation in the West, despite being slightly at odds with our image of its director – in his filmography it comes after Rashomon and before Seven Samurai, with their period settings. When Rashomon won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1951, the prize made his name, but also tied him to a particular sort of film. As Alex Cox points out in his introduction to the DVD of IkiruKurosawa in his acceptance speech expressed the desire to make films about modern Japan (like Ikiru) rather than its feudal past.

Kazuo Ishiguro’s screenplay for Living Doesn’t update the material, but transposes it to 1950s Britain. The assumption is that postwar Japan and postwar Britain have enough similarity in the relevant areas to make the transition smooth. Local government with a tendency to drag its feet? Check. Cultural reluctance to express emotion, painful or otherwise? Check.

In both versions of the story a widowed bureaucrat, unable to express his love for his son, learns that he is suffering from a terminal illness and rethinks his priorities. He applies his last energies to making a reality of a project that has languished in his office for months, an application to create a children’s playground.

The new film has a number of advantages. One is the use of County Hall as a location – there could hardly be a more authentic setting than this for footage of white-collar workers arriving in the morning, shuffling papers from desk to desk, wearily sending the women who persist in agitating for the playground from department to department (parks, recreation, drainage) in an endless paper chase. One side effect is that the hero becomes a more consequential figure than in the original. London County Council seems to have got quite a lot done in the postwar years, and it’s a little ungallant to suggest that its reflex was to stall projects rather than move them on, but that’s a fair price to pay for the authority of the setting.

The other definitive advantage is the casting of Bill Nighy in the lead. Takashi Shimura’s performance as Watanabe in Kurosawa’s film has its admirers, but it’s possible to feel that it’s a little caricatural, perhaps in part because the actor (only in his forties) was playing old as well as ill and glum. Nighy in the role of Mr Williams – whose first name is almost but not quite a state secret – has a light presence not limited to light emotions, though his history in comedy equips him with an invisible twinkle. His oddly clotted voice moves unhurriedly through his lines of dialogue, as if the character was not so much denying his emotion as reluctant to burden anyone else with it.

In sociological terms it makes sense for the new screenplay to have 1950s clerical workers living in the suburbs rather than the city, though the paradox of a faithful adaptation is that small changes of this sort have significant knock-on effects, while a freer version can find its own internal logic. The producers have hired a vintage steam locomotive and carriages, a decision that makes possible (and economical) a number of scenes between Williams’ co-workers as they commute. Even before the film went on release its IMDb page featured in the Goofs category a complaint about the choice of the “Standard class 4MTT Steam locomotive 80151”, which was built in 1957. That’s trainspotting with a vengeance!

It may be that the correspondence between national styles of inhibition isn’t all that close, the Japanese version being concerned with loss of face, the British with embarrassment: conditions that overlap, naturally, but aren’t quite the same thing. Watanabe discovers that he is dying from stomach cancer not from the medical professionals, who shield him from the status-lowering truth, but from the conversation of a talkative man in the waiting room – if they don’t tell you to change your diet, then it means you’re doomed. Williams in the new film is told the truth, though the scene in his GP’s surgery is elided and his coughing blood at one point suggests the involvement of lungs rather than stomach.

In both versions the hero takes time off work without authorization and goes away, planning to kill himself, though lacking, at the end, the courage to take the sleeping pills he has acquired for the purpose. He meets, and confides in, someone with an entirely opposite temperament, a writer who lives for the moment (Tom Burke in the new film), but gets no real joy from his attempt at hedonism by numbers. Going home, though not yet returning to work, he runs into a junior female colleague, now working elsewhere, and deepens their slight acquaintance. In due course he tells her the truth about his failing health.

Ishiguro’s love of Kurosawa’s film is exemplified by one little detail sweetly recontextualized from the original. In Ikiru the ex-colleague now works making mechanical toys, rabbits that jump. This would be an odd career trajectory for a British civil servant, and in the new film Margaret (Aimee Lou Wood) is working as a waitress, though the assistant-manager job she was promised is slow to materialize. On a jaunt with Mr Williams to a Soho amusement arcade, though, she wins just such a jumping rabbit in a claw-crane machine.

The young woman in Ikiru Has a vitality that Watanabe values ​​and envies, fully alive whether eating, drinking or playing pachinko, but she isn’t deeply interested in him. At one point while he’s talking her eyes stray away from him, towards her feet in the stockings he has just bought for her. Margaret in Living has a much deeper interest in her ex-boss, to the point of becoming the moral center of the film, whether or not such a thing is something it needs.

Ishiguro’s screenplay reproduces the striking construction of the original, where the development of the story was abruptly truncated. This isn’t an outrage on a par with Marion Crane’s death in Psycho, but it’s certainly a shock. It’s a sharp break of continuity, a little death in narrative form.

The director is Oliver Hermanus, a South African working in Britain for the first time. He gives the film an assured visual texture, though the music he has commissioned from his composer, Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch, seems to reflect real uncertainty about tone. There’s a Brief Encounter-style cue pastiching a Rachmaninov piano concerto, something that was perhaps bound to emerge from a matrix of emotional repression and postwar railway stations. Elsewhere there’s a more neutral, minimalist approach, reflecting the vogue for film music that acts as a sort of blotting paper, not prompting the audience’s but simply mopping them up, silence made audible and absorbent. Sometimes there are hits of the period on the soundtrack, usually to contrast optimism and vitality with depression and despair. If the director felt more confident about the overall impact of the film he would have abstained from plastering Vaughan Williams’s “Tallis Fantasia” all over the ending, in an orgy of emotional explicitness that only Elgar’s “Nimrod” could outdo.

Kurosawa starts Ikiru with a voiceover, impersonal in the sense that it doesn’t represent a character in the film, but is remarkably opinionated just the same. Its tone is exasperated and even scolding as it describes Watanabe’s moribund character, the waste of his life. Voiceover is looked at askance as a device in contemporary cinema, despite the contribution it has made to any number of films, from Sunset Blvd. to Reversal of Fortune, perhaps because of its overuse in post-production to the effect of cheap running repairs to continuity. Among current directors only Terrence Malick uses it without cuteness or embarrassment.

Is it too fanciful to suggest that the idiosyncratic opening voiceover of Ikiru is some sort of survival from the Japanese benshi of the silent era, live commentators who interpreted the action rather than merely translating dialogue? They could become stars in their own right, their names more prominent on posters than those of the actors or even the film – and Kurosawa’s brother Heigo was one of the last prominent benshi. He killed himself in 1933, after the failure of a strike he had organized to protest against the dominance of sound cinema and the consequent collapse of his livelihood.

Ishiguro’s screenplay has a different opening, with a newly invented character, Peter Wakeling (Alex Sharp), shown on his first day of work in Mr Williams’ department, meeting colleagues (and eventually Williams himself) on the train journey to London. This is very much a standard way of introducing a dramatic set-up, with the help of a character as unfamiliar with what is going on as the audience itself, and, since Peter is a presence in the film to the very end, he provides viewers with that conventionally desirable thing, a “through line”, a continuous thread to follow and identify with. But unless you think Kurosawa was a bit of a bungler as a screenwriter, someone whose omissions must be made good (and that would be a strange basis for a film made in a spirit of homage), then it’s entirely the wrong decision.

Nothing in the construction of Ikiru follows through – the hectoring voiceover doesn’t reappear, nor does the hedonistic writer, and nor does the vital young woman. The new screenplay doesn’t bring back the writer, with the result that this looks like an awkward oversight, rather than an example of a consistent principle of construction – ensuring that the only continuity on offer is the life that has been severe, then pieced together in retrospect. In Living The tender, sympathetic Margaret tries to console Williams’ son, who writhes in an agony of unexpressed feeling. By the end of the film she has been rewarded for her abundant niceness. She and Peter are an item, and perhaps we’re supposed to think that Mr Williams gives them his blessings from beyond the grave – but it’s not clear that Kurosawa would smile in the same way at the sentimental makeover of his astringent classic.

Adam Mars-Jones‘s Carethe third installation of Pilcrowill be published next year

The post A life in retrospect appeared first on TLS.

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