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Ikiru

Akira Kurosawa
1. Introduction
When one assigns the films of Akira Kurosawa to a particular genre or examines Kurosawas
films from an auteurist point of view, it should be borne in mind that such categorisations can
only be carried out after something constructive has been said about individual films. Barry
alt writes in his essay where he argues for an ob!ective film theory that the concept of style
and genre are formed on a secondary level thus only after a primary analysis has been carried
out.
"
#here has been much debate about $apanese films with reference to their difference from
the Western narrative tradition of cinema. While some scholars, like %o&l Burch, argue that
$apanese cinema indeed is uni'ue, there are others who 'uestion this claim.
(
)n his study of
*asu!iro +,u and his films, -avid Bordwell has arguably demonstrated that +,us body of
films are full of references to the film practice and forms of Western culture.
.
+f course there
is always going to be disagreement about certain aspects of film theory, but to return to alt, if
it would be possible to approach the sub!ect from an almost ob!ective basis the discussion
would mostly be about interpretations of data. alt suggests making this basis the individual
film.
/

alt calls this method statistical style analysis and another film scholar, *uri #sivian,
has developed software that facilitates collecting statistical data of individual films which
could then be compared to data of other films. #he analysis of Ikiru 0"12(3 is twofold4 firstly
the individual shot lengths are measured and the patterns and rhythms of montage are studied
in relation to the development of the narrative. econdly the use of framing and reframing in
Ikiru will be explored in relation to how it functions within the narrative structure. )t is
arguably impossible not to compare its functioning with the conventions of shot scale and
"
Barry alt, Film Style & Technology: History and Analysis (e ed. 05ondon4 tarword, "11(3, (/.
(
%o&l Burch, To the Distant Observer: Form and Meaning in the a!anese "inema 0Berkeley4 6niversity of
7alifornia 8ress, "1913.
.
-avid Bordwell, O#u and the $oetics o% "inema 08rinceton4 8rinceton 6niversity 8ress, "11/3.
/
alt, (..
-onny van as .:"(99; "
framing of classical <ollywood as described by Bordwell and Kirstin #hompson in their book
Film Art: An Introduction& As the narrative is the organising principle of narrative cinema the
techni'ues used to convey the story are principally related to the narrative. #herefore this
comparison will be one that is expressed in degrees and variations rather than expressing that
the classical <ollywood form is fully present or absent. #he analysis is of contextual
importance, because when these analyses have been carried out on the full catalogue of
Kurosawas films we will have sufficient data to make claims within a wider context, be it in
terms of genre classifications, its =$apaneseness or in terms of Kurosawas auteurist status.
2. Genre and Experimentation with Form
All films discussed in the following are identified as belonging to the social>problem genre or
shakai>mono. #he genre has formed itself during and after the occupation of $apan by the
Americans. As part of the mega>genre gendaigeki it explores social issues of the modern
world rather than representing society of the past. #he gendaigeki genre is one part of a
dichotomy together with the !idaigeki,genre, which is a genre that includes all films that are
set in distant history, the pre>?e!i era specifically.
2
#hese are obviously broad categories and
most if not all of Kurosawas films can undoubtedly be identified as one or the other, this
genre dichotomy is in its essence solely a historical periodi,ation and not a category of
dramatic form.
;
@urthermore -onald Aichie finds that all Kurosawas films deal with a social
issue one way or another. Bven period>films films of the samurai genre, such as Seven
Samurai 0"12/3' criticise values typical of contemporary society.
9
)t shows that the films of
Kurosawa may not easily be categorised.
Apart from the fact that Kurosawas social>problem films are generally categori,ed as
such there are other commonalities that deserve mentioning. %o&l Burch notes that all
Kurosawas protagonists are marked by their =perseverance in the teeth of adversity as he
phrases it.
:
Drunken Angel 0"1/:3 revolves around an alcoholic doctor who refuses to
abandon treatment of a gangster in spite of the gangsters reluctance to accept the fact that he
is suffering from tuberculosis. #he gangsters perseverance is also salient in his refusal to give
2
?itsuhiro *oshimoto, (urosa)a: Film Studies and a!anese "inema 0-urham4 -uke 6niversity 8ress, (CC(3,
(C1.
;
)bidem, (C1.
9
-onald Aichie, A Hunderd *ears o% a!anese Film: A "oncise History' )ith Selective +uide to ,ideo-s and
D,Ds 0#okyo4 Kodansha )nternational 5td., (CC"3, "9C.
:
Burch, (1;.
-onny van as .:"(99; (
up his status as a crime boss despite his illness and the return from prison of his yaku,a
superior. )n tray Dog 0"1/13 too we find a stubborn detective whose pistol is stolen and
decides to search for the gun and the perpetrator in downtown #okyo. While the search
continues the detective, ?urakami, ends up in metropolitan ma,e with hardly a lead to go on.
)n fear of losing his !ob ?urakami soldiers on unfa,ed by the adversity that he meets.
Anxious of another nuclear attack on $apan %aka!ima has made the radical decision to
emigrate his whole family. %aka!ima, who is the protagonist in I live in Fear 0"1223, is
another example of an individual who fights forces greater than him, yet he persists or as
Aichie puts it aptly =traditional society D here in the form of the family D thwarts individual
will.
1
#hough be it in a extreme form of tenacity, namely the form of revenge, the main
character in The .ad Slee! /ell 0"1;C3 embodies perseverance. %ishi goes to great lengths to
have the murder of his father revenged. #he plan he conceives includes a full change of
identity, being employed by the murderers and arranging a marriage with the daughter of the
man he holds accountable for the death of his father.
Although these similarities are noted, one could also argue that these films are
governed by different generic narratives. Stray Dog takes shape as a detective film and even
though The .ad Slee! /ell and Drunken Angel are about crime the former is often
categori,ed as melodrama with theatrical performances that emphasise this,
"C
the latter is
generally praised for its realistic portrayal of the immediate post>war period. -espite the
thematic content these films have in common as well as a steady reoccurrence of the heroic
perseverance,
""
there remains something to be said about stylistic similarities. A 'uestion of
style usually suggests an authorial mark on a film, which of course is problematic when one
looks at a body of work from the point of view of genre. Eenre deals with, arguably,
commonly accepted conventions, while the auteurist point of view suggests that the director
in 'uestion consistently deploys his own artistic signature. #his is to say that within the
conventions of genre and the historical and cultural context of the director, one can trace
something that can be identified as an individual style. Kurosawa has often been described as
an auteur especially in Western criticism. <owever one cannot deny that the alleged influence
of classical <ollywood, while practising film making in a culture that has a different artistic
genealogy than that of Western culture, creates difficulties for Kurosawas auteurist status.
+ne of the salient aspects of Kurosawas film making that has been noted is his stylistic
1
Aichie, A Hundred *ears o% a!anese Film' ";9&
"C
*oshimoto, (92>(9;.
""
-avid -esser, FIkiru4 %arration as a ?oral ActG in 0e%raming a!anese "inema: Authorshi!' +enre' History,
A. $r. %olletti and -. -esser 0Bloomington4 )ndiana 6niversity 8ress, "11(3, 2;>;:, ;2.
-onny van as .:"(99; .
experimentation in relation to its thematic contents and narrative structures.
"(
After various
stylistic experimentations in relation to the narrative in previous films such as Stray Dog, it
may have found its most complete form in Ikiru.
".

Ikiru
3. Narrative Structure and Editing
#he narrative of Ikiru is an exercise in large> and small>scale geometry,
"/
and this geometry
creates various narrative complexities. )n the following it is necessary to determine the large>
scale structure before examining the smaller parts and draw comparisons. #he editing
analyses in cinemetrics will act as supporting evidence. @urthermore when dealing with
narrative cinema it is necessary to compare the findings with some of the basic structuring
principles of classical <ollywood narrative. ince classical <ollywood is the dominant form
and because some of the previously mentioned problems that surrounds the context of
$apanese and Kurosawas cinema it can be used as a sounding board to clarify some of the
possible divergences found.
Ikiru has a remarkable two>part structureH however it still functions as a whole.
#sivian has identified something similar in Intolerance 0"1";3, which consists of four stories
within one.
"2
Kurosawas film doesnt alternate between stories as Eriffiths does, but rather
radically changes the narration two>thirds into the film. As in Intolerance some of the
structure of the film as a whole is kept, party due to the editing. #sivian points to the fact that
in Intolerance the trendline curve =complies with a time>honored dramatic theory according to
which a well>crafted drama 0I3 must start calmly, have two climaxes, and resolve in 'uieter
coda.
";
We find the same editing tendency in Ikiru with its two climaxes, one in which
Watanabe realises he has cancer and the second that consists of flashbacks that =discuss
Watanabes involvement in the realisation of the playground and the reasons for his erratic
behaviour. After the first climax the graph indicates a long dip, which hits its lowest point at
the end of the scene where Watanabe and the writer are witnessing a striptease. )n spite of the
"(
-esser, 2;>;:.
".
8rince, "CC.
"/
Burch, .C".
"2
*uri #sivian, =FWhat is 7inemaJG An Agnostic Answer. "ritical In1uiry 0summer (CC:34 92/>99;.
";
)bidem, 99(.
-onny van as .:"(99; /
visual spectacle in the nightlife scene the editing rate is at it slowest. We may find an
argument that explains this development in the following. Watanabes drunkenness reaches a
peak and so does the drinking spree, but his drunkenness also culminates in a scene where the
signs that his illness is worsening, become apparent.
#he films shift in narration is possibly for most viewers not the element that is
shocking. #he deadline explicitly given in the first scene isnt met at the end of the film, but
two>thirds into the film. #he x>ray informs the viewer of Watanabes illness and this diagnosis
is not much later confirmed in hospital. Both Watanabe and the audience are made aware that
the protagonist will die. )n classical <ollywood this deadline would normally create the
expectation that the story will end, more or less, with the protagonists death. #his dramatic
turn is not conveyed in the graph though, it occurs when the tur'uoise section changes to
green. Within the overall editing pace the rising cutting rate continues, suggesting the
narrative proceeds as normal, which arguably adds to the surprise.
Figure 1. Simple Anal!i!" Scene! are colour coded.
7inemetrics also allows us to analyse the editing in finer details. An observation was
previously made that in the transition between the two parts the rising cutting rate continued
as if leaving off in media res. %evertheless the more detailed trendline indicates that the scene
itself ends with a 'uieter coda, signalling some sort of closure. )n the same way it is also
possible to account for some of the smaller editing structures in the large dip and relate these
to the narrative. After Watanabe learns of his illness there are three distinct peaks and dips in
the scenes that follow. )n his search for some meaning in the remainder of his life he turns to
-onny van as .:"(99; 2
three characters in the narrative. Bach rise towards the peak represents Watanabes resolve,
but the peak itself is always indicative of disappointment. #he first peak is a se'uence that
alternates between flashbacks and Watanabes futile attempts to confide in ?itsuo. #he
discussion between ?itsuo and his wife about how much they could spend of Watanabes
pension distances father from son. #he confrontation with his son results in his absence from
work, but also his absence from his family. We find Watanabe again when he turns to drinking
in his bitter disappointment in his son. #here he has a chance meeting with a writer with
whom he hits the town to experience the meaning of life through pleasure. Watanabes
conviction that he will find fulfilment in pleasure is conveyed in an elaborate night scene. #he
trendline peaks when Watanabe steps out of the car because he is ill. )n the shots that follow
both Watanabe and the writer are back in the car and it is has become clear that his illness is
advancing. #hrough the writers expression of desperation it becomes clear that pleasure will
not add meaning to the life of a dying man.

#he last peak occurs during the last conversation
between ?itsuo and Watanabe. Again ?itsuo unknowingly !ars Watanabes attempt to tell
him about his condition and disappointment is again complete. #he last dip is particular,
because it represent both disappointment and resolve. Watanabes urge to live like #oyo
distances her from him, but simultaneously the conversation leads him to his final resolution
after which the first part of the film abruptly ends.

Figure 2." Simple Anal!i!" Scene! are colour coded.
-onny van as .:"(99; ;
)n terms of the larger framework of the editing the film develops conventionally,
however the two>part structure is nevertheless explicitly present. #he death of the protagonist
supports this argument and so does the change in narration. 5ike 0ashomons 0"12C3 overall
structure, the second part of the narrative is a frame narration of the events that have occurred
before Watanabes death.
"9
#he frame story, the funeral, is depicted as a scene of
remembrance and storytelling rather than a scene of action. #he editing rate contrasts the
inactivity of the second part of the film, because the cutting actually speeds up. )n fact the
funeral scene is the part that lifts the cutting rate of the whole film to an average shot length
0A53 of approximately fifteen seconds. )t is cut considerably faster than anything that
precedes it apart from scene three, but that only lasts for around eleven minutes. +f course
this can be seen as a contradiction, however this is where the temporal dimension is of
significance. #he part before Watanabes death spans about two weeks of story time yet it is
given two>thirds of screen time. 7ontrarily the funeral scene itself only represents one night,
but in which Watanabes actions over six months are narrated through flashbacks. ince
within the frame narration a considerable amount of time needs to accounted for, the cutting
speeds up. #here are twelve flashbacks, excluding the story offered by the policeman, and
after each flashback the film cuts back to the funeral. #he cutting back and forth between the
frame story and the embedded story, which is Watanabes story, condenses time considerably.
#he first part of the film has a similar se'uence in terms of cutting rate as well as
content. #he flashbacks in part two portrays Watanabes struggle to have the playground built.
)n the same way that Watanabe is forced to go from pillar to post, the deputation of mothers
who initially tried to petition the playground are also sent from section to section until they
end up where they started. #his se'uence causes the trendline to rise significantly after a low
in A5. #he se'uence manages to express through editing the frustrating feeling of being sent
from pillar to post only to be left empty>handed. Additionally this se'uence has also
condensed story time.
#o conclude the trendline of the second part of the film resembles the trendline of the
whole film, as if the second part from editing perspective is constructed similarly. #he films
narrative is constructed symmetrically through the repetition of motifs, for example the hat>
motif, but more importantly the repetitive absence of Watanabe and persistent gaps in the plot
are also found in both parts of the film
":
. Watanabes absence in the second part is significant
"9
?. 8ramaggiore and #. Wallis, Film Studies: A "ritical Introduction (
nd
ed. 05ondon4 5aurence King
8ublsihing4 (CC:3, :/>:;.
":
tephen 8rince, The /arrior-s "inema: The "inema o% Akira (urosa)a 08rinceton4 8rinceton 6niversity
8ress, "1113, "C(.
-onny van as .:"(99; 9
for the whole film, because in hindsight it 'uestions the representation of the protagonist in
the first part of the film.
#. Shot Scale and $o%ile Framing
)t is has been argued that Ikiru is in a sense a film about reality and illusion. Watanabes
search for meaning and truth in life commences in the first part of the film and when there is
finally some promise of fulfilment, the film cuts to his funeral. #he second part too is about
the search for truth, in this case his mourners search for the true Watanabe. We as spectators
are given a truth that is mediated, through the flashbacks of others.
"1
While this sub!ectivity is
fairly clear as a result of the frame narration, part one of the film structurally foregrounds
sub!ectivity and mediation through unconventional framing, reframing and =false or =denied
point of view shots.
(C

Figure 3." Shot !cale anal!i!" &arr Salt'! terminolog
)n retrospect mediation is foregrounded from shot one onwards, a medium close>up
0?763 of a x>ray of Watanabes stomach. #his is a diegetically impossible image
("
, because
Watanabes has not visited the hospital for an x>ray as of yet. As ?itsuhiro *oshimoto puts it
"1
8rince, "C(>"C..
(C
*oshimoto, "1;>"19.
("
)bidem, "12.
-onny van as .:"(99; :
strongly, =by starting with an impossible image, the film immediately calls attention to the
problem of point of view.
((

#he following analysis examines how the framing and reframing of Ikiru-s shots adds
to the overall effect of the narrative form. Also this will identify Kurosawas assimilation and
transformation of some of classical <ollywoods framing functions. )n order to determine
where these shots or shot se'uences occur movement within frame and shot scale were
analysed in cinemetrics. @or the purpose of the analysis it seems that there are a large number
of still shots in the film, but this is deceptive as only the =moving shots that result in either
reframing or clear changes of spatial compositions have been taken in account. )n other words
when a camera tracks in close>up 0763, simply to keep the moving character in frame the
graph ticks the shot as a still. #herefore there are in fact many more moving shots in the film
than the graph indicates 0figure /3.

Figure #." (amera $ovement
#he medium shots 0?3 and medium close>ups 0?763 in particular are utilised to
raise 'uestions about identification and Watanabes position as a sub!ect. #he bar se'uence in
which Watanabe and the writer meet the displays a number of ":C degree violations that
startle the spectator. #he spatial relations are confused but nevertheless easily restored,
because of the tight framing. #his restoration of spatial relation allows the shots to function on
((
)bidem, "12.
-onny van as .:"(99; 1
a different level, namely that these violations 'uestion identification, or rather comment on it.
#he 'uestion of identity on a narrative level is conveyed by the writers mis!udgment about
Watanabes =heroic attitude towards life in the face of death. #he writer is seen to recognise
his mistake when =towards the end of the nightlife se'uence, the writer expresses his feeling
of repulsion for Watanabe, who appears by this time only as the embodiment of death.
(.
#he
cutting between medium shots and medium close>ups allows for this confusion to be
expressed stylistically.
*oshimoto explains that =Watanabe is consistently denied the sub!ect position of the
look,
(/
tephen 8rince envisions this as a Brecthian techni'ue that denies the spectator
identification with Watanabe.
(2
Kurosawas use of reframing is particularly effective in
achieving this distancing. #he first scene with #oyo is a prime example of this techni'ue.
When Watanabe hears a female voice calling him he looks left and right to find the person in
'uestion. #he shot ends with Watanabe more or less looking at the camera. #he next shot
shows #oyo running straight at the camera. #he shot is seemingly set up as a point of view
shot, however as #oyo stops she looks off centre. #he camera tracks backwards reframing
from #oyos close>up to a two>shot of the pair. <ad the shot been cut in stead of reframed the
effect would have been lost. Again the point of view shot is revealed to be deceitful and subtly
frustrates the identification process. We find a similar instance when Watanabe and #oyo walk
back from the foreign goods shop. )n the preceding shot Watanabe follows #oyo out of frame
and when in the next shot the camera follows #oyo diagonally behind her we assume we have
taken the sub!ect position of Watanabe. <owever after #oyo checks over her shoulder to look
at Watanabe he moves forward within frame creating a two>shot.
#he multiple character shots, be it a medium close>ups, medium shots, medium long
shots or long shots are framed in such a way that it allows other characters to demand the
attention in the frame. )n many of these shots Watanabe is in the foreground, but either his
back faces the frame or his head is bowed in such a way that his facial features are unclear
and his expressions arent perceivable. +n the contrary his colleagues are predominantly in an
observational position in relation to Watanabe.
(;
#hese stylistic treatments correspond with
other formal dimensions that 'uestion Watanabes representation. )n the same way that the
narrative elliptical gaps and frame narration constantly 'uestion the status of the films
narration the editing and cinematography supports this structure.
(.
)bidem, (CC.
(/
)bidem, "1;.
(2
8rince, "CC.
(;
*oshimoto, "19.
-onny van as .:"(99; "C
). (onclu!ion
)n a sense this paper is merely a demonstration of cinemetricss usefulness when one analyses
the individual film. ome of the topics, such as genre and auteur theory, are superficially
explored to show that the problems associated with these theories are easily identified. alt
argues that these problems possible arise from the fact that much of these theorisations are
based on misinterpreted or even incorrect data.
(9
Eeneralising conclusion can only be
concretely drawn when the ob!ect of the film studies, the individual film, is given a proper
analysis, because Kthe obvious factors that influence the creation of a film D previous films,
the technical and other production constraints from the inside of film industry and craft, and
the more general influence of society and culture D all act through individual fillm>makers.
(:

By collecting the data that result from these analyses, one can draw comparisons that cross
historical and cultural boundaries.
)deally when similar statistical analysis are documented for all Kurosawas films, there
will be more data available that could support some of the more interpretive claims that have
been made in this paper. )n particular Kurosawas experimentation with form could be traced
with the help cinemetrics by analysing all of Kurosawas films. $ust as Kurosawas alleged
assimilation and transformation of the classical <ollywood style should be supported by
conclusive data.
Bibliography
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(9
alt, (2.
(:
alt, (..
-onny van as .:"(99; ""
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Filmography
Drunken Angel& -L-. -irected by Akira Kurosawa. "1/:H 5ondon4 British @ilm )nstitute,
(CC2.
-onny van as .:"(99; "(
I 2ive in Fear& -L-. -irected by Akira Kurosawa. "122H 5ondon4 British @ilm )nstitute,
(CC2.
Ikiru& -L-. -irected by Akira Kurosawa. "12(H 5ondon4 British @ilm )nstitute, (CC..
Stray Dog& -L-. -irected by Akira Kurosawa. "1/1H #he %etherlands4 #otal @ilm <ome
Bntertainment, (CC2.
The .ad Slee! /ell& -L-. -irected by Akira Kurosawa. "1;CH #he %etherlands4 #otal @ilm
<ome Bntertainment, (CC2.
-onny van as .:"(99; ".