Kurosawa, Miyazaki and the Flat of the Plains

Today I watched the old Kurosawa film, Ikiru. It’s a long and slow one like Seven Samurai, but is devoid of action or brave, admirable characters. Ikiru follows the path of a city councilor working away his life in a dusty, dry bureaucratic office job. One day he is diagnosed with cancer and realizes he has wasted his life and has nothing to show for it. So, the film follows him trying to find meaning in existence with the few months he has left to live. I’ll summarize the conclusion in the next paragraph, so don’t read it if you don’t want to hear the ending (it’s not a big surprise).

As per usual, Kurosawa makes a lot of social observations — the empty promises and posturing of government officials, the stupidly serious attitude in the workplace, the greedy son who cares less about his father than his father cares about his job. The basic moral of the story is that he dies a happy man because he made an honest effort at the end to improve and give to the community. Basically he fights with all of his power in the last months of his life to build a park for a poor community in his city. He meets resistance at every corner of the city council, including his own employees (who are lazy and full of beans) and the office of the mayor. At the end, of course, the people who all say they’ve been moved or changed so much by his efforts are the people who go right back to being selfish, lazy pricks at the office. Of course, the important thing is that the protagonist dies satisfied, and at least one person in the office is changed permanently as a result of his efforts.

This reminded me of an interview with the Japanese director of animated film at Studio Ghibli, Hayao Miyazaki, where he said that he did not think a person could really change the world with movies. Miyazaki seems obsessed with providing children with positive role models (he thinks strong role models for young girls are particularly lacking) and making movies that are intensely “feel-good”. Regardless if a pessimistic view of improvement through art represents Miyazaki’s real feelings or not, he’s inaccurate. Making a movie, particularly one that is as widely distributed as his, does make a difference in the world.

Miyazaki’s movies are basically sorcery. He’s the real wizard. My pointy hat is off to him. His movies are such sincere tear-jerkers that make you want to cry every time. The protagonist always finds something profoundly meaningful to live for in their life, and for the hour or two one watches the movie, the viewer does too. The people who see Miyazaki films and don’t notice their innate luminescence will still be haunted by them in all their future hellish incarnations.

It seems fairly reasonable to say that Miyazaki films are sincere artistic achievements. That they’re some sort of pinnacle of anime, and film-making in general. And art is interesting in this way. Art seems upon the surface to have no point beyond entertainment. But real art, things that are sincere exaggerations of the spirit, summon and reflect emotions in the observer. “Like the moon in a dew drop” each person reflects the intent of the artist while viewing it.

“Even if you do Zazen for only one hour, only once — the entire cosmos is changed”

This is interesting to me. True religion is for the people, for the masses, the flat plains of humanity. While profound intellectual ideas may be nice and celebrated by the smartest or wealthiest among us, these things do little to actually help the masses of humanity. They’re pontification upon problems that exist, not solutions to anything. And while helping people with humanitarian aid or social services are great, the amount of people that can be helped at once is limited and it isn’t something that necessarily gives people energy in the long run. So I’m not sure what Miyazaki thinks would change the world or help people.

Ah, I thought I was talking about Kurosawa here? Well, Seven Samurai is probably the best film of all time (watch the newest Criterion box-set release if you don’t believe me! *drool/salivate*). Kurosawa’s film-making techniques and delivery are very old-school; new filmmakers cannot be taken seriously when they genuinely deliver messages such as his. To be honest, Ikiru as a film is a little cheesier than some of Kurosawa’s other films of the era, and it’s pretty dated. But it is a genuinely touching film regardless. For instance, you’re able to see the whole plot before it happens and it still affects you.

To me, Miyazaki films present similar inspirational themes of self-empowerment as Kurosawa films, but with a method and medium that really reaches out to kids. In some ways that’s even more exciting, because the message he wants to convey in his animations is not something so easily transmitted within the limits of live-action film. The colorful and wild imagination of Miyazaki films, in some way shapes society even more than Kurosawa, since Miyazaki is directly reaching children.

That kind of transmission of imagination, that effect upon the whole, is much like how that recent Satoshi Kon film, Paprika, explored the idea that our imaginations are all accessed collectively on some deeper level. That the imagination of one person changes the imagination of the entire subconscious psyche. This is what Kurosawa and Miyazaki and any other great artist does, within their own realms of exploration. Their dreams actually project into our own. Miyazaki and Kurosawa are exemplars of artists creating works that gradually make people aware of what is important in a responsible, noble life (they’re saints, basically). This is something that rarely has visible, measurable results upon the viewership, but ultimately it does change some people’s perceptions.

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2 Responses to “Kurosawa, Miyazaki and the Flat of the Plains”

  1. “The Seven Samurai” is probably Kurosawa’s best film, except maybe for “Rashomon”. At any rate, it’s better than “Ikiru”, I think. The latter didn’t redeem its predictability.

    Nice blog, by the way.

  2. wizardsmoke Says:

    Thanks! I’m stoked when anyone finds this blog to be of interest.

    Yeah, I think Seven Samurai might be my favorite movie of all time! I just got the newest Criterion Box-set of it, and it’s a real gem. Two different commentary tracks! 3 different discs and extra documentaries and interviews with Kurosawa! *drool*

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