Imagined Shores: on Frank Capra and Akira Kurosawa

Two stylized shots from Akira Kurosawa's "Ikiru" and Frank Capra's "It's A Wonderful Life", focusing in on the portraits of each film protagonist, set side by side.

What does it mean for someone to give to the world? To live their life as to leave an imprint? It’s easy to contemplate this concept as it relates to the types of figures who are name-dropped in the history books. The means to this is relatively straightforward (in idea if not execution) if you are an artist, or a scientist, or an activist, leader, even an athlete. You do what you’re best at and do it as well as you can (to put it simply). But what about the rest of us? For the majority of the human race, any individual’s scope of influence is a narrow groove, constrained to those immediately around them. Any impact is going to be brief and light-handed.

With this idea on my mind, I recently rewatched two films that explore the impact of the non-Exceptional individual- Kurosawa’s Ikiru (1952) and Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). In my opinion, both are great films (Ikiru is more complex, especially structurally, but that is not to dismiss the fact that It’s A Wonderful Life is of a higher quality than it is often given credit for). But right now, I don’t care so much to embark on a work of intricate criticism. Sitting at the brink of a new year, I just feel like pulling a few of the threads presented by both films.

It’s A Wonderful Life is often dismissed as a vintage piece of Christmas cheese, but I tend to align with Dan Schneider’s stance in Cosmoetica that it contains depths and quality of writing and acting which belie that assumption. It’s Jimmy Stewart’s performance, especially, that complicates the verdict of mere sappiness. In his George Bailey, we see a man who has his dreams deferred over and over, until this scarcely merits protest anymore. We see the little twinges of bitterness that arise in him and are repressed in favour of the jobs that need to be gotten on with. Even the triumphant ending, with its deeming of him as “the richest man in town” due to his neighbours’ and friends’ outpourings of appreciation and generosity, is tangled momentarily. See the look on his face, when someone reads a message from a former classmate-turned wealthy jet-setting businessman. Sam Wainwright, in a tossed-off telegram, can afford to offer a sum over 3 times the amount that had George contemplating suicide to save his business and family. This does not dull the show of generosity and the impact he has made on those around him- but it shades it with a reality.

And this plays into an aspect of the film’s themes that comes off as quite counter-intuitive today, more so than it likely did at the time of its release. How many times have you heard exhortations to “follow your dreams, follow your truth”? So often, restlessness is celebrated. How many times have you listened to the complaints of acquaintances, who long to “find themselves”? To jettison their “meaningless” jobs or dead-end lifestyle in favour of something….more?  Whether that “more” be a year of travel, or an attempt at that artwork that (they say) is waiting to be made, or a more glamorous career, or more exciting relationship?

George Bailey has been there. Thwarted in every attempt to leave Bedford Falls, cynically jeered at by Mr Potter, both loving his family and community- and being taunted by what could-have-been. But the simple reality is that what one is best at, what one is meant for, often doesn’t align with what you want. Change is not always inherently worthwhile. Dissatisfaction doesn’t devalue a good life. After his taste of living death, George can embrace his deafness, busted lip and even the prospect of jail as tokens of life (in a way that can seem out of reach for us without such angelic intervention).

That isn’t to say that a radical upheaval might not be for the best, for some kinds of lives. This is the conundrum grappled with by the protagonist of Kurosawa’s Ikiru, one Kanji Watanabe, as he is jolted into a reappraisal of his hitherto wasted life after learning that he has terminal stomach cancer. In a way, Watanabe’s existence is a “real” version of the kind of existential hell Clarence shows to Bailey in the other film. As Ikiru’s opening voiceover states of Watanabe: “he’s never actually lived. In fact, he’s been dead for some 20 years now.” The world would not substantively be different had Watanabe not lived. There are hints that this was not inevitable. We see, in his drawer, a proposal document from decades before, that has been repurposed as a mere blotter for his pen. Now, he is simply an individual representative of a bureaucratic culture as stagnant as the waters in the cesspool the local mothers futilely protest about to his uncaring colleagues.

But then comes his discovery of his illness (in a darkly funny scene where another patient warns him that the doctor’s verdict of “a mild ulcer” is a sure death sentence). It always strikes me, when I watch Ikiru, how Takashi Shimura is unrecognisable from his role in Seven Samurai. His Watanabe dominates the screen with a dazed, vulnerable, almost childlike affect. On finishing the film, what sticks in my reminiscences most is the contrast between his brimming eyes, and his reedy hoarse voice, like that of someone who is learning to use it for the first time and must push every utterance out.

A shot from Akira Kurosawa's "Ikiru", depicting Takashi Shimura in between two swings covered in snow at night.

In his first days of absence from work in almost 30 years, he wanders, attempts to decide what he should do with the sliver of life remaining to him. He makes an attempt at hedonistic pleasure-seeking on a drunken binge with a young man he meets in a bar. But that is somehow not enough for him. He then attempts to befriend a young woman, Toyo, who briefly worked in his office- clinging to her vivacity as if it could be a panacea for his emptiness. While this proves futile, as she grows creeped out by his gestures of friendship, their final encounter provides him with the impetus to seek real meaning. She talks about the satisfaction she takes in her new job at a toy factory, and asks why he doesn’t try to make something?

It’s this idea that enables Watanabe to pull resolve from the aether. There’s a wonderful moment, as he frantically leaves the cafe after their conversation, in which a group of party-goers in the background sing Happy Birthday to their companion, yet it feels as if it’s in honour of Watanabe’s rebirth as something more than the “living mummy” his co-workers mock him as.

The final third of the film, following his death, demonstrates to us the reality of this rebirth. His former colleagues attend a memorial at his family home, and what ensues is a kind of extended dialogue on influence, and the ways in which we are used by others. We learn that Watanabe was successful in getting a park built in a slum, on the site of a cesspool that the group of mothers had protested about at the beginning of the film. The other city council officials make dismissive remarks at the idea that Watanabe was responsible for the park, bicker, and take the opportunity to kiss the Deputy Mayor’s ass. Yet, as the night continues, they discuss the months before the man’s death, his sudden change in behaviour, and we see in flashbacks how Watanabe achieved his ends through sheer quiet tenacity.

It is interesting, from the beginning of the memorial, how there is a kind of tacit acknowledgement that Watanabe had done something significant. Yet it is not until the buffer of alcohol is in place that anyone can really acknowledge this aloud. When the bureaucrats piece together that he must have known he was dying, there is a sense of jubilation in the room. “We’d have done the same.” The night ends with them vowing to change, to sacrifice themselves, to be more like the deceased.

Of course, this goes the way of many a drunken vow. We then cut to the office to see a local citizen attempting to make a request only to have their concern callously redirected. One of the workers, Kimura, who had defended Watanabe at the memorial, stands up as if to speak, but bows beneath the blank glances. There is an excellent shot as he sits down again and appears to be drowning under the paperwork on his desk.  In the final scene, he stands on a bridge above the park, looking down on it. The question hangs there, open- this park is Watanabe’s physical legacy. He has done something, yet it is small and ephemeral. Will someone like Kimura broaden that by following his example?

I’ve always linked these films in my mind. Their approaches are different from the beginning on- contrast It’s A Wonderful Life’s whimsical angelic framing device with the ultrasound image of Watanabe’s diseased stomach that Ikiru confronts us with. Yet they are consonant in presenting the viewer with nuanced depictions of what it entails for someone to lead a meaningful life, and the sacrifice inherent in this. Neither Kurosawa nor Capra shies from illustrating the grim aspects that any such life will contain. Both show us varying types of evil, from the looming figurehead of Mr Potter, to the more generalised, banal kind manifested in the apathy of city council bureaucracy. Neither of these is vanquished by the acts of our protagonists, for such a feat is beyond the capacity of any individual.

One of the biggest contrasts between the films is that George Bailey is shown his impact, while Kanji Watanabe will never know his, for better or worse. It’s apt that only the narrative which introduces supernatural aspects can demonstrate this, for how can anyone, in the all-too-natural course of life, ever be certain of theirs? Only in art can we find some fragment of that angelic intervention- see the mirror of our prosaic dissatisfactions placed in some bigger context- see something resembling our efforts vindicated or condemned. We can know someone like Watanabe in a way his co-workers and family cannot, in a way no one can be known (or know themselves)- outside of fiction.

Whether you find yourself, at the start of 2024, a sleep-walking pre-diagnosis Watanabe, or a struggling Bailey, take heart in the fact that while life may not offer you refuge, a great film might be able to, even just for a couple hours. Take whatever you can from that, and may your ripples richen shores never imagined.

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If you enjoyed this review of Akira Kurosawa’s “Ikiru” and Frank Capra’s “It’s A Wonderful Life”, consider supporting us and get patron-only content on our Patreon page. This will help the growth of this site, the automachination YouTube channel, and the ArtiFact Podcast. Recent episodes include a review of Norman Maclean’s “A River Runs Through It”, a primer on the Gaza War with Middle East analyst Mouin Rabbani, and a discussion of decolonization in William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”.

More from Laura Woods: What Comes After: Reviewing Erich Maria Remarque’s “The Way Back”, Inner Terrains: Reviewing Terrence Malick’s “The New World”