dir: Akira Kurosawa
An aged bureaucrat, entrenched in the job for thirty years, finds out he is dying. The pointless busy work he has juggled for the length of his career, the professional objective to help no-one and do nothing unless it falls within the narrow parameters of the job description, now no longer seems as wonderful a task as it used to.
He wonders what to do now that he no longer has uncertainty regarding his fate. He takes out some of the money he’s been squirreling away, to see what he’s been depriving himself of for so long. He doesn’t tell his annoying, selfish son what’s going on, since he’s a greedy and overbearing prat, and the son’s wife is a bit of a bitch as well.
He tries the whole ‘drinking and bitches’ routine, but finds he ultimately has no taste for either. He laments his wasted life, and the manner in which he has been more dead than alive since his wife’s death many decades ago. It hurts him that his son doesn’t love him as much as he loves his son, choosing not to remarry upon his wife’s death (when the son is still tiny) for the son’s benefit. Now all the son and his wife can do is berate the old man and pray for his death so they can get a hold of his money.
The film sounds like a laugh a minute, I know, but there’s more going on in the film than it trying to get you to slit your wrists. It does have a mournful tone in parts, elegiac throughout, but there is, in the end, a redemption of sorts for our hero, who’s anything but, really.
Watanabe (Takashi Shimura) is, until his diagnosis, the quintessential bureaucrat, surrounded by fortifications of paperwork, unhelpful to any that approach, only mindful of safeguarding his job and determined never to help the people who ask for his help. The irony is, of course, that he works for a division of local government called Public Affairs, which means his job is meant to be helping people living within his prefecture.
Helping people, of course, doesn’t interest him. As a recurrent element throughout the film, a group of poor women keep trying to get the bureaucrats to help them with a serious problem in their slum, but every desk sends them to a different desk so that the women, after traversing every room and floor in a large building, end up right back where they started.
Ah, the exquisite pointlessness and inefficiency of bureaucracy! You can only really appreciate the nuances of something like this if you’ve worked for the Beast directly. Sitting, as you would in the Beast’s belly, you’d know the peculiar feeling that eventually envelops all bureaucrats and renders them ineffectual as human beings. It’s this unwillingness to do anything, this resistance to helping people, and an Olympian disdain for other lowly humans which produces characters like the ones in this film.