“I can’t remember a single thing I’ve done in that office.”
Living, Ikiru, Ivan Ilyich
This is a timeless tale and every time someone tells it they make a million dollars, as Kurt Vonnegut would say. A middle-aged man is told he has a terminal illness and realises that, for many years, perhaps for most of his life, he has not been truly alive. “I wasted time,” says Richard II, “and now doth time waste me.” With his remaining time the man becomes truly alive, so that he can die in peace. The story is a warning—you, too, could be this man. Queens have died young and fair. Live while you have the chance!
Living, the new Bill Nighy film, written by Kazuo Ishiguro, is the latest version of this story. Living is a remake of Ikiru, the 1952 Kurosawa film, which in turn was inspired by Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Each gives a slightly different answer to the question of what being alive means. Ishiguro has taken his childhood memories of suburban Surrey life and Englished Kurosawa’s film. It’s an excellent film well worth seeing but if you find yourself affected by the moral lesson, I recommend you read Tolstoy (very short) and watch Kurosawa. (In a break from usual practice, there are plot spoilers here but nothing too serious.) Let’s start with Tolstoy.
Ivan Ilyich is a Christian story. Ivan hates his family and becomes absorbed in petty careerist calculations and climbing the ladder of the provincial judiciary. His cancer is a metaphor for the way he has allowed matters of the soul to be overwhelmed with the trivial clutter of bourgeois status. Ivan maintains no human connections—but when he is dying, he establishes a connection with his servant, Gerasim. The people around him are the same: they care only about the position he will leave vacant at work, or the money he will bequeath.
Gerasim helps Ivan without despising it and Ivan comes to love him. Gerasim can help Ivan because he is the only character who accepts death, rather than ignores it. Through this connection, Ivan becomes selfless, is able to love his son, and his death is a moral rebirth.
This is a difficult message for a modern audience. When we say live like you’re going to die tomorrow we don’t mean, as Tolstoy does, that we ought to take better care to live a moral life and keep our souls in good repair. We are more likely to mean you ought to start completing your bucket list. In Living, when Mr Williams is diagnosed, he goes to Brighton with half his life savings, ashamed that he doesn’t know how to have fun. He goes on a binge. He skips work. He drifts around London. He finds his Gerasim in a young lady he works with who lives in the moment. It is a long way from Tolstoy.
Skipping work and making a friend is necessary but not sufficient. Mr Williams must do some good in the world if he wants to be morally and emotionally alive. After his episode of fun, he steams back to the local council where he holds a middle-manager position and starts agitating to get something done (I shan’t tell you what)—an attitude that runs entirely against the bureaucratic culture of procrastination and conformity. He stops at nothing to get this task completed. He dies a happy man, having come alive through his accomplishment.
Living is excellent, with splendid music, well-judged costumes, and Ishiguro’s characteristically precise but not idiosyncratic dialogue. It’s a shame, though, that it is set in the past. Tolstoy and Kurosawa made stories about their own times. Living is about the silent and repressed England of the 1950s. It will be too easy to see it as something that used to be true. I would have preferred Ishiguro to write about someone currently working in a law firm or consultancy or the modern civil service or best of all a charity.
Ishiguro doesn’t entirely follow Kurosawa. The scene at the doctor is much more dramatic in Kurosawa. Ishiguro creates tension out of the quiet resignation Mr Williams shows in the face of bad news that the doctor never quite spells out. Kurosawa’s character, Mr Watanabe, is told in the waiting room about the way doctors lie to patients and what their couched phrases really mean. Watanabe then interprets the doctor’s evasions without the doctor realising. This makes the central point that Tolstoy made: we are all in denial about death and must work to accept life for what it really is. Ishiguro doesn’t make that point with quite the same force.
In Ishiguro, the young lady is friendly and supportive, with one moment of reserve about this friendship of an older man and younger woman. In Kurosawa, she eventually becomes appalled and repulses Watanabe. It is her idea for him to do some work to make himself feel alive. Why don’t you make something? she admonishes. In Ishiguro that impulse comes, seemingly, out of nowhere. The son, too, is more selfish and venal in Kurosawa, more true to Tolstoy’s portrayal of selfishness. Watanabe’s character is much more alone in the world. (For a much harsher version of this dynamic, see Bergman’s Cries and Whispers.)
The conversation between colleagues about who gets the credit for Mr Williams’ achievement happens in a train carriage after the funeral in Ishiguro; Kurosawa puts that conversation at the wake. Furthermore, in Kurosawa, the conversation occurs over a bout of drinking. They make a series of pledges to live differently, inspired by Mr Watanabe’s example. Of course, this drunken exuberance is soon forgotten. Ishiguro’s version has no drinking, so there’s something less tragic (and more blunt) about the way the bureaucracy reclaims them. The drinking scene is a real fantasy escape and the contrast with reality is much sharper. Where Mr Watanabe disobeys his superior, Mr Williams begs him. Ishiguro removed Kurosawa’s gangsters and adds a sub-plot with a love story. Overall, what Ishiguro gains in his portrayal of English reserve he loses in the depiction of self-interest and tragic conformity.
By making the young woman more friendly, and bringing her back at the end, Ishiguro softens Kurosawa’s warning. It is worth contrasting the way the very end of each movie works. Kurosawa has the policeman come to the wake and explain what happened the night Mr Watanabe died. He doesn’t get much solace. The young man from the office is seen alone in the final scene, a tragic contrast to the happy children. Ishiguro puts the young man and policeman together in a much more reassuring scene. Where Kurosawa tried to alarm and depress us into change, Ishiguro wants to entice us. Perhaps Ishiguro’s is the nicer ending, much more watchable in some ways, but I imagine fewer people will still feels its effects a week later. The bureaucracy will reclaim them.
Tolstoy focussed on how much work it takes to maintain your soul. Kurosawa and Ishiguro focus on something more mundane but perhaps more important: how much work it takes to get out of your chair and go around the office making people do things so that a project, however small, can be prioritised and completed in good time. Living and Ikiru are excellent movies about the huge amount of work it takes to persuade people at the office to get something done. The pull of corporate inertia is strong. “The best way to protect your place in this world is to do nothing at all.” says the narrator of Ikiru, “But is this enough? Is this really enough?” Resisting that inertia is how you can improve the world. You will not be Joan of Arc. You are not going to convert a generation. You might get something small built, though. If you want to be really alive you must laugh and love and be merry, but you must also work in this way. Faith alone is not enough, your soul requires good deeds. Don’t go to your deathbed thinking you did not make good use of your time. That is what Kurosawa turned Tolstoy’s story into, and I am with Kurosawa. Good deeds matter in the here and now.
“I can’t remember a single thing I’ve done in that office,” says Mr Watanabe after thirty years. So go—act! Get out of your chair. Do some good while you still have time.
Nighy has previously said he will never retire.
This review has some interesting points.
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