“Ikiru” and the Sound of Silence

Hello dear readers.  I hope my abrupt departure has not caused anyone to go running to hills in fear that my life has been cut short by a “death panel” or some other such nonsense concocted by the Party Out of Power.  Sorry to drop in political commentary, but Kurosawa’s film Ikiru cannot help but make one think of the health care debate since it is about a man finding out he has only 6 moths to live and then trying to come to grips with his life and giving his remaining days meaning.  Granted, had this film taken place today, he might have had more time to live, but in the end, the question of the film is, “what has my life meant?”  But I’m not here to really discuss the film’s plot, but rather it’s sound and music…or rather, it’s lack.  One of the truly remarkable things about Kurosawa’s use of sound in this film is his manipulation of silence.

The first true silence occurs after our protagonist has received the news of his condition.  Kanji Watanabe (played beautifully by Takashi Shimura in one of his greatest roles), walks along a street but there is no sound.  As the scene continues, we realize that there isn’t just no sound indicating a quiet street, but literally no sound.  It is not until Watanabe takes a step into the street and is almost run down that the cacophony of the street comes screaming onto the audiotrack.  In many ways, this moment marks a structural break in the film, as it is this moment that Watanabe makes the decision that something has to change in his life.  Kurosawa uses similar aural cues in subsequent scenes to mark, literally, life-changing decisions of Watanabe’s (first the deafening sound of a train and then a chorus of ‘Happy Birthday’ – royalties paid to the estate of Patty and Mildred Hill? – in a restaurant).

But where Kurosawa’s use of silence is at its peak is in the last third of the film during the wake for Watanabe (yes, for the last 50 minutes of the film, the lead character is absent except for a photo and flashbacks).  To begin with, there is no underscoring for the wake scenes.  As recounted in Teruyo Nogami’s memoir, Waiting on the Weather: Making Movies with Akira Kurosawa, composer Fumio Hayasaka had written music for the scene, but after viewing a rough cut with the score, Kurosawa decided that the music overwhelmed the sequences and ordered it cut out.  The resulting sequence does indeed incur most of it’s power precisely becuase there is no score that could have made it more sentimental by it’s presence.  Instead, the absence of music creates another aural hole which parallels many of the temporal holes that the plot’s construction creates (a hole most visibly obvious by the absence of Watanabe as a living person in the last third of the film).

Where the silence is most deafening is when, many times, in the transition from flashback to present, the flashback will end with a long shot of a slowly weakening Watanabe in silence, and that silence will continue for a beat into the present and then the people at the wake will resume talking.  It is almost as if Kurosawa left the silent beat prior to saying ‘action’ in the final cut of the film.  In the end, he created a hole in the audiotrack, one that heightens the absence of the character of Watanabe.

Stephen Prince in The Warrior’s Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa comments on the temporal “ellipses” in the film’s plot – how Watanabe will be absent and we’ll learn of his absence though dialogue from his co-workers or family, or though the occasional narrator.  I believe that Kurosawa very consciously uses these aural gaps in the wake scene to much the same end, just as Watanabe’s phyiscal absence to his co-workers is as if he is already fading from this world, the aural absence of sound reminds us of the loss.  The large silence on the street is almost our theme: Watanabe is so shocked by the news of his illness that he feels as if death has already taken him, but he returns when the sound returns – shocking both him and the viewer.

Kurosawa is a master of manipulating sound in his films, something that is rarely commented on by critics.  Yes, they will mention things such as the street scene, but I have yet to see anyone provide a description as detailed as those given to his visual technique.  It is my hope to one day rectify this deficiency.

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