Thursday, October 1, 2015

Ikiru, or the power of abduction

A scene from Ikiru
Ikiru (To Live) is a great movie by Akira Kurosawa, one of the best two Japanese filmmakers of the mid-twentieth century (the other one is Yasihiro Ozu). Perhaps not as well known as Seven Samurai or Dersu Uzala, this film has many followers and its argument lends itself to curious considerations.
The protagonist, Kanji Watanabe, has been working for 30 years in the bureaucracy of the City of Tokyo. As the narrator says at the beginning of the film, in these 30 years he has not lived. Or in the words of Toyo, his young employee, he has behaved like a mummy. Then he learns that he suffers from stomach cancer and has less than a year to live. As I mentioned in another post in this blog, by 1952, the year the movie was released, a cancer diagnosis was equivalent to a death sentence. Watanabe discovers the value of life and tries to start living.After trying without success to drown his sorrow in pleasure, he decides to start a crusade for the sanitation of some land and the building of a playground. Although it costs him a huge effort, because the bureaucracy makes a tooth and nail resistance, he finally succeeds. The last fifty minutes of the film are devoted to Watanabe’s funeral, with several flashbacks showing his fight against the bureaucracy.

When I first saw Ikiru, I was surprised by its points of resemblance to a classic Japanese folk tale, The Ogre of Rashomon. In this story, the Rashomon gate in Kyoto is infested by an ogre, who at night attacks passersby. A knight named Watanabe wants to rid Kyoto of the monster, goes to Rashomon gate at night and attacks the ogre, who after a long struggle is expelled forever.
Notice that the name of the protagonist in both stories is the same. The monster beaten by the hero also resembles the bureaucracy, the ogre that oppresses citizens by diverting them to always another department. But was this Kurosawa’s intention? Was the filmmaker, director and co-writer of Ikiru, aware of the legend about the ogre of Rashomon?
Rashomon original poster
He was! Another of his films is Rashomon, released two years before Ikiru, that owes its title to the Rashomon gate. The script of this film, also co-written by Kurosawa, is based on two stories, Rashomon and In the forest, by Ryanosuke Akutagawa, a Japanese writer of the early twentieth century. At one point in the film, one of the characters says: In this gate, long ago, there was an evil ogre who fled from a man.
It seems, therefore, that my deduction of the relationship between Ikiru and the classic Japanese folk tale may be plausible, even though I haven’t seen references anywhere. Do my readers know of any? Do you think that the inklings I have provided are enough to deduce that this relationship could be a historical fact? Akira Kurosawa, who could confirm it or deny it definitely, can’t do it now.
In passing, I want to point at the difference (very clear in this example) between the methods of the experimental sciences and those of history. While mathematics are based on a completely secure method of reasoning (deduction), and experimental sciences use another, less safe but very reliable (induction), history and the other human sciences rely primarily on the least secure of all, abduction, which consists of drawing conclusions from the similarities between two situations (as I have done here) and seek for documents that may corroborate them. It is clear that historical facts are not repeatable and cannot be subjected to experimentation, but abductive methods can, even so, achieve a degree of conviction almost as high as that reached in other sciences. For example, who would question the reality of the murder of Julius Caesar?


Manuel Alfonseca

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