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a fable of working life and finding meaning at the eleventh hour
on 24 January 2017
Kanji Watanabe is a haunting figure, whose pathos comes back to you days after seeing him. Even if, at times, that pathos seemed overly milked, the slow-to-change expressions and hang-dog look conveying his essential nature. In the end he is profoundly moving, an emblem of the working man slowly coming to recognise the truth of his life, the endless drudgery, now signalled to end in a few months. And here, too, he is tentative, trying the obvious means of self-forgetting, until he hits on the idea of a children's playground, at a most surprising moment, watching a stuffed rabbit leap across a cafe table. The structure is highly unusual, perhaps dividing into three opening chapters where he discovers his illness, then tries to live it up in the company of a young novelist he just met, traipsing around all the night haunts; then with a young woman from work whose youth and vivaciousness he finds irresistible. Once he discovers his true calling we only see him at one remove, remembered by his fellow bureaucrats in a rapid series of short flashbacks. The second section of the film, lasting about 45 minutes (half as long as the first), is essentially set at his wake, with these flashbacks giving the impression it is picking up momentum, or turning on a spot, but giving the hero a kind of aura which marks him out as both an everyman and a truly exceptional human being, in a way that anyone could achieve. Kurosawa's style is slightly oppressive and can seem too blatant; it has a Dickensian sense of red tape and the grind of working life; and also refers to Faust, while having aspects of a fable. A comparison with Billy Wilder's The Apartment also seems to suggest itself, even though Jack Lemmon is superficially very different - and talks a lot faster! Also a sense of Twelve Angry Men at the final reckoning being thrashed out, trying in a claustrophobic group to get to the heart of what his actions meant. However you see it, Watanabe is a figure you remember.