Many years ago, when I had just left the Navy, and I wasn’t sure what I wanted to “do,” I took a graduate English class at SDSU with Professor Gerald Butler. I remember the details of the class much better than I remember many events that happened at that same time because I am constantly reminded of it whenever I read a book, watch a movie, look at a piece of art, or listen to music. The lesson plan was how to evaluate literature according to four fundamental critical stances: structure, theme, aesthetics of pleasure, and a fourth, somewhat ambiguous philosophical idea about a work “interacting” with the reader.

Structure and theme, of course, are the most common ways that academia looks at literature. The pleasure-based aesthetics theory derived from Epicurus, Kant, and Santayana, among others. For the fourth idea, Dr. Butler argued that when one read great literature, the reader was forced to interact with the work in such a way that a completely different view of reality was revealed. The new view of reality could be intensely disturbing, and usually was in the best literature, but it was the interactive revelation of a unique world-view that made the work great. I’m still working out for myself what it means that a work “interacts” with me.

Tonight I watched Ikiru (directed by Akira Kurosawa) and I felt the presence of the film; as I watched it, I understood I was breathing new air. I could explain my enjoyment of the film in the way the story was told, the acting, the shots (structural criticism), or that the theme of carpe diem is an important reminder of the tenuous, ever-changing world we live in (thematic), or that a whole combination of delightful echoes resonated with me in the movie’s irony, intelligence, cultural references, and hidden meanings (pleasure). But it is something else that makes this movie great, it’s a movie that reaches out and takes you inside your own being, dares you to face the bureaucrat in your soul. What will you do with the piles of busy work you have accumulated there?

I had to watch several times the amazing scene with the lead, Takashi Shimura (he would later star as the head samurai in The Seven Samurai), singing the theme song of the movie as he sits in a Tokyo bar.

“The Gondola Song” (a song popular in Japan in 1915):

Life is brief.
Fall in love, maidens,
Before the crimson bloom fades from your lips,
Before the tides of passion cool within you,
For those of you who know no tomorrow…

Life is brief.
Fall in love, maidens,
Before the raven tresses begin to fade,
Before the flame in your hearts flicker and die,
For those to whom today will never return.

I don’t know how a person can watch this scene and not feel one’s life being towed away, given a wax and a valve adjustment, and then returned spotless and ready to drive. I don’t mean that you’ll feel a pandering sentimental catharsis, but that you will be given a metaphysical tune-up.

Another aspect of the film that I find fascinating is the relationship of the main character’s stomach cancer to the Japanese concept of hara (belly). An article from the Japan Times, “Linguists gutted by body-talk blight: Traditional expressions are dying out as thought patterns change,” discusses how Japanese used to have a whole range of body-centric phrases linked to the concept of the belly as the seat of the soul. “Used to have” because the phrases are dying out in modern Japanese.

Perhaps this connection to hara (instead of to our sentimental hearts or crazy heads) is what Professor Butler was getting at when he tried to explain the effect great art has on its audience. Maybe the metaphor of “seeing” a new world was located in the wrong body part. When a book or a movie profoundly affects me, I don’t feel I’m seeing a new world-view, but more like I’ve been punched in the belly, or that I have to hana o neru (work it over in my guts).

Ikiru joins the list of Japanese movies that have punched me right in the belly.

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