To Live is an example of a “fully developed” Kurosawa cinematic geometry. Signifiers are organized in serial order, an order that in none the less determined by the unambiguous narrative. The first two thirds of the story deal with the protagonist discovering he has terminal cancer and trying all the things he has been missing in his life, finally coming to the realization that he still has something to offer society. The final third is told in flashbacks by his associates as they sit and drink at his funeral.
Both movements of the film make use of flashbacks, though the temporal order is reversed. In the first they are directly related to what he is doing as they serve as his life flashing before his eyes. Visual “rhyming” is employed wherein a baseball bat triggers a flashback to a baseball game and his action in the “present day” room mirror his movements in the flashback setting. In the second movement the flashbacks fill in the time wherein he created his major accomplishment, the building of a park, and are spread evenly to convey a “real time.” The story of the second movement tends towards not showing actual import events, thus giving the impression of the narrative rather than a traditional western showing of it. We are shown the perseverance of the main character in examples of tough situations, but no decisive moments. We even see him, though the flashback of a beat cop, before he dies, but we don’t see the death itself.
In his article, “Reconstructing Modernism: Japanese Film and the Post-Modern Context,” Scott Nygren sees his actions in the first movement as a play between Japanese traditional and American imposed values. Upon finding of his impending death, the main character breaks from the institutionalization of his job and attempts to find his individualism. He tried in a “western” way, by going to night club and strip clubs, then seeing the Japanese way, as a person capable of independent choices and initiation of action. Nygren sees this as a subtle blow at western selfishness and influence on Japan, as well as the western view that the traditional authoritarian customs render men incapable of action.
I found the film quite enjoyable and was intrigued by his use of the two structures. The images of bureaucracy, though Japanese, strike a chord today with my own experience and remind me of numerable films where stacks of paper have signified the exact some disabilities. I was not troubled, as some said they were, by the “dropping” of characters once they have outlived their usefulness and consider that that serves to make the story, allegorical, even fantastic, in spite of its realistic setting and characters.