After World War II, the victorious allies held a War Crimes trial in Japan, just like the one in Nuremberg.
The culpability of high-ranking Japanese officials was far less clear than the Nazis.
In Japanese culture, decisions are made by consensus. So it’s hard to know exactly who came up with the bad ideas. And it’s doubly hard for wise people who know they are bad ideas to stick their neck out and veto them.
It wasn’t one man’s idea to invade China; it happened incrementally and haphazardly. Due to the lack of planning, the hundreds of thousands of Japanese soldiers were ill-equipped and without food. The looting and massacres were not a coordinated plan; they were a result of a pathetically unplanned invasion.
There were sensible Japanese officers who recognized that going to war with the United States was suicidal hubris. But none of them had the guts to criticize the consensus decision to attack Pearl Harbor.
Japan’s consensus culture looked unbelievably dumb to a brave individualist like Akira Kurosawa. His classic film “Ikiru” is about a Japanese man – Kanji Watanabe – who finally stops going with the flow.
In the very first scene, the narrator tells us that Mr. Watanabe has incurable stomach cancer.
For decades, Watanabe has been working as a mid-level bureaucrat in Tokyo’s Public Works department. It sounds kind of important but it isn’t. Because of Japan’s consensus culture, nothing ever gets done. Watanabe is just a paper pusher who pretends to look busy all day.
Now that he knows he is dying, the old man suddenly realizes that he has completely wasted his life.
Sounds depressing, right? Not at all. Kanji Watanabe immediately decides to change everything. On the first night, he goes out to Tokyo’s red-light district and blows money on saké and prostitutes. Then he strikes up a sugar daddy friendship with a fun-loving young woman from the office.
Finally, Watanabe decides to use his governmental position for good for the first time. He personally spearheads an initiative to fill in a malarial swamp in a poor neighborhood and turn it into a playground.
Sounds like a sentimental Movie of the Week, right? Actually no.
The final act isn’t about Kanji Watanabe at all. It takes place at his wake.
Watanabe’s playground has transformed a neighborhood for the better, and a room full of fellow bureaucrats try to comprehend how and why he did it. But they never understand. It’s amusing to watch them fumble their words to try to remain in the consensus. They admire Watanabe’s personal initiative, but they can’t imagine going out on a limb themselves.
Kurosawa demonstrates how pathetic it is to have an entire country of followers who are pathologically averse to demonstrating leadership or originality.
“Ikiru” is a tear-jerker. But it’s also a vicious anti-Japan takedown. Mid-20th Century Japan had serious fundamental problems and the great Akira Kurosawa doesn’t pull any punches in diagnosing them.
At its heart, “Ikiru” is an ode to rugged American individualism. Cowardly consensus culture clearly was not working for Japan.