A Ku Indeed!

Confucianism and Taoism on Kurosawa

Posted in Life by Chris on June 25, 2008

In the “In Search of: Asian Films” thread I received a number of good suggestions about possible films to use in my new Asian Ethics course this fall. Although I’ve made a list of the films recommended to view, for now I’ve decided (partly due to time constraints between now and then) to go with an oldie but a goodie, Ikiru. This has long been one of my all-time favorite films. In discussion with Alexus in that thread, it occurred to me that I could use Ikiru to ask students to compare and contrast Confucian and Taoist perspectives on the theme of the movie. Originally I had thought of it only from a (admittedly obvious) Confucian point of view, but perhaps possible difference in ways of interpreting the movie might prove more interesting as the subject of a paper. I’m not sure — I’ll have to give it a shot and see how it turns out.

If you haven’t seen Ikiru, there are some minor spoilers ahead. The movie is much like a film version of Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich — a man (Mr. Watanabe) learns at the start of the film that he has six months to live (stomach cancer). From that point on, he is jolted out of what we afterwards learn was his almost life long thoughtless immersion into the every day conformity of life and its rituals. From a Heideggerian perspective, he awakens from his participation as a mindless member of “the They”; for Kierkegaard, he is shaken from his unconscious despair (where his spirit is “sleeping”, as K says in Sickness Unto Death). For Nietzsche, he’s jolted from herd life.

Of course, such a jolt leaves a person feeling somewhat “homeless.” The terminal diagnosis (as Heidegger would agree — intensive death anxiety can be a real slap in the face and eye opener!) wakes him up from his long “sleep” and into a state of restless confusion. He realizes that he must do something, but he doesn’t know what. He wanders, first seeking hedonism, then other unsatisfactory attachments. As the movie progresses, he decides to throw his life into a project — the building of a park for some small children (he was a government functionary before). In the face of his impending death, he wants to make a contribution, to rejoin the community of the “living” in a fully passionate way. As Kurosawa titles the movie, ikiru, he wants “to live” — something he hasn’t done in a long time.

I won’t add more spoilers (these aren’t too bad, actually, if you’d like to see the film). So how about the paper? What I’m thinking here (broadly at this point) is this: perhaps students might be asked to talk about whether the Confucian and Taoist would agree on how to view Watanabee’s original “sleeping” state (his thoughtless conformity). Second, they could analyze (through comparison and contrast) whether Watanabe’s attempts to turn to hedonistic pursuits (for one) are the right way to go. Third, they would be asked to analyze how to interpret from these two perspectives Watanabe’s decision to finally passionately devote his remaining days to rejoining the human community through a project that has personal and social meaning.

Basically, the paper would do this: I’d ask the students to envision a Confucian and a Taoist sitting in the theater watching the film taking notes. Where would their notes converge in perspective (if anywhere)? Where would they diverge (if anywhere)? And what does this comparison reveal about their similarities (if any) and differences (if any)?

Any thoughts out there on this (seeing the film from these two perspectives)? If you haven’t seen this film, by the way, you should. Anything you would add to a paper of this kind (10 pages)?

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3 Responses

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  1. […] are lining up this week to see the John Woo epic Red Cliff. On a more intellectual note: Chris at A Ku Indeed! blogs on Confucianism, Taoism, and the films of […]

  2. Mindblowing Maahiya said, on July 22, 2008 at 7:20 am

    A taoist would not take notes. A confucian might.

    Same with analyzing the movie later.

  3. Chris said, on July 22, 2008 at 7:42 am

    I have no doubt that all 20 of the students in the class will read that response, transform mysteriously into Taoists, and suggest that there is no reason to write (or even think about) the paper! 🙂


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