We watched Akira Kurisawa’s Ikuru the other night. It’s so beautiful – mournful and hopeful, discouraging and life-affirming all at the same time, and it seems to me to portray certain tenets of Ordinaryism. In English the title means “To Live,” and the film tells the story of Kanji Watanabe, a middle-aged, middle management bureaucrat.
He works at city hall, a kafkaesque maze of offices, hallways and stairways. Every surface is covered with teetering piles of paperwork, which threaten to cave in and bury the (mostly) men who work there. They keep their heads down as they do their monotonous work, and seem to do just enough to get by. A group of women complain about a disease and mosquito-infested cesspool, and they’re driven from department to department in a sort of hopeless joke that everybody is in on but them. Everybody knows that nobody is going to help them.
Watanabe, a quiet man with huge, expressive frightened-rabbit eyes, learns that he has stomach cancer, and realizes he has less than a year to live. He’s not ready to die, because he’s never really lived. The next few days unfold in great detail – he meets a novelist, and they hit all the nightspots. He meets a young woman from his office who needs his help to quit her job. And then in an odd but oddly effective twist, the film shifts to six months later, and is told in a series of flashbacks by Watanabe’s co-workers.
So that’s the story. And you should know that it’s visually beautiful – full of graceful, thoughtful space and movement. As Watanabe is consumed with self-reflection, as he examines his life, we see him through windows, through waving panes of glass, in mirrors, through gleaming rows of glasses. The film itself has a pale, cloudy light that washes over you in waves as you watch.
And now to the Ordinaryism. From the first, Watanabe is established as an ordinary man. Nothing about his life is glamorous or even all that interesting, until we learn that he’s going to die. And here’s the beautiful extraordinary ordinary part…in his search for some understanding of what it means to live, he doesn’t become a less ordinary person, he doesn’t have a fling with a celebrity or go on an extravagant shopping spree or hang glide over a volcano. (As he might do in a Hollywood film.) He goes back to work! Back to his same job. He finds his way after spending some time with the young woman who recently quit her job. She represents life to him. She’s brimming over with it, she laughs, she chatters, she eats. (Everywhere they go, she eats her food and Watanbe’s as well, because he has no appetite. I love the fact that her hunger and her obvious enjoyment of food is one of the things that marks her as bright and vital.)
- “…somehow I was drawn to you.” He explains to her. “Once when I was a child, I almost drowned. It’s just like that feeling. Darkness everywhere, and nothing for me to hold onto, no matter how hard I try. There’s just you.”
- “What help am I?”
- “You – just to look at you makes me feel better. It warms this – this mummy’s heart of mine. And you’re so kind to me. No; that’s not it. You’re so young, so healthy. No; that’s not it either… You’re so full of life. And me… I’m jealous of that. If I could be like you for just one day before I died. I won’t be able to die unless I can do that. I want to do
And do you know what she does that makes her so happy and glad to be alive? She works in a factory! Making toy rabbits. But she loves the toy rabbits, and she says that while she makes them she feels as though she’s playing with every baby in Japan. She tells him he should make something. And that’s when it all becomes clear to him, and he goes back to his job and pursues it with a passion, and uses his office to make something good. Because, like everybody else in the world, he’s been extraordinary all along. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “No work is insignificant. All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.”
Holy smoke! I’ve gone on so much longer and more tediously than I intended! I apologize. I would like to tell you about these ice creams though. I was seized with a desire to make ice cream, as one usually is the coldest week of the year! I wanted to try something a little different. The first ice cream is sugar free. It’s made with honey!! I’ve made honey ice cream in the past, but it had sugar, too, and this one doesn’t. It does have cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, allspice and cayenne. I thought it was so good! It had such a lovely hot and spicy zing to go with it’s cool creamy sweetness. The second ice cream had no eggs. Instead of a custard, I thickened the milk by cooking it down, the way one would make dulce de leche or ribadi. I also cooked it with ground almonds and coconut, and then I added a bit of cardamom. I thought it was lovely as well. It had a nice texture, with the coconut. I might try the same method again without the coconut and almonds, though, just to see how it turns out!!
Here’s Takashi Shimura (as Kanji Wantanabe) singing Gondola No Uta in his haunting voice.
SPICY HONEY ICE CREAM
1/2 cup honey
1 cup milk
2 t vanilla
1 t cinnamon
1/2 t ginger
large pinch each nutmeg, allspice and cayenne
2 t cornstarch
1 t salt
1 cup heavy cream
In a small saucepan over medium-high heat, bring the honey to a boil. Take from the heat and allow to cool for a minute or two.
In a medium saucepan over medium-low heat, warm the milk, spices and vanilla.
In a medium-sized bowl whisk the eggs, cornstarch and salt until frothy.
Whisking all the while, pour the honey into the eggs in a thin stream. Then pour the milk into the eggs in a thin stream (still whisking!!) Return the mixture to the medium-sized saucepan over low heat. Warm, stirring constantly, until it thickens enough to lightly coat the back of a spoon. I did ten minutes, I think.
Pour into a bowl, stirring constantly. Then pour into another cool bowl (this two-bowl method is my sneaky trick for cooling it a bit faster). Cover and chill in the fridge 5 hours to overnight.
Stir in one cup of heavy cream, and freeze according to your ice cream maker’s instructions.
ALMOND COCONUT ICE CREAM
3 cups milk
1/2 cup sliced almonds
2/4 cup sweetened flaked coconut
2 t vanilla
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 t cardamom
1 cup heavy cream
Combine all of the ingredients except the heavy cream in a blender or food processor and process till quite smooth.
Transfer to a medium-sized saucepan over medium heat, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low, and cook for about an hour, till it’s reduced by about 1 cup. It should be about the consistency of heavy cream, but a little chunky.
Allow to cool for a few minutes, and then blend again until quite smooth.
Cover and chill for 5 hours to overnight.
Stir in the heavy cream, and freeze according to your ice cream maker’s instructions.