Tuesday, November 28, 2006


A terminally ill middle aged man wants to live.

The film "Ikiru" brings to us this man's struggles to come to terms with his imminent death and his attempts to find a meaning for the rest of his life. "Ikiru" means "To live".

The film was directed by the Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa in 1952, writen by Shinobu Hashimoto and Akira Kurosawa himself, with Takashi Shimura playing Kanji Watanabe, the protagonist.

The film mainly revolves around Kanji Watanabe, his life at work and his endeavors to complete his life in a meaningful way. Watanabe is a bureaucrat in a city office. With an indifferent modus vivendi, he is nicknamed "mummy". When he comes to know of his stomach cancer he realizes that his life has almost ended but he had not done anything of mentionable worth in his life. He wants to set it right, enjoy his life and make his life worthy.

The film also gives an idea of the apathy that cocoons the bureaucracy from the common man. Though I have not known how it would be in many of the situations shown in this movie, the scenes in the City office reminded me of the legend of work ethics in government offices. The complaints are simply passed between almost all departments but never worked on. This is expertly shown in a short sequence where some people approach the Citizens Unit with a complaint on the stagnant water and mosquitoes in their neighbourhood. Watanabe is the Citizens Unit head. They get bounced off almost every City unit before completing the cycle, Watanabe being the one who started the cycle.

Shimura has given an absolutely admirable performance as a tired man, searching for his lost life. The years of boredom that Watanabe had cultivated in his life, has made him a bore and Shimura looks every part a bore that Watanabe is.

Be it experiencing the frenzied Tokyo nightlife with a writer or singing the song "Life is too short" (English translation of Gondola no Uta) in a deep, seemingly emotionless voice or trying to cling on to the young woman who gives him hope with her youth and verve, Shimura is very convincing and deserves as much credit as Kurosawa.

The film has a gloomy outlook, is simple and, in places, sentimental. However, this emotionalism does not undermine the way the man's life is shown, just as such a man's life will be. Watanabe's struggles can not only be seen on the screen but felt too. The scenes where Watanabe desperately wants to talk with his son and when he begs the young woman to teach him how to be lively like her are touchy. The last scene showing a happy Watanabe on a swing, singing away his last moments, is very artistic and remains in memory.

As much as the acting and direction, the screenplay and editing also deserve special mention for making the viewing of a slow-paced gloomy movie an absolute pleasure.

My first Kurosawa film. It was not only a joy to watch but quite an experience too.

Trivia -
Takashi Shimura, who played a doctor's role in 'Godzilla' ('Gojira (1954)'), has acted in 19 films for Akira Kurosawa.

The song Gondola no Uta was composed by Shimpei Nakayama and the lyrics were writen by Isamu Yoshii.

You can find more information on "Ikiru" here.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Wilhelm Gustloff

Generally, any talk about maritime disasters almost always revolves around the Titanic, the movie etched in our memory.


The Titanic's maiden voyage in 1912, from Southampton to New York, is widely believed to be the greatest maritime disaster of all time. 1523 is not a small number. Ofcourse, no number is small when the number is that of human lives.

This was my belief too, till I happened to read Crabwalk by Günter Grass. Over 10,000 German refugees, wounded soldiers and naval personnel were onboard the Wilhelm Gustloff, when it was hit by three torpedos fired from the Soviet sub S-13, commanded by Alexander Marinesko. Only around 1,200 survived.

Wilhelm Gustloff dwarfs the Titanic.

Wilhelm GustloffWilhelm Gustloff was originally to be named after Adolf Hitler but was named after a man who was the leader of Nazi Party in Switzerland. Wilhelm Gustloff (in picture) was assasinated in 1936 in Davos by David Frankfurter, a medical student.

Wilhelm Gustloff was launched in 1937 as the flagship of the Kraft durch Freude or Strength Through Joy Organization (KdF). The KdF is a sub-group of German Labour Front (DAF) and was organized to provide cruises, concerts and cultural activities to the working class. The Führer wanted his labour force to be fresh and in good nerves to grasp his ideas better.

As the Russians closed in on the eastern front, the ship left the port of Gotenhafen, on 30th January 1945, setting course to Kiel, with it's huge human cargo, to a relative safety. The weather was a freezing minus 18° Celsius and there were not enough lifeboats to support the enormous head count on the ship. Two big contributors to the big number.

It is an irony that when only a small fraction of the ships passengers were millitary personnel, this small fraction would make sure that the Gustloff cannot qualify for a civilian vessel and a potential military target. Captain Marinesko would have assumed that the ship carried retreating troops and to be fair to him, there is no way he could have known that the ship carried mostly innocent refugees and wounded soldiers.

After the torpedos hit, the Wilhelm Gustloff took only around 50 minutes more to go down beneath the icy water of Baltic, off the Stolpe bank.

Most of the hapless victims froze to death in the icy waters, which may have been a little warmer than the minus 18° Celsius air temperature. The chances of any survivors would have been almost non-existent if not for the heroic work of the other German ships in the area.

It is a shame that a staggering number of those perished were women and children. Most of the survivors were men, all four captains of the ship among them.

The sheer scale of the disaster and the number of lives lost with a single ship, makes the sinking of Wilhelm Gustloff among the wost disasters of all time. For such terrifying loss of life, very little has been written and discussed about it. The reason could be that it was considered a "war loss" and not a civilian disaster. I would assume that very few even know about this disaster.

The wreckage site of Wilhelm Gustloff is now officially a grave site and off-limits to most divers.

Trivia -

It is widely considered by many historians that the sinking of another German ship Goya, by two torpedos of the Soviet sub L-3, on April 16 1945, is the greatest maritime disaster of all time. The numbers vary between 6,000 to 7,000 lives. Considering the unofficial numbers of Wilhelm Gustloff, it is quite possible that the Gustloff disaster could be bigger than the Goya disaster.

The are a few books on the Gustloff disaster. I gather than the book "Der Untergang der Gustloff. Wie es wirklich war." by Guido Knopp, Friederike Dreykluft, Anja Greulich and Mario Sporn, provides an overview of the event. The book "Die Gustloff-Katastrophe" by Heinz Schön is said to be the definitive work on the topic for now. Some reviews for this book can be read here - English/German

The movie "Nacht fiel über Gotenhafen" (1959) or "Darkness Fell Over Gotenhafen" in English, directed by Frank Wisbar is said to provide an accurate account of the disaster.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Goodbye Blue Monday

"What do I myself think of this particular book? I feel lousy about it, but I always feel lousy about my books", says Kurt Vonnegut about his book - "Breakfast of Champions".

I, myself, did not feel lousy when I read this book. I did not. To me, it was a totally different way of writing and I enjoyed it to the last word and the last one of those sketches that populate the novel.

The novel was written in 1973, set in Midland City, a fictional town. The novel was supposed to be a fiftieth birthday present to himself.

It is a satire on slavery, racism, sex, pollution, greed etc. all directed at the American society. Every attack is straight and impolite. He attacks the copyright law, when he mentions, more than once, that the novel has no association with General Mills. General Mills has copyright on the expression "Breakfast of Champions". Not once, could I avoid thinking that this is a parody of himself.

It is the story of "a meeting of two lonesome, skinny, fairly old men on a planet which was dying fast" - Dwayne Hoover, a successful and insane Pontiac automobile dealer, and Kilgore Trout, a largely unsuccessful and unknown fiction writer. Kilgore Trout would win the Nobel Prize for science and Dwayne Hoover would turn into a homicidal maniac, thanks to Kilgore Trout's "Now it can be told". Their destinies were written and published by Kurt Vonnegut.

The author has peppered the novel with simple sketches like Amercian Flag, chickens, fried chicken, cow, hamburger, the monument intended to be raised over Kilgore Trout's ashes, gun, flamingo, a switch box, beaver, jackets, sheep, trucks, stork, "fairy land", "please, do not disturb", "What is the purpose of life?" etc. I found these sketches very amusing and refreshing. This way of writing would have been quite an experiment at the time the novel was published. I learnt from a friend that the novel "A curious incident of the dog in the midnight time" by Mark Haddon and the Thamizh novel "Pin Thodarum Nizhalin Kural" by Jeyamohan also have the same style of writing.

About his characters in the novel, many of Kurt Vonnegut's characters from other novels can be found in this novel such as Eliot Rosewater. Eliot Rosewater was a minor character in Slaughterhouse 5 and Francine Pefko appeared in Cat's Cradle. I have read these novels. I gathered that Eliot Rosewater was the main character in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Rabo Karabekian was the main character in Bluebeard, Kazak, the guard dog, appeared in The Sirens of Titan and Galapagos.

A very interesting part comes when the scene is setup for Kilgore Trout and Dwayne Hoover to meet. Kurt Vonnegut could not resist leaving himself out of the scene. He wears dark glasses with silvered lenses to avoid recognition and takes a seat close to Dwayne Hoover and Kilgore Trout. I found it amusing, to read the novelist as a character in his own novel. Particularly so, when he knows that they are his creations. It was delightful to read, when he sits at his table and controls his characters, like a master of puppets. At one point, he assumes the role of a fortune teller and offers to predict the future of the waitress in the cocktail lounge.

Another interesting part is when Kurt Vonnegut meets Kilgore Trout, his creation, to tell him that Trout is indeed his creation and that he is free to go, that he is not bound by his Creator's whims and fansies anymore. I know how Trout would have felt - shocked and in shambles - to come to know that he is afterall in a novel and worst still, his creator has taken away all his youth before freeing him. He cries to his creator, as Kurt Vonnegut vanishes in a fantastic manner typical of any science fiction movie. This is how he vanishes:

"I somersaulted lazily and pleasantly through the void, which is my hiding place when I dematerialize."

This is what Kilgore Trout cried:

"Make me young, make me young, make me young, make me young!"

Kilgore Trout is the only character who comes to know that he has been freed. As mentioned in the novel, the author wishes to set free his literary characters, in the same manner as Tolstoi or Thomas Jefferson freed their serfs.

In a way, I felt that it was an explicit dig at slavery, when he tries to set free his characters.

Kurt Vonnegut wants to throw a lot of junk from from his head, too. I must mention that he has thrown all the "junk" in a delightful play of words. This is one of those novels where you read, enjoy and would want to keep reading.

Trivia -

Breakfast of Champions is also known as Goodbye Blue Monday. Goodbye Blue Monday is the slogan of the new automatic washing machine, which the Robo-Magic corporation, tried to design and manufacture. This is fiction.

The expression "Breakfast of Champions" is a registered trademark of General Mills, Inc., for use on a breakfast cereal product. As mentioned in the novel.

Breakfast of Champions had been adopted as a movie in 1999 starring Bruce Willis, Albert Finney, Nick Nolte and Omar Epps. I have not yet had the opportunity to watch the movie but I found some mixed reviews of the movie on the IMDB website.

You can find the reviews on the movie, here.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Turn the page

I love to read. I love books. I read almost everyday. It depends on when do I want to go to bed and how tired I am at the end of the day.

I finished reading "Jailbird" by Kurt Vonnegut last week. Simple and fluently sarcastic. Wonderfuly enjoyable to read. No, I am not talking about Jailbird, I am talking about all Kurt Vonnegut's works that I have read. I am not writing about him anyway. Not now.

I was pondering about the way I read books. I jump books. I start reading a book but more often than not, I start reading another book too. Is it not tough?

Start reading a newspaper and before finishing a piece of complete news, turn the page. That is not the end of it, go back to the same page after reading a few other pages and continue reading from where you left. Very tough.

Currently, I am reading two books - "Breakfast of Champions" by Kurt Vonnegut and "A Bend in the River" by VS Naipaul. I am enjoying both the books.

Not a good way to read, I know. Habit. No, I don't try and do it. It just happens.

The number of unread books I have, have no bearing on the number of new books I buy. My memory lets me down. I have a big heap of unread books in my bedroom. Do I plan to read all those books and many more that would join them? Ofcourse yes. When? I do not know.

I would love to change, love to have more concentration, more focus than what I have now and be a lot more consistent at it. I would like not to turn the page until I finish it.

What?...Oh yes, I am done. Turn the page.

Thursday, August 17, 2006


I watched the movie a couple of days back. It was a DVD copy from a friend's original. A wonderfully knit script based on a man's imagination.

The movie was made in 1988, starring Martin Sheen and Barnard Hughes. Directed by Matt Clark and Julie Corman.

"Da" is the Irish equivalent of "father". So I learnt from a friend. The movie itself is a autobiographical drama about playwright Hugh Leonard's relationship with his father. So I learnt from the internet.

Charlie gets the news of his father's death and travels to take care of the funeral. What follows is Charlie's imagination involving his father, to a large extent his mother and to a small extent his pet dog. He relives many of his childhood moments.

As I sat watching this movie, I was reminded very much of my father and mother. How they would care, be angry one moment and melt with love the very next. How they would try to put me off a topic when I, as a child, keep pestering them for answers that a child cannot understand. How I used to think that I am being weighed down by all the love and care they show. I did grow up and realized that I was wrong to feel so.

The sequence where a middle-aged Charlie transforms into a kid Charlie and asks his father, why he had lied to him about his mother, is lovely.

"It was not a lie. I would never lie. It was a maky-up", was his father's reply. I smiled.

Was it because I was thinking of my own father, that I smiled the way I usually do when I watch kids play their games, when I watched the movie? True.

It was the wonderful chemistry between Martin Sheen (Charlie) and Barnard Hughes (Da) that made me see a father and son relationship, as it would normally be in real life. They were amazing in their roles.

"I love you, Da"
"Ofcourse, you do. Why wouldn't you?"

Now, I smiled again.