To The Barricades

I recently watched the classic 1952 Kurosawa film Ikiru, and have some comments. But those comments include spoilers; you are warned.

The hero of the movie has spent thirty years as a city bureaucrat. He is a manager now, but his job has somehow crushed the life out of him. He learns that he will die soon of cancer, and becomes despondent. He tries several things to rekindle his spirit, but what finally works is to take on the cause of some citizens who want an unhealthy pond turned into a park. They have been given the run-around from bureaucrats passing the buck and defending their turf, but our hero risks his career and defies superiors, who claim credit for his eventual success. He dies happy and full of life.

Note that the activities that gave our hero life are pretty similar to the activities that crushed his soul. He is still doing city paperwork, but now he fights for a cause, even if that cause isn’t any moral principle more specific than “make good things happen.” After all, no one in the movie disputes the idea that this city bureaucracy should be in charge of making this sort of city decision. While some say that we never go to the barricades for efficiency, this is exactly what our hero does.

But instead of showing our deep attachment to efficiency, perhaps this just shows our deep attachment to fighting. Maybe it is merely the chance to fight higher status folks, instead of submitting to them, that enlivens our hero. In our movie-mode far mind we really love conflict and even war. To the barricades for … anything; what ya got?

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  • arch1

    I think this is why my 9th grade English teacher told us that fiction can be bucketed into: man v man, man v society, man v nature, man v himself. Gotta have that v:-)

  • Jared

    Yes, all drama is conflict. It is always versus–otherwise, there is no drama. There must always be a need, an obstacle to that need, and the overcoming of that obstacle.


    The need to fight for some cause drives a portion of the population, I’ve wondered for a while how these people will fare in some futuristic society that has no poverty, pollution, war and little crime or corruption. Will fiction prove to be a necessary outlet, or are there some forager tricks that can help these people give meaning to their lives (prehistoric hunter-gatherer societies must have solved this issue somehow)?

    • IMASBA

      A related first world problem (also probably solved by hunter-gatherers in the past): how to select mates when there are few if any character testing events left in life?

    • Robert Koslover

      Re: “…no poverty, pollution, war and little crime or corruption.” Personally, I find it difficult to project our society that many millennia into the future. Let’s focus on the next 50-500 years instead.

      • IMASBA

        You don’t believe such a state is possible within the next 500 years at least in parts of the world? If humans instincts aren’t artificially altered too much it doesn’t matter if it takes 500 or 5000 years anyway…

  • Geoff Brown

    I find efficiency to generally be at odds with truth or if you prefer less loaded word, discovery. The central conflict in most fiction and even life is that the ‘truth’ is hidden and must be discovered. Discovery, like being human, in my experience is a messy process, inefficient by nature. The more struggle is involved in the process the more meaning is attributed to the findings. So ‘efficiency’ in fiction and in real life is often the enemy of being human.

    Its also often the case in fiction that the ‘efficiency’ of the system is directed at defense of the status quo, fear or ignorance and we as readers therefore actively root for the wheels to come off. My favorite movies are ones where the protagonist goes to the wall for ‘truth’ or at least what they believe to be truth. (Preferably in the face of insurmountable odds. And even better if they are betrayed by the fact that the actual truth has little meaning)

    Robin’s quest for prediction market adoption seems to fit that mold as well 🙂

  • jhertzli

    The hero drained a wetland???

    • He filed paperwork to help induce it to be drained.

      • andrewjgrimm

        I suspect jhertzli is complaining that draining a wetland is a bad thing, because it is bad for the environment. Not certain, though.

    • Ronfar

      Hell yeah! Gotta stop those mosquitoes from breeding!