Now and Then: “Show Me a Hero” and “Ikiru”

Now and Then: “Show Me a Hero” and “Ikiru” October 3, 2015

Oscar Isaacs as Nick Wasicsko, in "Show Me a Hero"
Oscar Isaacs as Nick Wasicsko, in “Show Me a Hero”

One of the not-so-happy byproducts of civilization is a thriving, festering bureaucracy. Archeologists have found cuneiform administrative documents in Sumerian digs dating to 3500 BCE (no word if the clay tablets were in triplicate). So I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that bureaucratic constipation looks much the same in early 1950s Japan and late 1980s Yonkers.

In Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru, deemed one of the greatest films by one of the world’s great directors, the bureaucratic project is the construction of a playground. A group of poor mothers, living in tenements abutting a mosquito-infested pit, request that this sludgehole be filled in and turned into a safe space for their kids. In a bitingly satirical montage near Ikiru’s beginning, these women are shuffled from one government department to another (16 in all!), before they return full circle to the original department, from which they finally depart in disgust.

It takes an unlikely hero to fight this logjam. Watanabe (played with suitable meekness by Kurosawa regular Takashi Shimura) is the mummified head of the Public Affairs Department. For 20 years, he’s been hunched over his desk, stamping one meaningless paper after another. Only a diagnosis of terminal cancer ironically vivifies him back into action, and he spends the remainder of his brief life pushing through the women’s building project.

Takashi Shimura as Watanabe, in "Ikiru"
Takashi Shimura as Watanabe, in “Ikiru”

In Show Me a Hero, the public project is the construction of 200 public housing units. With six parts that unfold over several years, we watch as Judge Leonard Sand (a dry, weary Bob Balaban) orders the desegregation of Yonkers and mandates the building of these homes on the more affluent east side of the city. Resistance takes the shape of obstructive mayors and councilman (most notably, the bullying bigshot Hank Spallone, acted deliciously by Alfred Molina), as well as organized citizen protest.

Alfred Molina, chewing the scenery and his toothpick, in "Show Me a Hero"
Alfred Molina, chewing the scenery and his toothpick, in “Show Me a Hero”

The central character of this miniseries is Nick Wasicsko (Oscar Isaac, terrific as usual), who early on becomes America’s youngest ever mayor of a medium-to-large city at age 28. Originally opposed to the public housing, Wasicsko comes to support it, first because defiance of Judge Sand is bankrupting Yonkers, but later because he recognizes that this effort to move folks from crime-infested “Great Society” high rises is a moral good.

Ikiru and Show Me a Hero both demonstrate the herculean efforts required to force even small changes through rigid power structures, ossified socioeconomic stratification, indifference, and (in the case of Show Me a Hero) racism. After all, we’re only talking a playground and 200 houses in a city of 200,000, for crying out loud!

Watanabe and Wasicsko each face physical threats for their reformist urges. Each character arc shows that the stress of swimming against societal pressure takes a toll on one’s health, too. (In a curious parallel, Ikiru’s opening shot is an x-ray of Watanabe’s cancerous stomach, while Hero’s first scene has Wasicsko gulping down antacid like an alcoholic quaffing a beer at last call.)

The terminal x-ray that opens "Ikiru"
The terminal x-ray that opens “Ikiru”

The focus of each work is different, though. Ikiru’s director, Akira Kurosawa, is probably best known for his magnificent action saga, Seven Samurai, about a peasant village and a group of ronin uniting to resist a bandit gang’s predation. However, Kurosawa was typically more interested in the moral progress or regress of an individual within an anti-humanistic society. This was true whether his story had a postwar urban (Stray Dog, Drunken Angel) or an earlier feudal setting (Red Beard, Ran).

Ikiru is no exception to this general rule. When faced with his terminal diagnosis, Watanabe makes multiple efforts to cope with his mortality, trying and failing family reconciliation, devil may care hedonism, and romance, before having a typically Kurosawan moment of enlightenment and rebirth. The Japanese word, ikiru, means “to live,” and Kurosawa’s film is very much an existential treatise.

By contrast, like much of show creator David Simon’s earlier work (The Wire, Treme), Show Me a Hero provides a cross-section of contemporary urban America, giving voice to characters who are normally voiceless in today’s television and cinema. Besides seeing the legal and political sides of Yonkers life, David Simon and seasoned film director Paul Haggis offer us the lives of ordinary woman and children (black, Hispanic, and white) who are affected by the new public housing.

Unlike his earlier series set in Baltimore and New Orleans, however, the characters of Show Me a Hero are not just inspired by people Simon has met and talked with, but they are based on real people. Nick Wasicsko was in actuality America’s youngest mayor; Carmen Febles (Ilfenesh Hadera) was a single working mom who wanted out of the high rises; and Mary Dorman (Catherine Keener) initially fought integration before having her own moral awakening.

Time will of course reveal whether Show Me a Hero holds up as a classic, as Ikiru indisputably has, more than 60 years after its release. Kurosawa once again showed why his editing and storytelling inspired a bunch of young Americans named Coppola, Scorsese, and Spielberg back in the 70s and 80s. In an especially daring storytelling maneuver, Watanabe dies about halfway through Ikiru, so the rest of the film unfurls in flashbacks during his lead’s funeral wake. As the attenders become progressively soused from their cups of sake, we learn that nearly none of them had any clue as to what motivated Watanabe in his last weeks. To be great is to be misunderstood, indeed.

For me, Show Me a Hero is a few notches below Simon’s greatest work. It lacks the binge-watching momentum of The Wire, the Springsteen-heavy soundtrack overpowers the onscreen drama at times, and much as I love Catherine Keener’s acting, her heavy “old lady” makeup was a distraction.

Catherine Keener as Mary Dorman, in “Show Me a Hero”

Despite these shortcomings, even if Show Me a Hero isn’t compulsive viewing, it is still important. For anyone interested in a better understanding of the institutional racism and classism that underpins our cities, this is essential viewing. For anyone who wants to put faces on the effects of public policy and the price exacted in pressing for change (hell, for anyone who wants mental nourishment on what it means to be a good neighbor), this is excellent viewing.

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