Awakened By Impending Death: The Transformational Heroes of “Ikiru” and “Breaking Bad”

Bryan Cranston as Walter White in "Breaking Bad"/Courtesy AMC

Bryan Cranston as Walter White in “Breaking Bad”/Courtesy AMC

Takashi Shimura as Kanji Watanabe in "Ikiru"/Courtesy Toho Films

Takashi Shimura as Kanji Watanabe in “Ikiru”/Courtesy Toho Films

I wasn’t more than a few minutes into the pilot of “Breaking Bad” when I recognized its debt to Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 masterpiece “Ikiru” (“To Live”). One of my favorite films of all time, “Ikiru” tells the story of Kanji Watanabe, a passive, fifty-something* Tokyo bureaucrat who, upon discovering he is dying of stomach cancer**, breaks free of his stupefying existence and begins to live for the first time.

A widower who has been sleepwalking through life, Watanabe has devoted himself solely to his job (where his nickname among co-workers is “The Mummy”) and his only son Mitsuo, now a married adult. Staggering home with the devastating news, Watanabe overhears his son and daughter-in-law complaining about him and scheming over how to extract his money. In revulsion, he goes to a bar and, despite the pain it causes him, begins to drink. He meets a drunken novelist and confides his grim diagnosis, lamenting:

I’m such a fool–I’m just furious with myself that until just a few days ago, I’d never even bought myself a drink with my own money. It’s only now that I don’t know how much longer I’ve got to live….Drinking this expensive sake is like paying myself back with poison for the way I’ve lived all these years.

The novelist responds:

Your cancer has opened your eyes to your own life. We humans are so careless–we only realize how beautiful life is when we chance upon death….You were a slave to your own life. Now you will become its master.”

“Breaking Bad” begins with a day in the life of Walter White***, an overqualified high school chemistry teacher whose pregnant wife Skylar serves him “veggie bacon” instead of the real thing, despite the fact that it is his birthday–his fiftieth. Things go downhill from there: after being mocked as “old” by his teenaged son, Walt teaches chemistry to students so bored and disrespectful that they sleep, talk and flirt during class. After school Walt goes to his second job as a cashier at a car wash and is forced by his boss to wipe down cars, including that of the two students he has just reprimanded. Arriving home, Walt endures a surprise birthday party at which his DEA agent brother-in-law, Hank, insults his masculinity (“that’s why they hire men“). Skylar completes this awful day by masturbating Walt while she tracks an eBay sale on her laptop. The humiliations continue until White finds out by chance–after collapsing at the car wash–that he has inoperable Stage Three lung cancer.

The photographs above show both men at the moment of their diagnoses. Not only do Watanabe and Walt get the shocking news in similarly random ways, but both are lifelong non-smokers afflicted with the most common smoking-related cancers of their respective countries. Stomach and lung cancers are known today to be caused by second-hand smoke, which Watanabe certainly inhaled constantly at a time and in a place where most adult males were heavy smokers. In both “Ikiru” and “Breaking Bad,” the Big C arrives with a heaping side order of irony. Abstemious to a fault, Walt and Watanabe are sentenced to premature death from a vice they’ve never indulged.

In the wake of disaster, the two men fly into action. Watanabe, denied any treatment by his doctor, withdraws 50,000 yen and sets about exploring Tokyo’s nighttime wonderland of restaurants, bars, dance halls and cabarets. Walt, after his HMO refuses to fund the optimal course of treatment, sets about creating a nest egg that will support his family and pay his medical expenses. Hank’s casual revelation of the fortunes earned from illegal methamphetamine leads Walt to his former student Jesse Pinkman, now a local meth cook. After blackmailing Jesse into a partnership, Walt uses his expertise as a chemist to create a product of unheard-of quality. The almost pure meth eventually earns him an $800 million fortune–while unleashing mayhem wherever it goes.

Watanabe, in contrast, does nothing illegal in his effort to redeem his life. After a two-week sick leave, he returns to work and spends his remaining months moving heaven and earth to create a new park in a blighted working-class neighborhood. Though it sounds benign, the plan subjects him to endless obstructions, ridicule from co-workers and superiors, and even physical danger. The Deputy Mayor, allied with business interests against the park, not only opposes Watanabe’s efforts but stands by as thugs rough him up. Though the stress no doubt hastens his demise, Watanabe presses on.

As they transform their lives, both Watanabe and Walt become all but unrecognizable to their families and colleagues. After cooking his first batch of meth and turning the tables on two would-be executioners, Walt makes love to Skyler so assertively that she asks, “Walt, is that you?” No, it isn’t. The emasculated drone of “Breaking Bad” has been remade and will eventually mutate into a murderous madman. But in the beginning, Walt tells Jesse, “I feel…awake.” Like Watanabe, he has woken from his old life, as if from a dream. Both men pursue a single goal, undeterred by obstacles.

It can’t be coincidental that both Walt and Watanabe signal their radical transformations with the same sartorial flourish: a new hat. At the novelist’s urging, Watanabe buys a light-colored and uncharacteristically expensive Homburg. The hat not only becomes his most recognizable feature but marks him as a force to be reckoned with at City Hall. For much the same reasons, Walt buys a black felt porkpie that transforms him from a chemistry geek into Heisenberg, the fearsome drug lord.

Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura) in his Homburg/Courtesy Toho Films

Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura) in his Homburg/Courtesy Toho Films

Walter White (Bryan Cranston) in his Heisenberg Porkpie/Courtesy AMC

Walter White (Bryan Cranston) in his Heisenberg Porkpie/Courtesy AMC

During their illnesses, both Walt and Watanabe crave the love of their families but get no comfort at home. Dismissed and misunderstood, they gravitate toward new families of their own creation. After his night of revelry with the novelist, Watanabe befriends Toyo, a young woman from the office whose puppyish enthusiasm and love of life prove irresistible. He buys her stockings, takes her to restaurants and tea shops, and even goes ice skating with her. Although Toyo soon pulls away from him, troubled by their age difference and his neediness, Watanabe is finally able to tell her he is dying–something he never tells Mitsuo, who furiously assumes his father has squandered his inheritance on a mistress. “I have no son. I’m all alone,” Watanabe concludes. In the end, he finds a makeshift family among the neighborhood housewives who have petitioned City Hall for the park. These women understand Watanabe and his illness, caring for him when he collapses at the construction site. Later they attend his wake and mourn him tearfully, which Mitsuo and his wife do not.

Although Skylar does eventually learn of Walt’s cancer, and later of his illegal drug manufacturing, her role in his life is largely negative. Slow to comprehend and quick to condemn, she is dismissive of Walt as a husband, father and breadwinner. She is also emasculating: soon after the disastrous handjob, she makes Walt miss a longed-for outing to Los Alamos in favor of his painting the nursery, though it is months before her due date. Then, soon after their daughter’s birth, Skylar punishes Walt’s criminality by having an affair with her boss. Walt’s relationship with Walt Jr. is less problematic but still lacking. Junior uses crutches because of cerebral palsy, and both parents seem burdened and disconnected by his disability. (It took me several episodes to realize that Skylar was Junior’s biological mother, not his step-mother, because she was so distant.) Walt’s fitful efforts to bond with Junior are awkward; though he loves his son, he never establishes a genuine rapport. Instead, Walt is irresistibly drawn to the vivid but problematic Jesse Pinkman, a surrogate son he can fight (both verbally and physically) as well as instruct. Saul Goodman, Walt’s money-laundering lawyer and confidant, becomes another de facto family member.

In contrast with the drama of their final months, Walt and Watanabe die solitary deaths in significant places: Walt in the meth lab from which he has liberated the captive Jesse, and Watanabe in the snowy park he has created against enormous odds. While neither man seems likely to be remembered accurately–Walt has become his terrible alter ego Heisenberg, while all the credit for Watanabe’s park is stolen by the Deputy Mayor who opposed it–they have both accomplished what they set out to do. Watanabe approaches his end on a park swing, singing a popular song from his youth:

Life is brief/Fall in love, maidens/Before the crimson bloom/Fades from your lips/Before the passions/Cool within you/For those of you who know no tomorrow.

The song refers to youth, who think their lives will never end. In contrast, Watanabe and Walt spend their last months in total awareness of life’s brevity. Wide awake, they run out the clock on their own terms.

*Although stooped and old-looking, Watanabe is no more than fifty-five; the actor Takashi Shimura was only 47 when he portrayed him. My estimate is based on the typical marriage age of men in 20th century Japan, the age of Mistuo, his son, and Watanabe’s singing of “Gondola no Uta,” (“The Gondola Song”), which he remembers from his youth. “The Gondola Song” came out in 1915, when Watanabe would have been about eighteen. This means that Watanabe and Walter White, despite appearances, are actually contemporaries.

**As was customary in Japan until fairly recently, the doctor refuses to tell Watanabe he is dying of cancer. (The theory behind the practice was that terminally ill patients should be spared the shock. The fact that they probably suffered more from being lied to inspired a recent grass-roots movement of cancer patients and their families, which brought about a change in policy.) Watanabe surmises the truth from a man he meets in the waiting room. The stranger lists the symptoms of advanced stomach cancer and tells him that a sure sign of impending death is if the doctor recommends no treatment. Watanabe’s symptoms and the doctor’s response are exactly as the man says.

***I refer to Walter White by his first name according to American custom, but refer to Kanji Watanabe by his surname. This is because the Japanese are generally called by their first names only by family members, childhood friends and elementary school teachers.

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