Akira Kurosawa is world-famous for his movies about samurais, but he has also written and directed a great movie about the life of a bureaucrat, Ikiru (1952) [To Live] .
Ikiru (1952 Japan) aka To Live aka Living
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Shown: Takashi Shimura as Kanji Watanabe
The movie follows the last days of Kanji Watanabe, a petty bureaucrat working in the same dusty office for the past 30 years, who is suddenly diagnosed with terminal stomach cancer. Facing death, Kanji attempts to truly live, for a first time after all these years of monotonous and meaningless existence. And he decides to fight the bureaucratic system that has provided him with numbing comfort over the decades, in order to finally get something done – a small public children’s park – that would become his legacy to the world.
The movie is considered a real masterpiece. The acting is superb. The cinematography, pacing, and editing all bear the marks of Kurosawa’s genius. (You can watch two critical analyses here and here.)
In Ikiru, bureaucracy is portrayed as the epitome of meaningless work and the anti-thesis of life itself. The piles of papers in Watanabe’s office have crowded out all joy and purpose. They threaten to fall any moment and crush the protagonist, after having consumed his soul already.
“Busy, always so very busy. But in fact this man does absolutely nothing at all, other than protecting his own spot. The best way to protect your place in the world, is to do nothing at all. Is this really what life is all about?”
Commonplace representations of bureaucracy (those that usually cross the minds of people not doing any bureaucratic work) make it look like a meaningless (because dull, repetitive and boring) activity. For most people, bureaucracy is as grey and empty as it can get. Though widespread, such commonplace representations can be shown to be wrong.
Jean Tardieu (1903-1995), a French theatre writer (and also musician and poet), manages to effectively challenge the idea that bureaucracy is meaningless in a play written in 1955, titled Le Guichet (best translated as The Counter). The play has four characters: the Clerk (le Préposé), the Client (le Client), the Radio (la Radio), the Loudspeaker Voice (La Voix du Haut-Parleur) and the Diverse Noises Outside (Bruits Divers Au-Dehors). The presence of some non-human characters (such as the Diverse Noises Outside) is one of the distinctive characteristics of Tardieu’s theatre. The play itself is part of a trilogy, called The Triple Death of the Client (La triple mort du client), along two other plays, namely The Lock (Le serrure), which tells the story of the client of a brothel and The Furniture (Le meuble), telling the story of an invisible client who wants to buy a piece of furniture.
Tardieu is often associated with the theatre of the absurd (that was becoming a big thing in the Frances of the 1950s). Be that as it may, The Counter is, at least in my reading, mostly a play about how apparently meaningless activities such as being a clerk or street-level bureaucrat working at a counter are actually filled with meaning.
Bureaucrats in their offices are usually not considered the most photogenic of subjects (consider the possible hashtags: #boringpeople #dulloffice #paperwork #iwannadie).
But Jan Banning’s series of portraits of bureaucrats in their natural habitats around the world manages to be both entertaining and sociologically perceptive. You might have seen the Bureaucratics project on social media (there are good posts at Slate, Petapixel and fstoppers) or exhibited in galleries and museums around the world.
India-17/2003 Sushma Prasad (b. 1962) is an assistant clerk at the Cabinet Secretary of the State of Bihar (population 83 million) in The Old Secretariat in the state capital, Patna. She was hired “on compassionate grounds” because of the death of her husband, who until 1997 worked in the same department. Monthly salary: 5,000 rupees ($ 110, € 100).
Jan Banning portrays 50 civil servants – mostly low-ranking street-level bureaucrats like policemen and social workers – from 8 countries: Bolivia, China, France, India, Liberia, Russia, the United States, and Yemen.
The bureaucrats are pictured seated, directly facing the camera, almost merged with their office environment. In some cases, the office looks like it is going to engulf the person. In others, the bureaucrat is in control, everything has its place, the office is tamed.