Saturday, December 24, 2011

Thoughts on It's A Wonderful Life

It's Christmas season again. And like every year, the Christmas classic, It's a Wonderful Life, is played on television.

It's an awesome and favorite show, with a 95% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

For those of you who aren't familiar with the story, here is a quick overview. George Bailey grows up in small town Bedford Falls, and has dreams of doing big things in his life. Travel, graduate from university, see the world, build bridges and skyscrapers.

His friend, Sam Wainwright, goes on to become a rich successful businessman, producing airplane components for the military. His brother goes to college, becomes an airforce pilot, saves the lives of everyone on a transport ship, and gets decorated as a war hero.

But George Bailey never gets to college. He never gets to leave his small town. He takes over the not too profitable family Building and Loan business, marries, lives in an old dilapidated house, and has children. In business, Bailey competes with the rich banker, Mr. Potter, who owns most of the businesses in town.

George Bailey hates his life. He has not done anything that he has dreamed of doing. One day there is a crisis; a lot of money is missing. George prays for God to show him the way.

An angel, Clarence, arrives. George tells the angel that he wishes he had never been born. Clarence grants him his wish.

George Bailey sees what the world would have been like without him. It's much worse. The world has been much, much better with him in it.

It's such a great show with many messages. It has given me some different thoughts over the years.


What About The Rest Of The Class?

It reminded me of when you had a great friend in school, who later went away, or died. You missed the friend, and things were not as fun.

Which of course made me think, was there another great friend who was not in your class, or life? Who was it? What would it be like if they were here?

As Clarence says in the movie, "Strange, isn't it? Each man's life touches so many other lives. When he isn't around he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he?"


What About The Rest Of The Cast?

But what about the rest of the cast of the movie? What if the central character in the movie was the angry, sad, and rich Mr. Potter? What if he hated his life as a cripple, and lamented that he had still not achieved what he really wanted. Or considered himself to be the "warped, frustrated, old man" that Bailey called him? Would the town have been better off with him? Or not?

Many would probably argue that the town was worse with Potter, who charged top dollar for cheap rental houses, refused to give extensions when times were tough, and didn’t give loans to commoners.

On the other hand, perhaps because of Potter, there was industry, and commerce. And the town Bedford Falls, where otherwise there might have just been a village in the sticks.

What if the central character was the druggist Mr. Gower? The mentally unstable Uncle Billy? The frustrated Violet Bick?

What would the plot of the movie be like if the story revolved around any of these characters?

Fascinating question.


In a similar way, it makes you think of who you work with, or hire. Do they add value to the team or project? Or not? Are you better off with, or without them?


Cultural Differences on Suicide:

The writer, Frank Capra, was a devout Catholic. Some of the movie's messages are consistent with Catholic catechism, especially the idea of suicide: "Suicide contradicts the natural inclination of the human being to preserve and perpetuate his life. It is gravely contrary to the just love of self. It likewise offends love of neighbor because it unjustly breaks the ties of solidarity with family, nation, and other human societies to which we continue to have obligations. Suicide is contrary to love for the living God."

This is in stark contrast to the Japanese idea of the honorable suicide.

"To the samurai, seppuku--whether ordered as punishment or chosen in preference to a dishonorable death at the hands of an enemy--was unquestionable demonstration of their honor, courage, loyalty, and moral character."

"In Japanese culture, for example, there are basically two types of suicide: honorable and dishonorable suicide. Honorable suicide is a means of protecting the reputation of one’s family after a member has been found guilty a of dishonorable deed such as embezzlement or flunking out of college, or to save the nation as in the case of the kamikaze pilots in World War II. Dishonorable suicide is when one takes his or her life for personal reasons in order to escape some turmoil. This is thought of as a cowardly way out of life and a coward can only bring dishonor to his family."

Given this huge cultural difference, I've often wondered if It's A Wonderful Life has ever been shown in Japan, and what the reaction has been.

I've written to ask some Japanese friends and contacts. But I've never received a response. I sense that it is a real emotional question.

Does anyone know? If so, please leave a comment.


On a related subject, there are some Japanese movies that make me think of similar things that It's A Wonderful Life does.

Afterlife: A movie where spirits, having died, have to decide on one memory to take with them into eternity.

Ikiru: Akira Kurosawa's movie about an old man, who, knowing he is about to die, puts all his life and effort into doing something of lasting value for the town. Actually, so many films by Kuroawa deal with subjects of life, death, and meaning of life. He was awesome!


Did Kurosawa and Capra know about each others work? I wonder what they would talk about?


There are a lot of great movies that I've seen. Some are just great entertainment. Others really make me think. It's A Wonderful Life is one of them.

See a great review here:


  1. Hi Rodger. I can't comment about your other questions, but I can add at least a little about Japanese views of suicide. Suicide, as in most cultures, is a complex topic, and few people will agree with each other regarding it.

    In the Edo-era (1600's to 1850's), only upper class samurai were allowed to commit seppuku, and even then only with permission from one's lord or the shogun. Often this act showed that one was taking responsibility for one's own actions, or that of one's clan as "the honorable way out" of a difficult situation. Seppuku (or harikiri, as it's also called) could also be forced on a samurai by the shogun as a death sentence, in which case it's not really suicide. Regardless, because it is such a slow and painful way to die, if the one issuing the death sentence (if there is such) was "benevolent", they would allow the use of a second, whose job it was to cut the victim's head off before they could dishonor themselves by screaming in pain. An alternate method during the Edo era included drowning oneself in a river, or the sea. This may not be a condoned method, but it is a way of showing regret for one's actions when seppuku is not an option. (Saigo, the so-called "last samurai" was supposed to kill his friend, a priest that was part of a failed plot against the shogun. Instead, the two of them jumped out of a boat in the bay in a mutual suicide pact, but Saigo ended up surviving anyway.)

    The thing to remember, though, is that in the Edo era, one's life belonged to whoever was higher up the chain. A son to the father; a farmer to the village elder; a soldier to the shogun. Committing unauthorized suicide was an affront to whoever "owned" your life (and no one would pray for you if the family refused to bury you with the rest of the family). You generally had to ask for permission if you wanted to atone for your errors by committing suicide. Otherwise "suicide" could be a punishment forced on you for your transgressions.

  2. In modern society, the argument against committing suicide is that you're taking the cowardly way out of a difficult situation, and abandoning your "nakama". ("Nakama" being your "inner circle of friends or family"). Regardless of whether you're a good or bad person from the viewpoint of the law (i.e. - hero or villain), you're still expected to be good to your "nakama". Abandoning them via suicide is a form of betrayal, and they're the ones expected to clean up after you. On the other hand, there's no support system for people suffering from depression or who have backed themselves into a corner financially, and there may be some financial benefit for the survivors in the form of a company pension that pays out no matter how you died. There's a lot of pressure on men to work hard and hand over all of their money to the wife every week, and if something snaps (such as the husband succumbing to alcoholism), the family will abandon him in a flash. Suicide may be considered preferable to waiting to become homeless, jobless and alone (since there's little chance of getting a job again at that point). So, you have this tug-of-war where one side says "don't abandon us" and the other saying "take responsibility for disgracing us".

    The key is "nakama". Unapproved suicide is an abandonment of one's "nakama". Approved suicide shows that your "nakama" is through with you because of something you did or didn't do, and you're being expected to atone for it.


    I think "A Wonderful Life" does show up on TV once each winter, but I haven't been paying attention for it. On the other hand, Christmas in Japan doesn't have the religious trappings it does in the west. It's closer to our Valentine's Day as a romantic day for young couples. It's not a national holiday. So, AWL doesn't have the spiritual redemption qualities for the Japanese as it does for Americans.