Whatever happened to the famous British emotional restraint? It’s a question that has long fascinated Nobel laureate Kazuo Ishiguro.
Born in 1954 in Japan but raised in England, Ishiguro became a household name with his novel about a stiff-upper-lipped servant, “The Remains of the Day”, later a film with Anthony Hopkins.
The recent film “Living”, for which Ishiguro wrote the screenplay, focuses on a similarly reserved civil servant in 1950s London, played by Bill Nighy, who emerges from his shell only when his death is imminent.
Both are set in the past because that emotional reserve is hard to find in modern Britain, with its bombastic politicians, endless vitriol on social media and where even the royal family attack each other.
“There isn’t much of it left on the surface,” Ishiguro told AFP over the phone from London. “I saw it dissolve as I grew up. When Princess Diana died, it was an interesting marker of how far Britain had come — of what an appropriate show of emotion was.”
Britain’s particular brand of emotional coldness had a lot to do with empire, he said.
“The upper and upper-middle classes were drilled to present that kind of front to their colonial subjects, under incredible stress,” he said.
“Imagine what it’s like to go from some horrific boarding school to find yourself at the age of 19 in a sweltering climate with hardly any friends, having to keep up this front because you have to represent the ‘superior race’.”
The experience of two world wars was also a major factor, he added.
“I’m sure people in Ukraine at the moment feel that pressure as well. You don’t go around freaking out and shrieking about what you’re feeling.”
– ‘A magnificent life’ –
“Living” is a remake of 1952 Japanese film “Ikiru” by the legendary Akira Kurosawa.
Its story of a civil servant completing a small but deeply meaningful task had a profound impact on a young Ishiguro, growing up in a middle-class suburb outside London, never expecting to achieve greatness.
“You’ve got to do things for their own sake in a way that really satisfies you,” he said. “The film taught me that making a special effort can flip the thing and turn a small empty life into a magnificent life.
“I’ve been incredibly lucky and ended up in a certain place, but there’s a part of me that still thinks there should be something very private and lonely about assessing what is success and what is failure.”
When he came to campaign for “Living” to be made, he was adamant that Nighy, who has been nominated for a Golden Globe, should play the lead role.
“More than any actor, he can represent that sort of Englishness, that manner,” said Ishiguro.
“The difficulty of portraying this kind of character is it’s easy to be cold and alienating. You need an actor who can bring enormous charm.”
Despite its typically English atmosphere, he says it resonates everywhere in the world.
“We all have that battle in us. There is a fear of that arena of emotions, of exposing ourselves to other people, but also this great yearning to connect with other people and not be condemned to isolation and loneliness.” (AFP)