Kurosawa’s Guidebook to the Bureaucratic Church

Julie Smith over at Times and Seasons has done an excellent job of covering the decision to edit the word “fourth” out of Elder Bruce A. Carlson’s prayer opening the Priesthood session of General Conference. Public Affairs eventually responded to Smith’s request for an explanation by saying:

While the women’s meetings have long been an important part of general conference week, they are not usually referred to as a session of general conference. Edits are routinely made to general conference proceedings prior to publication of the official record. In this case a simple edit was made by the conference producer to reflect the usual numbering of the sessions.

What’s striking about this statement are the words “routinely” and “usual,” which have the effect of taking something many saw as significant and asserting that it was in fact banal all along—as if to say, to those of us who dared believe that something extraordinary had happened, “Everything is normal: nothing to see here.” That Carlson’s prayer apparently built on the momentum of President Uchtdorf’s words opening the General Women’s Meeting, only to have the effort stifled by the bureaucratic inertia of “routinely” and “usual,” indicates one of the challenges of bringing change to a large and complex organization. (At this point it’s worth noting that Carlson was taking his lead not from rabble-rousing feminists, but from a counselor in the First Presidency, someone we sustained last weekend as a prophet, seer, and revelator. Carlson, too, seems to have believed that the prophetic can occur at General Conference.)

This brings me to what I consider one of the greatest films ever made, Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru (1952). It tells the story of Kanji Watanabe, the Public Affairs section chief in Tokyo’s City Hall who has earned a reputation for constancy because he’s gone 20 years without missing a day of work. He is a bureaucrat so moribund that his coworkers have nicknamed him “The Mummy.” Then, when Watanabe is diagnosed with stomach cancer, he begins to realize that he’s never really lived his life. (The film’s title means “To Live.”)

The first half of the film follows his attempts to figure out how to live. He sloughs off work, takes a poet as his guide for a night of drunken debauchery, and eventually pursues an awkward (and borderline stalker-ish) relationship with a young woman who had been his subordinate. In time he realizes that living his life means going back to work, but approaching his work in a different way. This means paying attention to the concerns expressed by a group of women who live near a fetid pond and would like a park instead—and whom his department had given the run-around earlier in the film.

Here the movie cuts to Watanabe’s funeral. His coworkers are gathered at his house, while his son and daughter-in-law play host. The deputy mayor arrives to take credit for the park that Watanabe had built, and after the deputy mayor leaves Watanabe’s indignant coworkers reconstruct his efforts. He hadn’t told anyone (even his son) about the cancer, so everyone is working to make sense of past events in light of this revelation. It’s the flashbacks in this second half of the film that have something to teach about navigating a bureaucratic church that can seem at times to operate by inertia rather than inspiration.

These flashbacks follow Watanabe as he engages personally with the section chiefs of every department that has a plausible claim on some aspect of building the park: the sewer department, the public works department, the parks department, and so on. Each resists his efforts, but he wears them down with persistence. At one point he faces a group of businessmen who’d rather build a restaurant row in the space to be occupied by the park (and who apparently enjoy the Deputy Mayor’s support for their scheme). They threaten him with violence, and he shrugs it off.

At this point he utters one of the movie’s iconic lines. His assistant (who is recounting the episode at the funeral) wonders how Watanabe can remain unruffled by the threat. Watanabe says: “I can’t afford to hate people. I don’t have that kind of time.”

The knowledge of his impending death, combined with a deep drive to live a meaningful life in the time that remains, has created root-room in Watanabe for a profound charity. In his various meetings with the bureaucrats around City Hall, he manages to combine politeness and respect toward their authority with indefatigable boldness. When the Deputy Mayor tries to brush him off, Watanabe bows deeply, extends the relevant paperwork, and asks him to reconsider.

Few of us in the Church can walk the halls of the Church Office Building, shaking hands politely but insistently with the relevant parties until the proper outcome emerges. Watanabe’s ability to effect change depends in part on the privilege of his position as section chief. And yet there is something transgressive about his claiming that addressing the women’s concern by building a park is in fact a concern for Public Affairs. He has to venture beyond his carefully demarcated bureaucratic turf. The other bureaucrats absolutely fear his intrusions, notwithstanding his perfect politeness. As one character quips early in the film, the greatest fear of a bureaucrat is that nobody would notice if he didn’t show up for work to fulfill his particular function.

President Uchtdorf apparently ventured beyond the boundaries of the usual in his comments at Women’s Conference (even if he did not unambiguously designate it the first session of General Conference) and Elder Carlson followed his lead in Priesthood Session. Faced with Carlson’s more obvious deviation from the status quo, the bureaucracy corrected it with routine efficiency. Nevertheless, as with Watanabe’s building a park in Kurosawa’s film, there is something prophetic in actions like those of Uchtdorf and Carlson. By “prophetic” I mean tending toward life of the abundant sort that Jesus came to give us. Life like that given to the widow of Zarephath when she irrationally chose to feed Elijah before herself and her son. Because bureaucracy invests the norm with necessity (lest the individual functionary be proved irrelevant), it can sometimes have little truck with the disruptive forces of prophecy. It feeds itself first and lets the strange old man at the door fend for himself.

At his funeral, Watanabe’s coworkers (by this point rather drunk) all vow that they will not forget the lesson of his life. They are clearly stirred, and even though the fervor of their oath is fueled by saké, they seem sincere. Yet the film closes with a group of people coming to the Public Affairs desk with a problem, and with hardly a thought, the new Section Chief (a participant in the vow like all the rest) directs them to another part of the bureaucracy for redress. One man stands up from his desk, fully aware of what has just happened, but his coworkers do not notice, so he sits down, the camera showing his head sinking behind a stack of papers as he does so. The film ends by showing a beatific Watanabe on the last night of his life, swinging in the park he has built and singing a song about how life is short.

Bureaucracy is necessary. There’s simply no way to manage a global Church without it. The prophetic message of the Restoration reaches much farther into the world because of the bureaucracy that it could without it. There are many honorable people who work for the Church in a whole host of capacities that enable great acts of good to be done. I do not mean to demean them or their labors by observing that bureaucratic inertia can, from time to time, impede prophetic leadership.

Nor is this problem isolated to people formally employed by the Church. Given the model of lay service upon which most local Church activity is built, we all run the risk of becoming bureaucrats more interested in preserving the status quo and in protecting our turf than in permitting the prophetic to break forth.

I believe, in the spirit of Moses’ great declaration in Numbers 11—”Would God that all the LORD’s people were prophets!”—that we are called to follow the example of Watanabe. We can do this in two ways. First, by finding the blend of inspiration and perspiration necessary to meet the needs of the people around us, even if it means breaking from our usual routine. This sort of thing happens on the local level all the time, and we should honor it. Second, we cannot afford to hate people. Not even people who edit a prophetic word out of a prayer. If being a soul-benumbed bureaucrat seems a waste of life, becoming bitter at a person who probably meant well and was just carrying on business as usual (however offensive the result) is far worse. The first is merely death, but the second is hell, and Jesus, by God, came to save us from both.

Update: The Church News has posted an article, “20 Memorable Events in General Conference History,” reporting that at the Women’s Meeting in September, “it was announced that the general women’s meeting was the first session of the semiannual general conference.” Here’s a screenshot:

Women's meeting announcement


  1. A really thoughtful, rather christlike approach to a problem that was starting to canker for me. Thank you for your thoughts.

  2. This is great, Jason. Thanks for the fresh perspective.

  3. Laurel Lee says:

    Thoughtful comments that I appreciated. I was thrilled to hear Pres. Uchtdorf’s comment at Women’s Conference, and the prayer as well. Bureaucratic “inertia” is often the price we pay, for the management of the church, I agree. I recently was a visiting teaching partner with an older sister who prided her knowledge of every detail of the Handbook. When I suggested we have prayer with a sister while we taught, I was admonished that sisters don’t pray in our visits, only home teachers in theirs, because they have the priesthood. She knew, of course, because she had served as a stake relief society president and served a mission a few years ago with a prestigious sister from BYU. I don’t think the Savior disapproves of us praying together with our sisters in their homes, even if it isn’t listed in the “handbook”, or we are women.

  4. Yeah, I’m pretty sure the Savior approves of us praying anytime, anywhere, and with anyone, whether we have the priesthood or not. Joseph Smith didn’t have the priesthood when he prayed in the Grove.

  5. Is it possible we’re reading our biases into Pres. Uchtdorf’s welcoming remarks and Elder Carlson’s prayer? What if Pres. Uchtdorf was simply observing that the Women’s Meeting was kicking off the week culminating with General Conference, and never meant to suggest that it was actually a “session” of Conference? And what if Elder Carlson wasn’t even thinking about Pres. Uchtdorf’s comments, and simply mis-count sessions in his prayer?

    Did some of us attach so much significance to Pres. Uchtdorf’s choice of words that we were primed to later misinterpret a simple verbal gaffe by Elder Carlson? Sometime’s there’s no “there” there….

  6. Although I enjoyed the food for thought on that comment thread, I thought that Julie Smith’s decision to close comments on the T&S post with the communiqué from church Public Affairs was handled most graciously. And this post adds more much-needed grace to the episode.

    I can’t get this out of my head, and I’m glad of it: “I can’t afford to hate people. I don’t have that kind of time.”

  7. Patrick, sometimes there is no there there, and many more times there is way more there than we are ready to receive. I have found that in watching conference, I see so much more than the words said, and hear so much more through inspiration whispered to my soul, than there are words to be said. Some of those whisperings might be found blasphemous by many of my most conservative (little c, not in the political sense) and very much a take off from other consistent teachings of the Savior, through a variety of spiritual learning.

    If I, who am but a woman, and therefore is unable to ever enter a meeting as a leader with decisive authority is worth the constant tutelage of the Spirit, how much more reason does the Lord have to teach those who have been given specific callings to teach and preach the gospel throughout the world? And yet, there are things that have been taught in the past, and some things that are taught now, that I know are not teachings that go with my life, and that while they may be the line that some members are on, it is not a line meant for me. There are some things that people share testimonies of, which I think are beautiful and wonderful for them, but they are not my life’s calling. That reality takes nothing away from the importance of that principles for that particular person, but it is not an expected part of my life.

    How do I know? It’s okay if you don’t believe me, or if for you, there are lines that are of no particular importance, but are grounding parts of my relationship with Christ. We do not walk the same roads, and frankly, I wouldn’t wish parts of my childhood on any other human sister or brother. I’m constantly amazed that I am alive, and that as imperfect as I am, that the Holy Ghost, Christ, and my heavenly parents, have all been willing to take me as I was, and mold me into the woman that they need me to be. I don’t understand why we have some prophets (because there are always many at any given time) whose ministry on earth us so different from the ministry of others. The fact that I see conflicting messages in every General Conference I have ever watched, suggests that it is likely part of the Lord’s pattern, teaching to those in a variety of places in their development, at the same time.

  8. Pangwitch says:

    are you implying that the comments about the womens conference were anything but honest mistakes?

  9. Patrick: Of course this whole episode points to acts of interpretation on the part of people listening, but it’s also not exactly possible for any one of us to entirely leave behind our world views and reach some sort of objective view of things. Nor, I’d argue, is it even desirable that we do so. One of the miracles of conference, as other commenters have pointed out, is the way that its messages can reach out to a diverse Church membership.

    I think that part of what this episode attests is a hunger on the part of many for a conference that felt spiritually nourishing. I’m personally acquainted with quite a few people who haven’t felt that about conference in quite some time. I watched many of these people rejoice at Pres. Uchtdorf’s words and Elder Carlson’s prayer, because the implicit message (and this is what Julie was getting at over at T&S) was “You matter!” This felt like a most welcome healing balm–and then the edit felt like someone walking over, wiping off the balm, and saying, “Sorry, it was an innocent mistake.” The possibility that it was, in fact, an innocent mistake does not take away from the reality of how some people experienced it (ontology vs. phenomenology). That they experienced it as prophetic attests a spiritual hunger that people desperately wanted General Conference to address–and the fact that conference seemed to address it should not be take lightly.

  10. Bro. Jones says:

    If these were “honest mistakes,” it’s the double standard kills me. When our leaders make pronouncements that are sometimes unpopular, hard to understand, or even seem to go against many members’ understanding of the Gospel, then it is the members’ fault for questioning the utterances of prophets. But when members make a reasonable interpretation of a public utterance by two leaders, and those words are then rolled back by the Church, suddenly they’re “honest mistakes.”

    Back to topic: I greatly enjoyed this post, but I am unsettled by it. It is a hard thing to be “called to follow the example of Watanabe.” We face not merely bureaucratic indifference, but the threat of sanction against our membership and ostracizing, with a similar double standard to the one I pointed out: if we sustain bureaucratic efficiencies and mistakes, then we are “faithful.” If we seek to improve the system, then we “look beyond the mark” or we are “offenders for a word.”

    I don’t expect the Church–its people, systems, structure, or leaders–to be perfect. But I’m very tired.

  11. Laurel Lee, your visiting teaching companion is wrong. There is no handbook guideline against sisters praying during visiting teaching visits.

    The Bloggernacle has discussed that misunderstanding before, and may have tracked the problem to a directive in the early 1990s, but I can’t find the discussions through a quick google search. I do see an official statement from the mid-1970s stating that sisters may pray in sacrament meeting and during visiting teaching visits, so it was evidently a misunderstanding that needed to be addressed at that time as well.

    The curious thing is that no matter how many times the Relief Society has told sisters to go visiting teaching and care for and pray with their sisters since then, the duty fulfillers like your visiting teaching companion are going to remember that single (purported) letter from the early 1990s. But I suppose we need to forgive these devoted workers that weakness since they provide so much of the work which moves the Church forward, fulfilling its many missions.

  12. I keep coming back to a conversation I had with one of the Mormon feminist leaders (also an active Mormon) about a year ago, before all this stuff, just before Pants 2, before Priesthood sessions. She said she saw the church making concessions, sometimes slowly and awkwardly, but really trying, and she was only worried that the church would make them too late for many of the women to recognize before they gave up hope and faded away. While we were both very concerned that feminists would lose hope and give up, I was afraid that I saw things differently. I said I felt that the church would rejoice at the loss of every single feminist as further evidence that they were unworthy. I truly wish that she had been right.

  13. When I saw the title of the post, I was really hoping for an essay applying the lessons of Rashomon to our perceptions of the way the church operates, or maybe even comparing the church to Shichi-nin no Samurai with its struggle between the good guys and the bad, where the only winners are those who don’t fight, but instead engage their energies in the ever-repeated cycle of planting and harvest.

    But now I just have to find Ikiru and go watch it again.

  14. Angela: Yes, this does feel (however inadvertently it may have happened) like punishing people for daring to think that Conference spoke to them. Very painful indeed.

    Mark B.: Yes, well, perhaps one could write a whole book on how Kurosawa teaches us how to live in the Church. Heck, I’d probably buy such a book: there’s a reason why he’s one of the absolute greats. (I’d love to see Star Wars testimonies traced back to The Hidden Fortress.) But do go find Ikiru and watch it again.

  15. An interesting piece that captures well the temptation endemic to all bureaucracies to serve itself rather than the people the bureaucracy was designed for.

  16. Jason- I used Kurosawa and Rashomon with Genesis a while back. Glad to see this one.

  17. J. Stapley says:

    Solid post, Jason. I’ve not seen this. I’ll check it out now.

  18. Cool stuff, Ben; thanks for sharing!

    J: you simply must!

  19. Everyone: I’ve updated the article to reflect a piece in the Church News today identifying the General Women’s Meeting as the first session of conference.

  20. Thanks, Jason, for reminding me of this terrific film. I have several bureaucracies in my life right now that I’m struggling with and Watanabe gives me some courage in dealing with them. Of course, in his case, he had nothing to lose. Can I afford that kind of courage when my job status, church position, etc, might be endangered by my actions? My bosses might not like my going over their heads. On the other hand, taking initiative in something you strongly believe in is better than being passive-aggressive, isn’t it?… Isn’t it?

  21. The Church News snippet (does that qualify as an announcement?), while somewhat gratifying, does not add to the feeling of grace I’ve sought, and thought I had found, in managing my feelings about not mattering much to the corporate church. I wonder if this is evidence of growing pains, or more likely the evidence of a power struggle. At any rate, it doesn’t heal my already flogged confidence. I feel like I need to protect my testimony from the church.

  22. Bro. Jones says:

    Re: Church News Update

    Well, now I’m even more confused. I’m with you, MDearest. Again, we can’t present ourselves as a perfected, divinely inspired church if we make mistakes without owning up to them. That serves nothing and inspires nobody.

  23. Like Kurosawa I make mad films. Okay, I don’t make films. But if I did, they’d have a samurai.

  24. Great post — love Kurosawa.

  25. The Church News article likely provides evidence that Elder Carlson did not misspeak — that he knew exactly what he was doing when he called Priesthood Session the fourth session, and that he felt on a firm foundation in doing so, following the lead of President Uchtdorf, as pointed out in the Church News, hardly an anti-Mormon or “liberal” or “feminist” rag.

    The Newsroom’s release, which is explicitly contrary to the Church News description, makes it very clear that Women’s Meeting was not a session of General Conference and that Elder Carlson had misspoken, which was why the video/audio record was edited after the fact to change the appearance of what he said.

    In light of the Newsroom statement, those who interpreted President Uchtdorf’s comment in the same way as the Church News (that Women’s Meeting was the opening session, i.e. the first session of General Conference, i.e. it was a session of Conference, just like the Priesthood Session, i.e. the Church was taking a step forward in showing that it values the voice and role and contributions of women just as much as those of its men) have been denounced as offenders for a word — for example on Julie’s Times and Seasons post and on other Mormon blogs, but even moreso all over Facebook by Mormons who are accusing them of fighting against Church leaders for interpreting it this way. Such commenters haven’t explained why the Church found it necessary to make a statment specifically for the purpose of clarifying that Women’s Conference was actually not a session of Conference, contrary to the joyful gratitude that was being expressed by many members who were quickened by the Spirit at the thought of it.

    As Jason noted, here is the Newsroom release in which the Church felt it was necessary to specifically explain that Women’s Session actually was not a session of Conference:

    While the women’s meetings have long been an important part of general conference week, they are not usually referred to as a session of general conference. Edits are routinely made to general conference proceedings prior to publication of the official record. In this case a simple edit was made by the conference producer to reflect the usual numbering of the sessions.

    If it is true that for some undisclosed reason that the Church believes is in some way doctrinal that mandates that Women’s Conference cannot be a session of General Conference, then I would suggest a possible way to mitigate the resulting blatant disparity between the importance of Women’s Conference, as not a session of Conference, and Priesthood Meeting, which has long been automatically considered a session of General Conference. Women’s Conference is held on the Saturday evening before General Conference. Priesthood Session could be renamed Priesthood Conference and moved to the day following Women’s Conference, i.e. the Sunday evening on the weekend before General Conference. Then, on the weekend of General Conference, only four actual Conference sessions are held. Neither Women’s Conference nor Priesthood Conference would be considered actual sessions of General Conference but both would be considered part of the “kick-off” for General Conference week. Both conferences would have parity with each other in terms of their significance for their respective attendees, neither one receiving a de facto second class status, as is arguably currently the case, with one considered a Conference session and the other not.

    If this is not an acceptable solution to those calling Latter-day Saints offenders for a word and otherwise denouncing them for not sufficiently submitting to Church leaders because they interpreted President Uchtdorf in the same way as the Church News, then it is incumbent on them to explain why not. Why do you think that Priesthood Session should not be renamed Priesthood Conference and held on the day after Women’s Conference, that is, on Sunday evening on the weekend before General Conference weekend, thus giving it parity with the Women’s Conference of the Church?

  26. One small problem with the above idea: by putting the hypothetically named Priesthood Conference alongside the Women’s Conference it once again conflates Priesthood with the men in the church, something the church is trying, via Elder Oaks, to stop doing. And I’m not sure1. why putting them together makes it more apparent, but it somehow does and 2. how to mitigate that.

  27. T Gilliam says:

    But when thou doest media and news let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth;

    There must be many sorts of Chinese walls and and all manner of -ites within the halls of the Church Office Building? What form of virtual war has commenced around this scuffle of what constitutes a true session of Conference. This is almost like a scene out of another great filmmaker’s oeuvre: Delicatessen.

    But if so, who is Clapet in this storyline? It’s clear that Uchtdorf is the happy go lucky Louison who attracts the hearts of women and tenants alike. And perhaps Clawson is the Troglodiste leader pushing to support the beloved young man with the charming voice. In the spirit of this post I’m going to claim Clapet represents the bureaucracy and no specific Apostle.

  28. Given your name, I was expecting you to reference Brazil, another great film about bureaucracy run amok.

  29. I would love to have a General Men’s Conference / Session and a General Women’s Conference / Session. I couldn’t care less if they were considered part of General Conference or not, as long as they were both considered the same type of meeting.

    I also have no problem believing President Uchtdorf might have simply meant that the Women’s Conference was launching the upcoming General Conference sessions – or that he actually considers it a session of General Conference. I lean toward the latter, but I can’t know. Either way, it’s a conversation that needs to occur, even if I wish it didn’t have to occur publicly in such a messy way.

  30. Can someone point me to a resource that sets out the history of general and stake conferences? I’m curious as to whether women’s conference has always existed or is a recent development. To wit, in my stake’s Stake Conference there is always as priesthood leadership meeting on Saturday afternoon, but never a women’s meeting. Why is there not a bigger uproar about the lack of a stake women’s meeting?

    FWIW, the women I know are much more concerned about the timing of the Women’s Meeting than whether it is an official “session.” Fast & Testimony meeting is typically moved a week ahead due to conference. Consequently, many women feel they cannot involve refreshments pre/post the meeting because some members have already begun their fast. Were a general Men’s Meeting to be moved to the same slot, it would face the same challenge. Now that Priesthood Session is broadcast to all, the numbers of men attending at chapels is down. Hindering the ice cream and socializing aspect could wipe out the stalwart men who continue to attend at the chapel.

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