Ikiru – Akira Kurosawa and what it means to live

What an absolutely beautiful film. This was pure delight from start to finish.

An established masterpiece, Ikiru was made in 1952, between Rashomon and Seven Samurai, and stars Takashi Shimura. He played the woodcutter in Rashomon, leader of the Seven Samurai and in Ikiru he’s a crabbed, middle-aged civil servant suddenly faced with his imminent death by cancer. Ikiru means “to live”. or “living”.  Kurosawa, with the help of Hashimoto and Oguni, wrote the screenplay for the black and white film at age 42. The film, widely recognized as one of Kurosawa’s masterpieces. I read an amazing two-part essay by Aryeh Kaufman on the Off Screen website, from which I draw a lot of the information for this review.

It is worth looking at a film in its historical context. Ikiru emerged during Japan’s postwar reconstruction, as the country sought to adapt to its newly inherited capitalism and democracy. Calling for forms of cultural upheaval and self-scrutiny, the film may be viewed as political cinema. It promotes breaking traditional ties to larger social groups, such as family and company, for the sake of personal achievement.

In general, Kurosawa draws upon numerous sources and texts to inform his films. Ikiru is no exception, combining Western elements from Dostoevsky’s works and Goethe’s Faust with Eastern visions of Zen and the samurai code of Bushido. In terms of Ikiru’s specific origins, Kurosawa explains, “Sometimes I think of my death. I think of ceasing to be…and it is from these thoughts that Ikiru came.”

The basic plot (and trust me this will in no way reduce the impact of the film for you if you haven’t seen it) of Ikiru is this:

Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura) is a middle-aged man who has worked in the same monotonous bureaucratic position for thirty years. His wife is dead and his son and daughter-in-law, who live with him, seem to care mainly about Watanabe’s pension and their future inheritance.

Ikiru is the story of Kanji Watanabe, who, when facing death, finally realizes that he has led a meaningless life—that he has not lived at all. In fact, Watanabe has crafted his life to avoid passion and action. The film often depicts Watanabe, played by Takashi Shimura, in an office environment that emphasizes his physical and emotional absence. Watanabe’s death sentence, presented through an advanced stomach cancer, shocks the protagonist and leads to his despair. After disavowing his prior existence and accepting a search for means to live to the fullest, Watanabe experiments with various approaches to living, each with different moral implications. He explores the immediate fulfillment of the senses in a wild scene of night revelry. He attempts to rely on family bonds and relationships for the support and closeness he needs. And he is driven to live through a youthful coworker who appears to know the secret to his desperate search for aliveness. Finally, in a moment of enlightenment, Watanabe realizes he may in fact bring meaning to his life. By championing a proposal to build a children’s playground in a slum, and by dedicating his remaining days to its fulfillment, Watanabe finds peace and tranquility. The tragedy has turned into an uplifting model of affirmation.

The last third of the film takes place during Watanabe’s wake, as his former co-workers try to figure out what caused such a dramatic change in his behavior. His transformation from listless bureaucrat to passionate advocate puzzles them. As the co-workers drink, they slowly realize that Watanabe must have known he was dying. They drunkenly vow to live their lives with the same dedication and passion as he did. But back at work, they lack the courage of their newfound conviction. In a very shocking moment, one co-worker tries to make a stand, and is stared down by his fellow co-workers only to disappear behind mounds and mounds of paperwork.

An iconic scene from the film is from the last few moments in Watanabe’s life, as he sits on the swing at the park he built. As the snow falls, we see Watanabe gazing lovingly over the playground, at peace with himself and the world. He again starts singing “Gondola no Uta”

The film presents a unique binary structure that utilizes multiple character perspectives and non-linear time. The first division, covering two-thirds of the film, begins with an omniscient narrator’s presentation of an X-ray of Watanabe’s stomach and the knowledge that he has terminal cancer. This is the part of the film that follows Watanabe as he discovers he is dying and subsequently tries to find meaning in his life.

The second division also includes narration, although this time it is to inform the viewers that Watanabe has passed away. The remainder of this section takes place at Watanabe’s wake where he is represented and misrepresented through the loaded conversation of remembrance. This second division is characterized by a unity of time and space, unlike the freer narrative structure of the first. At the wake, flashbacks serve to fill in gaps and are presented as literal reconstructions of events. Ironically, viewers are never presented with specific flashbacks in which Watanabe successfully achieves either approval or acceptance of the playground proposal—a key moment for viewers. The mourners fail to present such moments. We merely observe his dogged determination in putting pressure on colleagues, pleading with the Deputy Mayor, painfully crawling down office hallways, and quietly resisting the threats of gangsters.

One of the interesting things about this film is its continuation after the death of Watanabe. This leaves the viewer wondering why the film didn’t end when he died. Equipped with recent observation of Watanabe’s suffering, experiences, and ultimate enlightenment, we engage with the mourners of the wake scene in their deliberations. We know the intimacies of Watenabe’s condition, and yet we are forced to observe the rather painful deliberations of others, that are drawn out and almost completely miss the mark. The point of this is to observe how Watanabe is perceived and misunderstood by others. It is, eventually through these character recollections that we learn that Watanabe found happiness and meaning in life before death, and that he did achieve something of value before he died.

Ikiru is more than a morality tale that preaches good deeds feel good. Iriku is more fustian in that the search for meaning in earthly and spiritual realms does have an answer and that healing the human spirit is always possible. Kurosawa answered the existential question posed in Rashomon (1950): how should one live in a meaningless world, where death is certain, individuals are selfish and self-serving, and God does not exist? In that film, Kurosawa altered the original story of Akutagawa to present the woodcutter, also played by Shimura, as redeemer of the world through his final act of taking an orphaned baby into his home. Despite the importance of self-sacrifice and altruism in such a feat, Ikiru and Watanabe demonstrate that of primary importance to the individual, to the rebirth and empowerment of one, is the creative deed. It is through the purpose and the actions of creation that Watanabe resolves so many tension that appear through the film such as the shallowness and insufficiency of immediate satisfaction of the senses contrasted with the need to live a youthful, passionate existence, and the difficulty communicating one’s thoughts and feelings to those supposedly closest to one despite the isolation and loneliness of the individual.

There are other powerful themes that run through this beautiful and remarkable film. Isolation and separation.  Watanabe cries out that the only other time he felt so alone was in a near death experience he had a child in a pond. He feels as far from his son as he faces his own death as he did from his parents struggling to breathe in that pond. It is possible, in certain evaluations of this film, that Kurosawa tried to tell us isolation and separation are essential for self discovery, but it is only in the return that the benefits are realised. Still, I do think, and this is an arguable point, that the source of power for Watanabe is his act of creation. When he took a broken sewer and turned it into a children’s playground for the poor and underprivileged. The smallest of individuals, the most useless, the paper shuffling bureaucrat caught up in the endless mire of impotent government departments is able to create something of lasting value by seizing a certain kind of isolationist power and forcing anything and everything in his way to turn in his direction.

If you haven’t seen this film, you absolutely must. I’ve seen so many brilliant films lately. This is not just another one. As Roger Ebert said in his review of this film (and I paraphrase) , this is one of those rare films that might actually change people’s lives. It’s that sort of film, really.  Even the smallest of us can fulfil our own self actualized destiny through the act of creation.