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Akira Kurosawa's Ikiru:

The Art of Living

By Eamon Graham


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Many people remember Japanese director Akira Kurosawa best for his samurai films and historical pieces. Less appreciated in the West, however, is Kurosawa's ability not just to excite but to move. Whether the faith inspiring denouement in One Wonderful Sunday or the heartbreaking disappearance of Professor Uchida's cat Nora in Madadayo, the work of Kurosawa is the finest example of humanist cinema, humanist in the finest sense of affirming faith in humanity while truthfully acknowledging the human condition for what it is. Probably no film represents this better than his 1952 classic Ikiru, which he wrote with Shinobu Hashimoto.

Life begins with the certainty that we will die, and Ikiru too begins with this realisation. From the very beginning we know that the film's unlikely hero will die. The film opens with a shot of an x-ray showing the stomach cancer that will eventually kill Kanji Watanabe. Like that x-ray, the film will soon focus intimately on Watanabe's inner being. At this point, though, Watanabe is unaware of his fate as he sits in his office surrounded by the trappings of municipal bureaucracy, taking stomach medicine like candy. Making us aware of his physical fate, the narrator also gives us a diagnosis of his inner spirit, telling us that he has been more dead than alive for a long time and "it would be boring to talk about him now."

Watanabe is the perfect example of a thirty-year bureaucrat in the Tokyo city government. He's never missed a day of work in his life and the walls of his home are lined with "perfect attendance" certificates. Like the lower bureaucrats he oversees, his job is to basically do nothing. Watanabe's world is characterised by satirical passing-of-the-buck from one municipal department to another as a group of neighborhood women concerned about a stagnant swamp in their slum is shuffled from one office to another, always with the answer that it is some other department's business (and with the implication that the bureaucrat involved couldn't possibly care less). This satire is capped by the statement that in Japan a trash can cannot be emptied without enough paperwork to fill it.

Watanabe seems devoted to his job, but it would be more correct to say that he merely doesn't question it. He has no passion for it, nor does he seem to have passion for anything else. As he shuffles through the comically large stacks of paperwork and memos, he has no real interest in making any of it disappear - in fact, in can be argued that the job of the bureaucrat is to make any kind of progress impossible. Inside his desk drawer is a document labeled "A Plan to Raise Office Efficiency" - he tears the first page off to clean his glasses and throws it away. The mechanical and passionless movements Watanabe goes through in his job are characterised by his co-workers secret name for him - "The Mummy." At the same time, and as the film will continue to show us, we see that these co-workers are certainly no more passionate.

Watanabe is played by Takashi Shimura, who played more than 20 roles for Kurosawa before his death in 1982. Descended from the class of Samurai warriors, he is probably best remembered for his role leading the Seven Samurai, but in the beginning of Ikiru we see a bit of the Shimura we saw as Attorney Hiruta in the 1950 film Shubun ("Scandal") - pathetic in a way that is both comical and tragic. Moving from pathos to heroism, Shimura remains convincing in his sad-eyed, slumpped portrayal of the doomed and chronically pained Watanabe: slow, muted and quiet (indeed, I've heard that Shimura was recovering from surgery during filming). Though only 47 years old when Ikiru was filmed, you can easily assume him to be 15 or 20 years older. You can't help but love Shimura as he reminds you a bit of your grandfather, but even more, Watanabe reminds us of ourselves, and disturbingly so.

Soon, Watanabe will learn what we already know. A man in a hospital waiting room begins discussing the signs of terminal stomach cancer that Watanabe knows all too well. What the man had told Watanabe is later proven true after meeting his doctors, and so begins Watanabe's death and re-birth. At this point, with only six months to live, Watanabe has realised his mortality. But it would be incorrect to say that Ikiru is a film about death. In fact, "ikiru" is the Japanese verb meaning "to live" - and the film is, more than anything else, a reminder that we are given life in order to live it. It is at this point that Watanabe begins wondering how one should really live.

It is with his realisation that he will die that Watanabe begins to evaluate the meaning of his existence. He feels that he has nothing permanent to show for his empty, unsatisfying and unpassionate life. He realises that he has never really lived, but has wasted his life on trivia. To escape his anguish, he makes various attempts "to live," to seek out what life has to offer in its possibilities.

At first, he attempts to build a meaningful relationship with a family that refuses to understand him. A widower, he lives with his self-obsessed son and daughter-in-law but without any feeling of family love. Against this backdrop we learn that his devotion to his job was solely for the sake of the son who never appreciated it. As he attempts to talk with his son, he's interrupted by his son's own selfish and petty concerns.

Finding communication with his son impossible, he spends a night out. At a bar he meets a young novelist who tries to help him forget his troubles by taking him out for a night on the town. The novelist attempts to drown Watanabe's depression in liquor as they search together for the meaning of life in bars and nightclubs. The illusion doesn't last long, however. In one bar, a drunken Watanabe sings an old song about finding fulfillment while you're young because "life is short" and "there will be no tomorrow." The youthful crowd around him is repelled by him because they, like us, are happy with their illusion and do not want to be reminded that they too will someday be like this sick old man. With this song, Watanabe realises the futility of illusory pleasures in overcoming his anguish.

Not showing up for work for the first time in his entire career, Watanabe is visited at his house by a young woman from his office named Toyo who needs his seal so she may leave her office job for one in a factory making toys. Energetic and excited, Toyo represents what Watanabe would like to be. They spend time together as Watanabe tries hard to understand her excitement for life. As their relationship progresses, Toyo explains that her new job, while not exciting, does giver her some satisfaction, knowing that the toys she make will be loved by a happy child. This plants the seeds in Watanabe's head that he can use his own job to give meaning to his life by giving himself to others, leaving his mark in a slum neighborhood plagued by a filthy swamp.

It is about this time that the audience is told of Watanabe's death, months after his re-birth. The pace of the film after Watanabe's death is slow by Hollywood standards, but the series of flashbacks and recollections teach us how Watanabe suddenly took up the cause of the neighborhood women who wanted only for the city to remove the filthy swamp and replace it with a safe place for their children to play. Where it was once his job to block such moves, he now, with nothing to lose, resolves to leave this legacy behind. With complete single-mindedness, he focuses his failing energy on getting this swamp drained and replaced with a playground. With only his new found passion and stubornness to drive him on, he fights the city bureaucratic obstacles and spends his final days personally overseeing its construction. Not content to merely get the plan approved, Watanabe is at the construction site personally, something that must have looked odd for a low-level municipal bureaucrat.

At his wake, his family and drunken co-workers debate the meaning of what they feel was the bizarre behavior of Watanabe's last months. Each person at the wake has their own interpretation of Watanabe's sudden stubbornness, his sudden passion. After his son and daughter-in-law feared that Toyo might have been a mistress he was spending their inheritance on, the theory comes up that perhaps Watanabe was trying to impress a lover. Interupting all of this, the same group of neighborhood women who were once frustrated by Watanabe show up at his wake, to bow in respect and cry tears that seem more authentic than any of the emotions of his family and co-workers.

The most memorable scene of the film is also the most poignant, the most heartbreaking, and the most beautiful. In this short scene, Watanabe, with coat and hat, sits on a swing in the playground he built, happily swinging back and forth at night in the winter of his life with pure snow falling all around. Smiling, he sings the same song that once reminded him that life is short and there will be no tomorrow. His work complete, he dies peacefully and with dignity. If tears do not come to your eyes during this scene, either you have blocked tear ducts or no heart.

His family and co-workers are left to wonder if he knew he was dying (remember, he was unable to have conversation with his son). They suddenly realise that he must have known and that he was determined to leave this legacy. How will the public they supposedly serve remember them when they die? They resolve to be more like him, to learn from his example.

In the next scenes, though, Kurosawa shows that after the drunkeness wears off the humdrum of daily work settles back in, and people have failed to learn the lesson. But as the final scene shows, Watanabe's legacy is not the failure of his co-workers to take responsibility for their own lives; his legacy is in the laughter of playing children, one swinging in the same swing where he once sat. Kanji Watanabe lives on in the hope of a young child who was given a safer environment to grow up in.

Kurosawa leaves us with that image and we're left to reflect on our life - its meaning and its hope.

Copyright © 2003 Eamon Graham. May not be reproduced or used without permission of the author.
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