I was surprised to learn that Ikiru was not one of Kurosawa’s later films but was instead made between Rashomon (1950) and Seven Samurai (1954). Sandwiched by such formidable company Ikiru seems a tame endeavor by comparison, but it lacks for none of the man’s directing prowess.
“Ikiru” means “to live” in Japanese and the film’s protagonist Kanji Watanbe (Takashi Shimura) is dying. We are introduced to his stomach cancer first by the film’s narrator, the lethal diagnosis confirmed soon thereafter after Watanbe visits his doctor. Though the doctor tells him it’s nothing more than a minor ulcer, a fellow patient in the waiting room breaks down Watanbe’s symptoms and tells him exactly how long he has to live: three months, no more than a year at most. Watanabe has spent the last twenty years of his life as a mere piece of bureaucratic machinery, the Section Chief of the Public Affairs Department, so wrapped up in paper and so bereft of soul that a young bureaucrat in his office nicknames him “The Mummy.” Suddenly, with death certain, he falls into a catatonic state, incapable of rationalizing his life or his significance in any way.
Kurosawa’s compositions in this film are beautiful snapshots of post-wartime Japan filled with the bustle and changes taking place within its cities. After Watanbe learns that he is to die, the first great moment sneaks up and smashes the viewer with its frenzy. The man bent by age and self-pity wanders out of the hospital, alone on the sidewalk, the sound of his shoes the sole audio. Just as he is about to step into the street, it comes alive, its ten-thousand sounds suddenly present; trucks and cars race past him, bicycles, men and women stream down the sidewalk and we see that life has not only caught up with Watanbe, it is passing him by; and he is submerged.
What follows is what we might expect from an American film in this context, though perhaps not one in the 1950s. Watanbe withdraws 50,000 yen from his bank account, money that took him dozens of years to save, and tries to think of something to spend it on. But the truth is, as he drunkenly confesses to a stranger in a bar, he has spent so long dead already he has no idea how to live. The two descend on the city searching for redemption in debauchery. Later Watanbe befriends a young bureaurcrat, her youth and delight kindling his old soul. But these things do not fulfill him as he hoped they would.
And herein ends the similarities between Ikiru and what we’ve seen before in these films. There is something familiar about the premise of a man/woman finding out they have x months to live and seeking meaning in love & fun (films like 2007’s The Bucket List come to mind), but no tepid sentimentality awaits our protagonist. Though Watanbe lives with his estranged son and wishes to die reconciled to him, he dies without that reconciliation, having been humiliated by him to the point that he cannot tell him the truth about his cancer.
Watanbe’s wake constitutes the third act of the film, with family and colleagues piecing together what the man did in the last five months of his life. And though the first two-thirds of Ikiru is a graceless portrait of pity and weariness, this last third is a masterpiece. It is a damning portrait of bureaucracy in general, and Japanese post-war divides and attitudes in particular. As Watanbe’s colleagues get progressively more drunk they begin to speak their minds. They bemoan their own uselessness in the government’s machine (“Doing anything but nothing is radical”) and they gradually, pathetically recognize what the old mummy accomplished.
Shimura was a regular face in Kurosawa’s films, overshadowed perhaps by his great and frequent co-star Toshiro Mifune, but here his performance is the soul of the film. Watanbe never stops being a pathetic, stuttering mummy of a man, a man that has lost any vitality he once possessed. This is what makes watching him so inspiring. There is no sudden American personality shift, he doesn’t just become a hero for the underdog; he is terrified and pitiful throughout his slow death. And yet what he does, how he finishes his life, is beautiful.
Ikiru is a tragic film from one of cinema’s masters, never falling into maudlin conceits – in fact radically subverting them. Its hope is measured out equally with its cynicism and offers a trenchant glimpse at a time in history that contains an abiding truth:
“I can’t afford to hate people. I don’t have that kind of time.”
Inspired by “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” by Leo Tolstoy
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
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