From the hard boiled detective story to the narratively complex Rashomon, Kurosawa had already established himself as a master filmmaker even before he got to some of his later epics. But in order to dive into some of those later works, we have to take a look at one more deeply personal film. As always, spoilers to follow.
Ikiru, which translated directly means “To Live,” is the story of a middle-aged bureaucrat who has spent the last thirty years of his life mindlessly stamping papers for a living. Kanji Watanabe is just another cog in the government’s bureaucratic machine, endlessly shuffling papers, ignoring the pleas of citizens in order to get through the work day, and just trying to keep his head down to fly under the radar. After a visit to the doctor, he is shocked to learn he has stomach cancer and is given less than a year to live.
What follows is his search to find meaning in his remaining days. He stops showing up to work, wallows in the drunken pools of Tokyo’s nightlife, and eventually meets a young co-worker who is resigning from her position. Struck by her love of life and willingness to take chances, Watanabe eventually opens up to her, telling her he only has a few months to live. She tells him he has to find his own meaning in life, and he decides to return to work, only this time to move the bureaucratic process along and turn a city’s cesspool into a new playground.
The film then takes a sudden turn, jumping to Watanabe’s wake where his coworkers are drunkenly trying to figure out what happened. This narrative twist is important for the film’s success. Where most might have anticipated the film ending with his death, Kurosawa instead shows us something much more important: the legacy of a life well lived. Aside from his ex-coworker, no one, not even his son, knew about his cancer. They attempt to justify his sudden stubbornness to build the park in many ways, almost all of them wrong, until they finally agree to live their lives with meaning as well. Unfortunately, they fail to commit to the same lifestyle and quickly fall back on their own ways.
You don’t need a psychiatrist to tell you that the reason Watanabe was rushing to make something of his life at its last moments were brought about because of his immediate doom. Ikiru has been analyzed a million different ways by just as many writers, and you can find hundreds of essays stuffed with words and phrases like “modern existentialism” and “restrained affirmation of life,” but they all pale in comparison to Roger Ebert’s straightforward understanding of the film. “The older I get,” he says, “The less Watanabe seems like a pathetic old man, and the more he seems like every one of us.”
We look for meaning in our own lives, every day, even if we don’t label our search an existential crisis. Some of us may know our time is running short, others may believe they’ll live forever, but our search for meaning takes many forms throughout our life whether we know it or not. As philosophical as the subject of Ikiru gets, it’s really a simple story brought about by Kurosawa’s own ruminations on the inevitability of death. Sure, there’s always that undercurrent of finding meaning in a postwar Japan, a theme that is impossible to divorce from any of Kurosawa’s earlier works, but the idea stems simply from one man facing his own death.
Yet, Ikiru manages to avoid being a depressing tale. It’s inspiring. Watanabe doesn’t spend his last minutes trying to make some grand gesture, or travel the world, or act like a fool. He simply does what he could have been doing all along: his job. He turns a wasteland into a park for generations to come, affecting hundreds of people by moving the stagnant bureaucratic train along. What a simple way to live a life, and yet it comes across as so profound. His actions are given greater weight thanks to the movie’s narrative style, which juxtaposes his coworkers at his wake, trying hard to avoid living their own lives, against the final act of a man who discovered meaning in his last moments.
One of the final shots of the movie is among Kurosawa’s most famous. By now you’ve caught on to his use of weather, which usually takes the form of a violent storm, oppressive heat, or searing wind. In Ikiru, he uses snow for a much different effect. It’s calming, quiet, and gives us the impression of a clean start. As Watanabe spends his last moments on a swing in the park he helped build from waste, the gentle snowfall is a comforting image that conjures up feelings of warmth and happiness.
Ikiru is not a depressing film. It’s a gentle reminder that life is brief, a soft nudge to start truly living again. It’s one of Kurosawa’s more intimate films, especially when contrasted with his next epic two years later. What we’ll find is that despite the bombastic setup of The Seven Samurai, he doesn’t lost this humanistic touch that was the hallmark of his earlier films.
Steve likes movies. Follow him on Twitter.