Considered by some to be Akira Kurosawa’s greatest achievement, Ikiru presents the most compassionate and empathetic cinematic achievement of Kurosawa—asserting life through an exploration of a man’s death.
This is the movie I watched couple of evening back, as I was literally struck in my thoughts and could not sleep. The film wrecked me. Wrecked me so good and hard. The next day I sought cerebral refuge from the overwhelming emotional damage I was experiencing. This film depressed me so much and here’s what my had so little hope….so faint, so fragile and so being nowhere and sad are times
Ikiru (To Live) is a 1952 Japanese film co-written and directed by Akira Kurosawa. The film examines the struggles of a minor Tokyo bureaucrat and his final quest for meaning. The film is inspired by the Leo Tolstoy short story “The Death of Ivan Ilyich”.It stars Takashi Shimura as Kanji Watanabe.
That was some days ago and looking back on it now, I contest anyone reading this to come up with higher praise for a work of art and Akira Kurosawa had it all, knew the emotion conflict a human being can face and face that far with all the devastation inside and yet acknowledge the personal feeling as much and celebrate those little gifts of life, oh it’s so extremely rare, precious and only Kurosawa can make it the way.
At peace in the snow. “The best way to protect your place in the world is to do nothing at all.”
Two office workers at City Hall have a conversation. The first worker asks – “I hear you never take vacation. Is it because you think that City Hall will not operate without you?” The co-worker replies “No. I don’t take vacation because everyone will realize that City Hall doesn’t need me at all.”
This story is told as a joke at the beginning of Ikiru, one of Akira Kurosawa’s greatest films. It is told by a young girl that dislikes her job and eventually quits. As she tells the joke, Mr. Kanji Watanabe (Taskashi Shimura) sits and listens quietly. Mr. Watanabe has spent his entire life behind a desk, stamping forms. He has just found out that he as stomach cancer and has six months left to live. The joke rattles him to the bone. Watanabe is the Section Chief for the Public Affairs office at City Hall. He sits behind a desk and stamps papers all day long. Requests are either approved or denied at his discretion, but we never see him actually do anything at work except sit, stamp, and tell customers they have come to the wrong department and to route their problems elsewhere.
The film opens with a group of mothers that come to the Public Affairs office in order to complain about a cesspool underneath an overpass. The cesspool is brining bugs, sickness and filth into their neighborhood. Their children are getting eaten alive by mosquitoes and becoming sick. They want to fill up the cesspool and build a playground. In their attempt to propose their idea they start with Mr. Watanabe, who sends them to The Engineering Department. The mothers are then sent to the departments of, parks, health, sanitation, environmental sanitation, prevention, infectious diseases, pest control, sewage, roads, city planning, ward reorganization, fire, and education before finally being able to speak to the ultra-bureaucratic deputy mayor. The deputy mayor advises they go see Mr. Watanabe. The proposal finally ends up right back on his desk. He doesn’t get it; he is away to the doctor.
All of this nonsense changes when Watanabe hears that he is going to die. The doctor tells him that he has a stomach ulcer, but it is clear that the doctor is lying to him. He goes home and cries himself to sleep all alone in the dark. The camera pans up to the certificate of service he has received for his thirty years at City Hall: a lifetime of doing nothing resulting in a sheet of paper hanging on a wall. “I cannot die,” he tells a bar patron as he is becoming intoxicated for the first time, “I never lived.”
The story in Ikiru is universal. A person finds out they are dying, and spends the remainder of their time left on earth trying to do all of the things they have always wanted in order to die a happy person. Ikiru is one of the most moving motion pictures I have ever seen. There is not a point in time when Watanabe resorts to melodrama, crying fits, or rage. He wears his sorrow internally and shares it with few people. In the course of the film, he only actually tells two people that he has stomach cancer. He is too busy trying to live his life for such nonsense. The performance by Shimura is outstanding. There is never a moment in the picture when we cannot see that he is internalizing his grief, fear, and longing to do something with his life.
As soon as Watanabe realizes that he has cancer he immediately ditches work and attempts to live his life. He is a month away from working 30 years without calling in sick, and immediately takes leave. The first half of the film centers on his activities for the majority of these days. He spends one night on the town with a stranger. He meets the stranger at the bar and takes his first drink there. He is going through his escapism phase, and wants to wash his sorrows away. I challenge any viewer to find a better scene that can more adequately describe what drives many to alcoholism.
During that night, Watanabe and the stranger visit a piano bar. The crowd is dancing and having a good time. After the first several songs Watanabe requests the piano player to sing “Life is Brief,” an old Japanese song from the beginning of the twentieth century. The piano player knows the song, and plays it while Watanabe sings. This scene breaks my heart when I see it. Watanabe cannot carry a tune, but the lyrics and the music mean more to him that the humility he displays. The crowd goes silent, and many begin to weep.
After his night on the town, Watanabe also spends time with a young girl from the office. He takes her out, buys her dinner and shows her a good time at the casinos. Mitsuo (his son) and his wife immediately begin to think that their father has begun to have an affair with the young girl. They fear their inheritance. They know that their father has acquired a great amount of savings (enough to buy their own home) and fear that he will spend it all on his new toy. When Watanabe finally sits his son down to tell him that he is dying his son interrupts him. “We have the right to our inheritance, and I want that in writing. I could care less about your behavior! If you want to act like a degenerate that is fine, but I want what is coming to me” Mitsuo screams. Watanabe never tells his son that he is dying.
It is in scenes like this that Kurosawa proves that he is a master at work. Many know his name from his epic action pictures Rashomon, Ran, Yojimbo and the unparalleled Seven Samurai. Many of these films will be featured on this very site. Ikiru, however, is the film that I consider as Kurosawa’s masterpiece. It contemplates the meaning of life in a way that very few other films do. He shows his filmmaking prowess by exercising restraint. He just wants to tell the story of a man trying to live.
The movie ending is outstanding. Deciding to do one great thing before he dies, Watanabe returns to work and finds the proposal to fill in the cesspool from the beginning of the film. He spends his remaining months fighting and pushing his way through layers of bureaucracy. He stands up to the mob, the deputy mayor and his family. This is not done in scenes of grandstanding or anger, but in quiet persistence. The deputy mayor finally approves the proposal in order to shut Watanabe up.
Near the end of the film we see Watanabe sitting on a swing in the playground he built. The cesspool is gone, it is in the middle of the night, and it is snowing. He sits and swings back and forth in the snow and sings “Life is Brief.”
Life is brief, fall in love, maidens before the crimson bloom fades from your lips, before the tides of passion cool within you for those of you who know no tomorrow
Life is brief, fall in love,maidens before your raven tresses begin to fade before the flames in your hearts flicker and die for those to whom today will never return
As the camera slowly pans around, we see Watanabe smiling with a tear running down his face. This image is among the most beautiful I have ever seen in cinema. The dying man has finally accomplished something good and pure in his life. The film ends with children playing on his life’s work and a co-worker at the public affairs office looking down upon it, questioning his place in the world.
Ikiru is a film that I think everyone should see at least once every fifteen years. It is motivational in a way few films are. You want to sit quietly and think after you have seen it. I have never seen a picture that so adequately describes the meaning of life. I know many will not watch it because it is in black and white, from the 1950’s and is in subtitles. What a shame! This is one of the most beautiful films ever made.
- Directed by Akira Kurosawa
- Produced by Sōjirō Motoki
- Written by Shinobu Hashimoto; Akira Kurosawa & Hideo Oguni
- Casting: Takashi Shimura
- Music by Fumio Hayasaka
- Cinematography Asakazu Nakai
- Editing by Kōichi Iwashita
- Studio: Toho Studios
- Distributed by: Toho
- Release dates: October 9, 1952
- Running time of 143 minutes
- Country : Japan
- Language: Japanese
Ikiru ranks one of the top 100 greatest movies of all time in Empire magazines. This film won 1954 Berlin International Film Festival