Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 film Ikiru is the type of movie that can change a life, or at least change a person’s way of looking at life. It is an extremely moving work, standing as a superb example of the emotional and inspirational power of cinema.
Ikiru is also an exceptional vehicle for Takashi Shimura, an actor known for his astonishing range over the course of 200-plus films. In Ikiru, while Kurosawa makes great use of faces in close-up throughout, there is none more expressive than that of Shimura as the cancer-ridden Public Affairs Section Chief Kanji Watanabe. Every emotion and every thought is transparently written on his aged and weary face—it’s hard to believe the actor would embody the vigorous leader of the rag-tag samurai team two years later in Seven Samurai. Here, he effectively goes from gut-wrenching concern at the doctor’s office, to sheer terror hidden away in the darkness of his room, to total bewilderment when he is thrust into the Tokyo nightlife. But then, there can be a smile, particularly when he is with Toyo Odagiri (Miki Odagiri), a much younger former coworker, which suddenly gives his character great warmth and positivity.
These scenes of Watanabe and Odagiri together are some of the best in the film. These are times when the terminally ill old man finds joy and refreshment in the simplicity of youth (“They make you that happy?” he perplexingly asks Odagiri about her new stockings). She represents to him so much possibility, a possibility that had existed with his own son but has since been lost with their increasingly strained relationship (the early flashbacks of his reminisces with his boy do suggest a touching past). Not finding satisfaction from a night of wild abandon and drunken revelry, the contentment he shows just watching this silly girl eat noodles and play games is powerfully conveyed by Shimura. She, and we, truly begin to understand this character through the development of their unorthodox connection.
Kurosawa’s narrative strategy with Ikiru is also noteworthy, not just in the splitting into two of the story structure (he had done that before and would do it again), but in the way he concurrently manipulates emotional expectations. In the beginning of the film, the viewer is instantly confronted by sadness (the first image shown is an x-ray of Watanabe’s cancer) and it essentially gets worse from there as Watanabe’s familial relationships dissolve and he ultimately dies. But then, the second half of the film, with about an hour left in the picture, is comprised of a series of flashback vignettes eliciting exultation as we see Watanabe’s determination, his drive, and his defiance (standing up to the yakuza by simply entering a room, for instance). Typically, in stories like this, dealing with someone’s illness then death, characters are shown happy in the beginning and then we see their demise; that is what creates the sadness and the sympathy. But Kurosawa knows life does not necessarily follow that progression. Instead, sometimes there is bliss and acceptance only after the worst has happened.
The above also follows with Kurosawa’s general penchant for shifting tone throughout the film. Right away, we find out Watanabe has cancer with just months to live. Then comes a sequence of tragically amusing bureaucratic absurdity, as Watanabe is seen hunched over his desk amidst stacks and stacks of paperwork, dwarfing the worker in some sort of orderly disarray. “He’s only killing time,” says the detached, rather insensitive narrator. “He’s never actually lived … This isn’t even worth watching.” What are we to make of this callous remark, a subjective acknowledgement of our very viewing of a film? Or, later, after we see Watanabe so happy with Odagiri, the next scene is of him getting ignored by his son; it’s a continually fluctuating balance of highs and lows for Watanabe. Then there is the key scene when he decides he can make a difference. He is rejuvenated. A chorus of “Happy Birthday” from a nearby party plays over his sudden inspiration—this, too, is a rebirth, a new start, a turning point. He goes back to work and opens up the case about the cesspool in the park. In these sequences of swiftly variable behavior and action, the good, bad, or indifferent, Kurosawa depicts the unpredictable nature of what it is like “to live,” as the title of the film translates. Sometimes up, sometimes down, these are the realities, to say nothing of the complexities, of life, of living.
Correspondingly, and in a fashion similar to many of Kurosawa’s best films, this aching humanist drama tackles severe existential questions, some literally voiced by the characters, all amplifying Ikiru’s emotional weight. Two particularly significant lines of dialogue recognize this. The first is when Odagiri, referring to Watanabe’s behavior with her, asks, “What’s the point?” As simple as it is, and though it is said in a different context, that sort of provocative question lies at the heart of the film. Of everything he has done and is still doing, for Watanabe, what is the point, what does he hope to gain? The second exchange, another that lends the film its introspective impact, is when one of the city workers notes at Watanabe’s wake, “Any one of us could drop dead,” the argument being that Watanabe made good only after the realization of his impending death. That is essentially the film’s message, for lack of a better word. We all know our death is imminent—Watanabe knew he was for sure, he even had a timeline—so basically, we had better get busy doing something worthwhile as long as we are still here.
The author who takes Watanebe on a whirlwind tour of bars and clubs says the old man is an extremely rare individual. He admires the way the cancer has opened his eyes, and while Watanabe stumbles about in a blurred state of regret and panic, the author appreciates the way he seeks to rebel against his past self, as he puts it. Yet there are hints that while he is now part of a monotonous routine of managerial busywork, he at one point had ambition and did want to do something substantive with his life. It is also made clear that Watanebe’s insipidly stagnant life is not unique to him. The type of existence that has led to his basic nonexistence is systemic as much as it is self-induced. And the sad part of it all, or rather, one of the sad parts, is that by the end of the film, even after those who paid their respects to Watanebe declare a desire to change their ways (those who aren’t busy taking credit for his public service, that is) the same repetitive, cruel world carries on, and no lessons have been learned: the same habits remain, the same routine, the same runaround between various governmental agencies.
This type of bureaucratic uniformity is reflexive of post-war modernity in Tokyo, a period that is also illustrated in Ikiru by way of the city’s dirty, gritty, crowded, and hectic state of transitional disrepair. So many of the settings in the film are in shambles, and there is a persistently disturbing portrait of the sick, the poor, and the destitute (surely drinking from a communal cup at a doctor’s office is a notably unhygienic arrangement indicative of a poor social condition). Some of this is economic, some certainly political, but some is obviously a result of societal ill—these people live terribly depressing lives. It is therefore easy to see how one like Watanebe can simply lose interest.
In his seminal text on Kurosawa, Donald Richie recalls being told by a representative to David O. Selznick that while the famed producer liked Ikiru, he felt it could drag a bit, particularly during the funeral scene. As Richie was preparing to screen the film, the gentleman wondered, “Don’t you think we might shorten it a bit?” Obviously, the idea of someone tampering with a master filmmaker’s work is worthy of scorn, but Selznick may have been on to something. The final half of the film is markedly slower. It certainly does not warrant cutting, and for the most part, what is there is nevertheless essential, but by comparison to the first part of the picture, things do rest at a stately pace. Part of this has to do with how intensely realized the first section of the film is. Kurosawa edits quicker, he moves the camera more, and frames are dense, textured, bursting with a composite of surrounding elements. He employs a number of stylistic flourishes, visually and aurally, as when the sound drops out after Watanebe receives his diagnosis, only to abruptly return as he steps out onto the streets and the chaotic world around him loudly carries on regardless of his condition. The film’s emotional significance may reside in its latter half, but its first half is admittedly more robust.
Kurosawa worked on Ikiru with several familiar behind the scenes figures, most commendably, co-writers Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni, who helped construct this intricately layered portrait of a man during a time of tremendous stress, despair, and determination. And there is also cinematographer Asakazu Nakai, who with the director composes moments of astonishingly sublime beauty, prominent against the pervading anguish: the tranquil, reserved image of Watanabe on a swing set in the snow, for example.
Winner of a special prize at the 1954 Berlin International Film Festival, Ikiru is an extraordinary achievement, one of Kurosawa’s finest for sure. It is an empathetic work of life’s pleasures, sorrows, and everything in between.