Ikiru (To Live), by Akira Kurosawa, is sort of a ‘lost’ film. No, it was never really lost, but it is unlike the archetypal Kurosawa film Western audiences think of him making, and thereby lost in his canon. It is not some historical epic filled with honor, samurais, and swordplay. It is more in line with the genre of retrospective life films in the vein of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane or Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, in that we drop in the on the life of an ordinary man- in this case lifelong low level Tokyo city bureaucrat office head Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura), a few months before his death by stomach cancer, and witness how this ‘living mummy’, as his co-workers chide him (one of the nicer things they say about him), reclaims meaning in a life long since blanched of it. Unlike Charles Foster Kane, a business magnate, or Isak Borg, a renowned Academic, Watanabe is the sort of man most people would ignore.
His devotion to his work life only accentuates his forgetability, for he seems somehow pleased with himself and his existence (or maybe just narcotized), merely rubber stamping projects here and there, or assisting his underlings in giving grieving citizens the bureaucratic runaround. Yet, as soon as we, and he, get confirmation of his cancer (although his doctors, in Japanese tradition deny it, and Kurosawa deftly skewers this absurd tradition in a hilarious scene where another stomach patient- played by Atsushi Watanabe- tells Watanabe exactly what horrors to expect from the doctors and the disease, and is right) something within Watanabe shifts. A mere month shy of setting the all time record for perfect attendance, he skips out of work for a few days. The non-news of his impending demise has shattered all his desires for conformity.
Yet, he finds himself wallowing in self-pity, going out on drunken binges with a wannabe novelist (Yûnosuke Itô) he meets at a bar, blowing 50,000 yen, or seeking the company of Toyo (Miki Odagiri), a young female civil servant who loathes her job at the office, and when she wants to quit for a job at a children’s toy factory, Watanabe tries to buy her friendship. His son Mitsuo (Nobuo Kaneko) and his daughter-in-law, Sakai (Haruo Tanaka) who live with him, mistakenly believe that she is his father’s mistress- a not infrequent episode in Japanese life. But, Watanabe cannot bring himself to tell his son of his cancer. In a wonderful passage, early in the film, we see scenes of the gradual estrangement between father and son after the death of Watanabe’s wife. Haunted by the past, Watanabe stares at his dead wife’s photo; although we never learn of her name, nor how she died- one of the many unresolved aspects of Watanabe’s life that Kurosawa wisely feels are unneeded. He whispers his son’s name as we see him, in flashback, cheering on his son at a baseball game, but feeling shame when he’s thrown out trying to steal a base; when Mitsuo asks his father to stay with him at a hospital, for an appendectomy, but Watanabe chooses work instead (possibly to avoid grief over his wife’s death); and finally when Mitsuo is drafted for the Second World War, and fearing the future, reaches out for his father’s hand, from the train, but grasps futilely at the air.
In his revery, we hear Mitsuo calling for his father, and anxiously, Watanabe responds, hoping for a ‘moment’, of the sort he’s undoubtedly seen in the Hollywood films of the post-War era the film is set in. But, reconciliation is not in the offing. Later, when Mitsuo chooses to believe his father has made a mistress of Toyo, and shamed the family in front of their maid, the grief in Watanabe’s face and body, as he shakes, is palpable. The son is now inflicting cruelties to counter the years of fatherly neglect, and Watanabe feels he has ruined that relationship beyond repair. This deepens his desire for Toyo- not sexually, but as a companion filled with life. Repeatedly, we see, in the whole film, the ‘Watanabe stare’- a position of humility and defeatism where the man bows his head, yet looks upward as light fills his pupils. The look gives Toyo the creeps, and when Watanabe asks her for her secret of being alive, the young girl is creeped out. She says that she does not know, but enjoys making toys, one of which she pulls out and shows Watanabe. It is a toy wind up dog that moves. Flustered, Watanabe is bereft, until he ‘gets it’. He must make something- not a thing, but some meaning of his life. He then returns to work, and declares that he will start doing things that matter, counter to the Japanese bureaucratic tradition. He exits his workplace, and we are jarred by the next scene: Watanabe’s wake five months later.
The rest of the film, almost a full hour, is devoted almost exclusively to the wake, and petty officials debating Watanabe’s life, for we learn that it was he who got a park built in a slum area where the mothers we earlier saw in the film, who got the runaround, lived. As the officials, and city bigwigs mingle with Watanabe’s son, Mitsuo, his wife Sakai, and brother, (Makoto Kobori) they are baffled as to his ‘outrageous behavior’ in his final months, after decades of servility. Mitsuo assures the guests that his father knew not of his cancer, for he would have told his son. We also learn Watanabe was found dead in the park that he built. We then get a brilliant series of scenes as to the small ways Watanabe coaxed and cajoled the park into being- by pestering petty officials with saccharine servility; his bows of despair becoming weapons of determination, as he has learned how to use the system to his advantage to get what he wants, much like the office workers in the terrific 1998 American comedy Office Space. He also refuses to back down to a smug and feckless Deputy Mayor (Nobuo Nakamura), nor be intimidated by gangsters who wanted to put a Red Light District in where the park now stands. As the officials get drunker and drunker with sake, and after the bigwigs leave, they all start whining and sniping at each other, rather than Watanabe- whom they did enough of that at during his life, until they finally realize, after cohering each others’ snippets of Watanabe’s final months, that he had to know he was dying- which shocks them, due to the Japanese custom of denying terminal illnesses.
Now, the officials claim to understand Watanabe, and after some mild badmouthing of him, they start to hagiographize him, and claim that they are lowly scum. In one of the truest scenes ever captured on film, one official compares typical political graft and aggrandizement as mere ‘farts’ compared to the colossal waste of time and money that the bureaucrats regularly deal with. Yet, it is plain that none of the officials, nor even Watanabe’s kin, grieve for him the way the poor mothers do, and shame permeates the room. Yet, one bureaucrat, Kimura (Shinichi Himori) does not buy it, no matter how his co-workers flagellate themselves and the system. Then, a policeman enters, after having found the colorful hat Watanabe bought on his drunken binge with the wannabe novelist. He describes a scene, from the prior night, of Watanabe in the park, on a child’s swing, shot from behind monkey bars, at first, and in a state of ecstasy as snow fell about him, singing a song we earlier heard him sing on his drunken binge. But, unlike then, this is no self-indulgent bit of nostalgia, but a man in full acceptance of his fate, for he has accomplished his one ‘significant’ act, the way Knight Antonius Block does in Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. The cop feels he was neglectful, and blames the death of Watanabe on himself, fearing the old man was drunk. But we know a blood vessel burst in his stomach and he was done for.
As the wake ends, the next day we see Watanabe’s co-workers back at the office, and the man who has taken Watanabe’s place doing the exact same dreary things that Watanabe did, his lessons learned at the wake as disappeared as the sake he drank. Kimura, who seemed to sense Watanabe had the right idea, objects to some petty refusal by Watanabe’s replacement to help complaining citizens. He rises from his chair, but his co-workers merely have to stare him back into submission. He sits, and disappears behind a mountain of paperwork. Watanabe’s example has meant nothing. Later, someone- perhaps Kimura, or the spirit of Watanabe, stares down at the park from an overpass. He is silhouetted against a cloudy sky, walks off, and the film ends.
This is a great film, and Shimura (a veteran of the Godzilla films I loved in my youth, as well a Kurosawa regular film player) gives a great performance. The way he imposes his will on the gangsters, bureaucrats, and politicians to get the park built shows smart subversion at its best, and possibly enough to make up for the years of living death between his wife’s death and his graves-edge rebirth. Like Rashomon, which preceded it in the Kurosawa canon, Ikiru deals with perspective, but not the perspective of many on one event, but the perspective of many on many things: life, a man, a park, accomplishment. It is, in that way, something like Rashomon 2. It is one of the many reasons this is such a great film. Another is that while the first two thirds of the film, while Watanabe lives, is great, there have been Hollywood films that come close to it- in construction and true sentiment. But, no Hollywood film has ever done what the last third of this film does, craft a stage play that can basically stand alone as an existential debate on life and art, purposiveness and meaning. This daring and depth is what soars Ikiru past lesser films. Even Citizen Kane, as great and influential a film as that is, was not as daring narratively, as this film, for the themes of the film, while profound, are not really original. It’s all how the film presents these issues, starting with the film’s first shot of an X-Ray of Watanabe’s stomach cancer. Despite all that is to occur, Kurosawa never lets us forget that all of what occurs is due to a few cells in a man’s stomach that forgot how to behave. Without the cancer, Watanabe remains a mummy for years more, and the slum children have no park to relieve, however briefly, their misery.
Yet, even more profound than the philosophy of the film, is its realism. By the end of the film, we see that Watanabe’s co-workers truly are bureaucratic scum. They talk the talk at his wake, but refuse to walk Watanabe’s walk. Watanabe’s victory is small, and temporal. Likely, the gangsters will find another way to corrupt that area, and with Watanabe gone there is no one left in his office who will care. Kurosawa has shown us victory, but acknowledges it may be Pyrrhic, at best. It is also the greatest artistic indictment of bureaucracies ever made, and not just of Post-War Japan’s problems, nor even Japan’s for the three tenets of Japanese bureaucracy- be punctual, never take off, and do nothing, are universal, even if only codified in Japan. We see this most eloquently in the scenes of Watanabe skipping work, for the office work comes to a halt and the mountain of paperwork continues to bloat.
Some believe that the famed Tolstoy story, The Death Of Ivan Ilyich, is the basis for this film, since both involve petty bureaucrats who die, but Ikiru is the far greater work of art, for it is about life, not merely its waste. Ilyich cannot cope with life, while Watanabe, however, acts upon his demise’s coming, but why he does, is a bit of a mystery. We can only assume his motives, for Kurosawa keeps much of his motivation a secret, as Watanabe spends quite some time ‘offstage’, even when alive. Perhaps the only flaw in the film is in the subtitling, with white subtitles almost blanched out in some of the shots, but that’s not anything Kurosawa had control over. That which he did shows mastery, something he never seems to have lost.
Japanese director and writer, and one of the most important figures in 20th century cinema. Kurosawa was greatly influenced by Hollywood - John Ford being his idol - but more than any other film-maker was responsible for introducing Japanese films to West. He originally trained as an artist and worked as a studio scriptwriter, before directing his first film in 1943, the martial arts drama Judo Saga. Kurosawa's next few films were made during World War II and had to adhere to strict state guidelines; it was 1948's gangster movie Drunken Angel that first saw the director's emerging personal vision, and was his first film to star regular leading man Toshirô Mifune.
Rashomon was the film that brought Kurosawa acclaim in the West, winning top prize at the Venice Film Festival in 1951, and a string of classics followed - Throne of Blood, The Hidden Fortress, Yojimbo, Seven Samurai - all set in Feudal Japan and combining incredible cinematography and thrilling action with humour, sadness and deep insights into human behaviour. The director also turned in some superb non-period film around this time too, such as the thrillers The Bad Sleep Well and High and Low.
The following decade proved a frustrating one for Kurosawa, as he struggled to get projects off the ground, culminating with the box office failure of Dodesukaden and a suicide attempt in 1970. The director's fortunes turned when 1975's Russian epic Dersu Uzala won the Best Foreign Language Oscar, while his next two films were among his very best - the beautifully shot Kagemusha and 1985's spectacular, hugely successful King Lear adaptation, Ran. Kurosawa's final films were smaller and more personal - Dreams, Rhapsody in August and Not Yet. He died of a stroke in 1998, aged 88.