#1 in my ranking of Akira Kurosawa’s filmography.
The only film Akira Kurosawa made between 1948 and 1965 that did not include Toshiro Mifune in any way, Ikiru is one of the most tenderly human, aesthetically beautiful, and deeply moving films I’ve ever seen. I labeled it my favorite Kurosawa many years ago, long before I’d seen all of his film (I still haven’t as of this writing), and yet I seriously doubt that any film will topple it from that spot. This is one of the pinnacles of cinema, a work of such unbridled and touching emotion that faces death squarely and demands a chance to make an impact on the world. The impact may be small, no larger than a small city park for children, but the impact will remain.
The story is about Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura), a thirty-year veteran of the Tokyo city bureaucracy given the anodyne prognosis of a mild stomach ulcer that he knows is actually a cover for stomach cancer, an effective death sentence that gives him no more than a year to live (a common practice in Japanese medicine at the time was to lie about certain terminal diseases to patients in order to save them grief). Understanding his fate, he’s left facing the life he’s led, and he realizes how little he’s actually lived.
This film is both deceptively simple and marvelously complex, and the way the complexity arises is in its structure. There are two major sections of the film that are dominated by flashbacks, the opening third and the final third. The opening third’s flashbacks serve a specific purpose in that it is Watanabe reflecting back on the failings of his life, in particular around his son Mitsuo (Nobuo Kaneko). Watanabe’s wife died when Mitsuo was only a small child, and Watanabe reflects back on key moments from Mitsuo’s childhood when he failed his son. There was the car ride to the funeral of the boy’s mother, where he failed to properly console him, a baseball game when the boy was older where Watanabe could not bring himself to cheer on the boy after he had ran into a pickle and been picked off, and Mitsuo’s going in for an appendectomy that Watanabe finds an excuse to leave. Combined with his meritorious work in the public affairs department of the city government where Watanabe failed to accomplish a single thing over three decades, Watanabe feels lost with only a few months to live, a mountain of savings from a life of frugality, and nothing to live for.
So, he tries to live for himself. He disappears from work for a week and starts drinking in little dive sake bars, eventually running across a writer (Yunosuke Ito) who listens to Watanabe’s tale, only able to tell it to a complete stranger, and the duo go out on the town. What follows is a string of bars, dancing, and hat purchasing as the writer shows Watanabe the selfish side of life. He’s ultimately unfulfilled by it all, though, with a crushing moment as Watanabe requests the song “Gondola no Uta” from a piano player and sings the lyrics, his mouth hardly opening, and in such a sad way that it stops everyone around him to observe. Finding this empty, Watanabe, the next morning, comes across one of his underlings on the street. This is Toyo (Miki Odagiri), the young woman in his office who has come to him to get him to sign off on her resignation from the civil service. She can’t stand the inaction, the monotony, and the lack of interest that accompanies a life in the Japanese bureaucracy.
Instead of simply stamping her resignation (the wrong form, he informs her before dutifully stamping the form that’s in front of him like he always does) and letting her go, he invites her out to a day on the town, showering her with presents like stockings, lunch, and a time at the carnival. For over a week, he keeps doing this, even after her resignation at city hall has gone through and she’s started working in a toy manufacturing plant assembling mechanical hopping bunnies, and her patience grows thin. His selfless act of showering her with attention, presents, and nights out on the town has become unsatisfying to her, and the news is crushing to Watanabe. He wants to live in his final months. He wants to live through someone else, and when Toyo pushes him away he gets an idea. He shows up at work for the first time in two weeks, dashing the hopes of advancement of his second in command Sub-Section Chief Ono (Kamatari Fujiwara) with his mere presence, he finds the first request on his large stack of papers, a request for the paving over of an open and fetid water source in a slum to be replaced by a playground for children, and he’s off to make it happen.
Then the movie does something unexpected. It jumps forward five months to his wake. He’s accomplished his goal of building the playground, credit denied to him by the Deputy Mayor (Nobuo Nakamura), seen the opening ceremony, and then died, succumbing to his illness, that very night, alone on the playground. What erupts next is an extended debate on what Watanabe did, how responsible he was for the construction of the playground, and the effect he’s had on those around him. This is the final fifty minutes of the film, and it’s marvelous. With a more straightforward telling of the story, we’d have Kurosawa stringing us along with the ins and outs of the bureaucracy while forming tension around whether the playground will get constructed or not. By skipping ahead, Kurosawa completely changes the focus. There’s no longer any tension around the material construction but a refocus on the effects of Watanabe’s embrace of life on those around him.
It begins with the Deputy Mayor announcing that he should be given the full credit for the playground’s construction, not Watanabe, and that his disrespecting of Watanabe at the opening ceremony by placing him in the back of the crowd was completely justified. All of the section chiefs nod in approval, along with their subordinates, but the Deputy Mayor has to leave after a crowd of women arrive, tearfully placing incense and flowers before Watanabe’s picture, obviously giving him credit for saving them and their children from the fetid water that had plagued their homes. With the Deputy Mayor and his section chiefs gone, the subordinates begin the real debate where they piece together the final few months from their individual interactions with Watanabe to discover that it was his dedication above and beyond the limits of his station that led to this good work, that he was driven by his stomach cancer that they decide he must have known about, and that they will all endeavor to become like him in their daily lives. This, of course, does not happen, for the new Public Affairs Section Chief, Ono, sends the next group of petitioners at the desk on the same runaround that the ladies who wished to have the park built had gone through.
There’s a remarkable mixture of cynicism and humanism apparent here with the grinding down of the bureaucracy removing the basics of human decency from those within it, but, at the same time, the finding of power within the individual to make a difference, no matter how small. Watanabe went through his life alone, even in the end he relied on no one else to give him solace. He worked to make his life matter, and the final shots of Watanabe, perhaps his ghost, swinging in the playground, and singing “Gondola no Uta” are touching. He will be forgotten. His works will endure for at least a while longer.
The tender humanity in Watanabe’s journey from mummy (Toyo’s nickname for him) to someone who lives, even for a short time, is wonderfully laid out and executed by Kurosawa, his cowriters (Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni), and, in particular, Takashi Shimura. Shimura was a very good actor in general, and he had a distinctive face, especially when he was meant to look sad, pulling his lower face in and pronouncing his lips, and he gives Watanabe a deep sense of loss, resolve, and emotion as he faces his final days with determination. It’s also another example of Kurosawa’s remarkable eye, providing marvelous compositions from beginning to end from two people talking in a rundown sake bar to Watanabe facing down goons in a hallway to the final shot of Watanabe on that swing. The aesthetics support the narrative, never calling attention to themselves, always feeling appropriate, and very often just being beautiful to look at.
Ikiru is a masterpiece. It’s one of my favorite films. It is a towering achievement of humanism and emotion. I adore this movie.