Great films: Ikiru (Akira Kurosawa, 1952, Japan)

Ikiru is Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece, an intensly moving exploration of one man’s search for meaning in his life when confronted with death, but also a film which makes we the audience question what it means to truly be alive. But it is also much more than this; it is a portrait of a ravaged postwar Japan, an indictment of an increasingly hedonistic, nihilistic society, and an examination of generational conflict and dysfunctional family dynamics.

By 1952 director Akira Kurosawa was already a legend, with a substantial body of work to his name; in ten years he had directed twelve feature films, including bona fide masterpieces such as Stray Dog, Drunken Angel and Rashomon. He had also by this time developed his unmistakable visual style, and assembled his regular cast of collaborators – actors, screenwriters Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni, cinematographer Asakazu Nakai, art director Yoshiro Muraki, scorer Fumio Haysaka – with whom he would continue to work with for another ten years.

Amongst his regular acting collaborators was Takashi Shimura, who had appeared in Kurosawa’s first film, Sanshiro Sugata, as well as having taken leading roles in Rashomon, Stray Dog and Drunken Angel. He was a man of 47 years of age when Ikiru was filmed, and would later go on to play the brave leader in Seven Samurai. But in Ikiru he performs one of cinema’s great transformations, if not the greatest: he becomes old man Watanabe, the central character in the story, whose permanently hunched demeanour and world-weary face look more like a man approaching 80, let alone 50 years of age.

Watanabe is an ageing bureaucrat, whose monotonous job appears simply to rubber stamp various official government pieces of paper passing under his nose, a job he has been doing for decades, without fail. He has become a bit of a figure of fun at the office, referred to as “the mummy” by his co-workers for his expressionless but permanent presence there. We find out later that his commitment to this seemingly meaningless role has taken its toll on his family life: his son treats him with scorn and disregard, having been emotionally alienated from him a long time before, much like the son in Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries.

However, one day Watanabe is not at his desk, causing consternation amongst his colleagues. He has, in fact, gone to see a doctor, where he discovers that he has that he has stomach cancer, with only months to live. This sends him into a spiral of depression, and also nihilism. “I just can’t die – I don’t know what I’ve been living for all of these years” he confides. He goes to drown his sorrows at a sake bar, where he encounters a young writer who urges him to enjoy the time he has remaining hedonistically, with women, drink and gambling in the wild neon-lit paradise of postwar Tokyo.

These night-time pleasures prove unfulfilling for Watanabe, not part of this new, young Japan. However, he encounters an ex-colleague, a young woman who has quit the office because she found it unfulfilling. He is attracted to her bright, breezy optimism and joi de vivre, and tries to spend more time with her, taking her to pachinko parlours and the movies. But she soon grows weary of his company, finding him a little creepy, and demands to know why he wants to spend so much time with her. He tells her about his illness, and how he is trying to find meaning in his life, and she tells him about her new job: making wind-up toy rabbits for children. This, she says, may be long, hard work, but she enjoys it because she feels like she is playing with every child in Japan.

Children in Kurosawa’s films serve as a motif for an innocence, but also a wisdom that the adult world seems to forget, or ignore. In Ikiru, Watanabe seeks his own spiritual fulfilment by attempting to fight the bureacracy he was so long a part of, and get built a children’s playground which had been campaigned for, but stalled by the powers that be. The final third of the film is centred on Watanabe’s wake, where a series of drunken, rowdy mourners contemplate what happened to him in those final months of his life to change him from humble pen-pusher to campaigning crusader.

Few films, if any, have the kind of emotional resonance that Ikiru has. In Watanabe, we at first see a rather pathetic man, living life unquestioningly, but having little or no connection with other people, or indeed life itself. But the final third of the film seems to suggest something else: the mourners claim to revere his heroic actions, but we know that this is just drunken over-indulgence, and that they will all go back to their routine existences, hungover, in the following morning. In doing this, the film is also fingering us the audience: are we guilty of the same ‘crime’ that Watanabe was, before his transformation? His triumph is his own, his knowledge of the bureacracy he was once a part of helping him to work it for worthwhile ends. Kurosawa is asking us to consider similar in our own lives, in the words of Danish existentialist philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, ‘to become ourselves’.

As previously mentioned, the film does not just function on this level of pathos, it is much more a profound look at postwar Japan, like much of Kurosawa’s work at this time. Watanabe’s stomach cancer is emblematic of a country still dealing with the toxic fallout of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, as well as the more general incidence of disease brought on by years of war. It should also be noted that the stomach is an important symbol in Japanese culture, in a way considered the location of the soul, much like the heart is in the West. That this is the location of his illness is as much an indication of his spiritual malaise as much as a physical one.

Interestingly, the film also touches on the class differences which were beginning to emerge at the time; Watanabe’s son is seen as part of a new bourgeoisie, but it is implied that Watanabe himself and his colleagues are urban poor. Their lives are markedly different from those we might find in, say, a Yasujiro Ozu film, who generally are middle-class. In one scene, where Watanabe and his young female friend Toyo meet for the last time, we see in the background a group of wealthy young girls celebrating a birthday; their wealth is a sly juxtaposition to Toyo’s relative poverty, underlining her need to slave away in a factory making children’s toys. She, like Watanabe and many others, is not one of those benefitting from Japan’s postwar prosperity.

Much has been made of the formal and structural innovations of Kurosawa’s other films of the period, in particular Rashomon and Seven Samurai. But Ikiru is no less daring. Consider the last third of the film, with the main character absent except in flashback. Some of the visual tricks are still astonishing; one breathtaking crane shot, as Watanabe and his young writer companion ascend into the Tokyo nightlife is still a miracle of construction, as is the astounding montage of flashbacks when Watanabe is remembering his relationship with his son over the years. There are also some quite extraordinarily emotional scenes: Watanabe crying himself to sleep, with the camera slowly juxtaposing his certificate of commendation mounted on the wall; the casual disregard his son and daughter-in-law shows for him. But the one iconic scene, that of Watanabe’s final moments, is truly astonishing, the most joyous yet melancholy film moment I think I will ever see.

Ikiru translates into English roughly as “To Live”, and yet it is a film about death. I have always quipped that it should be called ‘It’s a Wonderful Death’ – a Nabokovian mirror-image of the Capra classic, but instead of a man who thinks he wants to die finding a reason to keep on living, we have here a man who thinks he wants to live but finds a reason to die, in Camus’ words, ‘A Happy Death’. Another parallel film is Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, in which an ageing professor contemplates the emotional failures in his life, but finds reconciliation, and a kind of rebirth, in the end. Both films seek to avoid melodrama, or unrealistically overcooked happy endings, but are more satisfying and moving for that. Kurosawa’s timeless masterpiece shows us that it is when confronted with death that we actually discover what it means to live.

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