Ikiru

Ikiru (Akira Kurosawa, 1952)

Ikiru (Akira Kurosawa, 1952)

Ikiru translates as “to live,” something Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura) hasn’t done for nigh-on thirty years, and won’t be doing much longer. Every day he sits at his desk in the department of something-or-other, stamping forms while most of the actual work is redirected to other departments. His wife is long dead and he is incapable of nurturing another meaningful relationship, whether with his coworkers or his son.

He suffers from a worsening stomach complaint, which the doctors reassure him is a mild ulcer. He is warned by a wise patient that such a diagnosis, matched with his symptoms, is more likely terminal cancer – it was customary for doctors to spare patients of such difficult knowledge. Faced with his imminent mortality and the realisation that his life has been intensely boring, Watanabe vows to make the most of his limited time. The problem is, he doesn’t know how.

The first half of Ikiru charts Watanabe’s desperate attempts to recapture his joie de vivre, carpe diem and other such untranslatable concepts. First he becomes a barfly, enjoying the brief respite from introspection that drinking allows him. Here he meets a writer who shows him the town. Hot jazz music, dancing girls and pinball machines all fail to thrill him. He even silences one club with a poignant barroom singalong of Gondola no Uta:

life is brief
fall in love, maidens
before the crimson bloom
fades from your lips

Meanwhile his coworkers are mystified by his sudden absence, especially young Toyo, who requires his rubber stamp to submit her resignation. Watanabe is drawn to her youthful impatience and frank honesty, and she soon becomes his reluctant lifeline. Quizzing Toyo about her new job making children’s toys, Watanabe finds the inspiration to make meaningful use of his remaining time. His colleagues are surprised to find him back at work, bristling with energy and determined to transform a stagnant plot of land into a children’s playground.

The second, slightly drawn-out half of the film is told in a series of flashbacks as the colleagues remember Watanabe at his wake. They ponder over his mysterious change of character, and gradually come to the conclusion that the secretive Watanabe knew he was dying. Noting that we are all dying, the bureaucrats – stricken with grief, guilt and alcohol – vow to continue their lives in Watanabe’s spirit. Sadly this vow is short-lived and the department reverts to its old, wasteful and boring ways.

Parts of Ikiru are deeply moving. An obvious highlight is the iconic scene of Watanabe on the newly-built playground swing, singing softly to himself as the camera peers at him through the climing frame. Other parts are somewhat frustrating, especially the long wake scene. The bureaucrats take an absurdly long time to come to conclusions. Perhaps this is a way of baiting the audience, urging us to follow Watanabe’s example instead of theirs. But having spent the duration of the film contemplating my own mortality and making vows to myself, I too have reverted to my old, boring ways.

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