Takashi Shimura.... Kanji Watanabe
Shinichi Himori.... Kimura
Haruo Tanaka.... Sakai
Minoru Chiaki.... Noguchi
Miki Odagiri....Toyo Odagiri, the young woman from the office
Bokuzen Hidari.... Ohara
Minosuke Yamada.... Subordinate Clerk Saito
Kamatari Fujiwara.... Sub-Section Chief Ono
Makoto Kobori.... Kiichi Watanabe, Kanji's Brother
Nobuo Kaneko.... Mitsuo Watanabe, Kanji's son
Nobuo Nakamura.... Deputy Mayor
Atsushi Watanabe....Other Patient in beginning
Yûnosuke Itô....The Novelist
Ikiru is the story of Kanji Watanabe, a lonely, bureaucrat
who works for city hall.
The film opens with the shot of an X-ray of Watanabe Kanji's
stomach, and a voice over narration tells us that this stomach belongs to the
"shujinko," the main character, of our story. He has cancer,
but does not know it yet.
NOTE: Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto, in his book, Kurosawa, makes a case that this first X-Ray image is of unknown origin; also, it differs from the one we see later when the young intern looks at it after Watanabe has left the consultation room. We know where the second image comes from because we see Watanabe exiting the X-Ray room with traces of barrium still on his lips. This second X-Ray suggests the cancer occupies a much larger area than the first on did. So, in the first image, was the cancer is still treatable? Perhaps operable? We don't know becuase the first iamge is what Yoshimoto calls an "impossible image whose origin cannot be accounted for diegetically." (194-195)
Then there is a cut to Watanabe working at his desk as Chief
(kacho) of the Citizen's Section (shiminka) of City Hall. Surrounded
by stacks of handwritten documents, he is going through a stack of papers and
carefully affixing his seal to each one.
Cut to several women, neighborhood wives and mothers from Kuroe-cho,
complaining about water that needs to be drained from near their dwellings as
it is giving their children rashes. The land would be ideal for a playground,
they observe. The clerk approaches Watanabe who tells him to send the women
to the Public Works Section. And so the runaround commences.
The narrator informs us again that Mr. Watanabe is the main
character of our story. It would be boring to talk about him now, though, because
he is just passing time, trying to accomplish nothing. In fact, he is barely
alive (kare wa ikite-iru towa ienai.)
A young woman, Miss Odagiri, laughs out loud at a joke that someone
has circulated. When asked to read it alopud, it sounds like it could be about their section chief Watanabe.
The narrator again: "He is like a corpse. Actually, he has
been dead for the past twenty-five years." Once he had worked hard and
been determined. But now he has neither determination nor initiative. City hall
and its senseless drudgery has killed them both. He is so busy; but all he is
doing is keeping his chair warm (isu o mamoru). In his world, doing nothing
is the best way to keep one's position.
But is this OK?
Cut back to the women of Kuroe-cho who continue to get the runaround
from each to the departments they visit, always being told that they have to
go to another department. Planning, Sewage, Water, Public Works, Health, Education,
finally up to the Town Council and the Deputy Mayor who routes them back, finally,
to the Citizen's Section where they started.
Although they start to file out, dejected, with their heads down,
one woman storms back, furious. "Do you take us for fools?" It IS the Citizen's Section's responsibility, they insist. After venting, they storm
out but since Watanabe is out, the staff has them fill out an application to
get the land reclaimed and turned into a park.
How unusual it is for him to be away. He'd almost put together
a 30-year record of perfect attendance.
Watanabe earns a decent salary
in his position, but his job is completely unfulfilling. Nothing he does seems
to have any effect on anyone else, and he is overlooked and under appreciated.
He rarely rocks the boat or takes any chances in his job; he is a Kafkaesque
Watanabe's personal life is just as bleak. He is estranged from both his son
and daughter-in-law. Cut back to the X-Ray room of the hospital. He is about
to delivered of a shocking discovery when he goes to the doctor for his chronic
Another patient there "helpfully" gives him the lowdown
and what the doctor is likely to say to him if he really does have cancer ("It's
just an ulcer"). When he hears the doctor's prognosis that he is fine,
he knows that in reality he is doomed.
From the manner of the doctor's replies, he correctly guesses
that his days are numbered. We learn from the doctor that he has barely six
months to live.
Of course, he is shocked. He is stunned. As he exists the hospital
he walks slowly along in complete silence. Kurosawa has kept the soundrack completely
muted; then suddenly we hear the traffic sounds when a truck almost hits him.
It paralleles the shock he feels.
He makes his way home and sits in the dark so that when his son
and daughter-in-law come home, they do not se him. But they talk rather calculatingly
about his retirement monies and how he should buy them a new house with it.
When they discover his presence, it is very awkward. He clearly yearns to talk to his son,
but he cannot initiate the conversation. After a wonderful sequence recalling his early life as a parent
raising his son Mitsuo after his wife died, punctuated by Watanabe poignanty
repeating his son's name, chanting it almost, "Mitsuo, Mitsio, Miysuo," he crawls underneath his futon
and weeps uncontrollably. He is afraid. What should he do? What can he do?
In his room are certificates of appreciation for his 30 years of service to the
city. He is now a kacho, or section chief. But has he really done anything
in his life? Has he ever really lived? Or has he just been the "mummy"
as the narrator has suggested? The next morning, someone from the office comes
to his house to check up on him and the housekeeper learns that Watanabe has
been leaving the house everyday but has not been showing up at work. Mitsuo
consults his uncle and aunt and they wonder if he doesn't have a mistress somewhere.
Up till now, he has led a miserly existence, never spending any
money on himself, and depriving himself of most of life's pleasures. Now he
decides to take a more active role, and radically changes his lifestyle. He
begins drinking and frequenting bars, taverns and "nomiya."
In the next scene, he is in a little bar where he meets a hack writer who needs
some sleeping medicine. Watanabe has a lot because he was apparently contemplating
suicide, and he offers it to him.
The man is very grateful and since Watanabe needs someone to
show him how to have a good time, he agrees to do it, to be his Mephistopheles
(aka, the Devil). Watanabe has told the stranger what he cannnot tell his son:
that he is dying of cancer, and the writer sees him as "interesting."
"Men are such fools," he observes. "They only
realize how beautiful life is when they are face to face with death. And even
those people are rare. Some die without knowing what life is. You are a fine
man. You are rebelling against it. . .That's what impresses me. You've been
a slave to life; now you are trying to master it. Man's duty is to enjoy life.
It's against God's will not to do so. Man must have a lust for life. Lust
is considered immoral but it is not. A lust for life is a virtue."
So out they go for an evening of pachinko parlors, drinking,
dancing, womanizing--the whole hedonisitic experience. At one of the bars, the
writer drunkenly tells a woman that Watanabe is a "Christ carrying a cross
called cancer." You would die the moment you received such news, he claims,
but "That's when he started to live."
In a piano bar featuring raucous boogie-woogie piano music and
dancing, Watanabe requests a mournful love song from the 1920s, "Life is
Short." [Actull;y called "The Gondola Song"]
"Inochi wa mijakashi" he sings, staring straight
ahead. People move away from him, finding his demeanor oddly disturbing.
Life is so short, dear maiden,
so fall in love while your lips are still red
And before your passion cools
For there will be no tomorrow.
. . .Tomorrow will not come again.
Certainly not for Watanabe. A tear rolls down his cheek. They
move on to a strip joint. At the very first dance hall they visted, a girl took
Watanabe's favorite old fedora hat, but now he is sporting a new, lighter colored
one. It heralds the beginning of his new life.
But, of course, none of this revelry fulfills Watanabe.
It is the next morning. Watanabe is walking home and is spotted
by the young woman from his office, Miss Odagiri. She has come to him for his
seal on her resignation form. She is a bad fit for the bureaucratic office.
She is lively and outgoing, always joking around which is not something bureaucracies
value highly. She playfully calls him "the mummy," for he has been
living like he was dead for 30 years! It is her energy that draws him to her.
She is spontaneous, full-of-life, energetic. Everything that he is not. And
she is carefree. Is it something of that "free" part that he wants?
He buys her nylon stockings which she could never afford, and
takes her out for things to eat. Her appetite for food, and life, is strong.
In one amusing scene, she tells him of her nick names for everybody in the section:
Eel--somebody hard to pin down--that's Sub-Section Chief
Drain cover--someone who is damp all year round--that would
Fly Paper--somebody who clings to people all the time--Mr.
"Teishoku," the fixed meal--somebody with
no special characteristics--Mr. Saito
Gelatin--faint-hearted, always quivering--that's Mr. Kimura
When she tells him her nickname for Watanabe--Mummy--it hurts
but he can laugh at it, too.
He asks her to delay going back to the office and to spend the
day with him doing fun things, which they do. He seems to become obsessed with
her because of all she represents. She has the "lust for life" but
without all the alcohol and sleaze. He tries to tell her over dinner that the
reason he has lived so long like a Mummy is for the sake of his son. She points
out matter of factly that her son never asked him to do that. Children don't
ask to be born; parents should not complain about how much they have suffered
for the sake of their children. But she nails it--and him--when she says, "I
know why you did it. You love him!" He smiles.
Meanwhile Watanabe's son and daughter-in-law have misconstrued
the situation badly. They assume Miss Odagiri is his lover. The relationship
angers his son, who believes that she is only after Watanabe's inheritance.
His son doesn't understand him and thinks he is having a typical mid-life crisis.
When Watanabe tries to tell his the truth about his condition the next morning
at breakfast, Mitsuo cuts him off and scolds him for running around with a young
woman. It devastates poor Watanabe.
Next scene, back at the office. It has been two weeks and Watanabe
has remained out on sick leave. Rumors are rampant.
He continues to see Miss Odagiri and she is getting uncomfortable.
She wants to know what Watanabe needs from her. At a coffee-shop, with a bunch
of young women celebrating someone's birthday across the way, he finally blurts
it out that he wants her to teach him how to live. He is dying and wants to
be able to just live one day of his life with fullness and meaning that she
seems to be able to muster.
She does not know how to respond: "I only work and eat,"
she says. She just makes these little toy rabbits and this connects her to all
the little babies in Japan. He thinks it is all over for him, there is nothing
he can do comparable to her simple tasks of working and making toys for Japanese
children. But wait! He has a vision. There IS something he CAN do. This epihany
is accompanied by the singing of "Happy Birthday" across the way.
Watanabe will be reborn.
Back at City Hall. Watanabe has returned to work much to the
amazement of his staff who are convinced he will resign. He hands Ohno, his
supposed successor, the plan to reclaim the area in Kuroe-cho that the housewives
submitted. "Unless we do something about it," he says, "it will
never materialize." All the sections must cooperate. He calls for a car
to go out and inspect the area in question. He is acting; he is doing.
And then, suddenly, the narrator informs us that our hero,Watanabe,
died five months later. The next scene is the wake at his house during which
we see, through poignant flashbacks, how much he meant to people and how he
made a difference at the end of his life.
Initially, reporters come to the wake and ask to see the Deputy
Mayor. Apparently, he and the Parks Committee are taking full credit for the
building of a local meighborhood park, but now the reporters are learning that
it was really all due to Mr. Watanabe's efforts. They want to know who really
pushed the project through to completion. They say that the neighborhood women
feel Mr. Watanabe has been slighted, not even mentioned in the speeches when
the opening ceremony for the park was held. He actually died in the park, we
learn, and the neighborhood women feel he did not receive his proper due. His
death in ther park may have been his silent protest. The Deputy Mayor counters
that this is not possible; the autopsy revealed that the cause of death was
an internal hemorrhage due to gastric cancer.
The reporters leave and the Deputy Mayor returns to the wake.
He prattles on about how reporters twist the facts and how the work was done
by everyone, not just one person.
Next, the women of Kuroe-cho come in to pay their respects. They
weep profusely, revealing their love for Watanabe.
The Deputy Mayor and his staff, in their formal attire, take
their leave and the atmosphere becomes more relaxed and casual. The section
staff get their food and continue to drink. Mr. Kimura seems upset at the way
the Deputy Mayor and all regarded Watanabe. They begin to puzzle over why he
had changed about five months previously and whether he knew he had cancer.
They think he did but Mitsuo assumes he did not know.
Cut back to Watanbe leaving the office to go inspect the area
in question. it is raining heavily and water is everywhere. Piles of rubble
dot the landscape. But by the light in his eyes, we know Watanable sees something
else. He sees the park that can be.
Back to the wake, they talk about how Watanabe's persistence
bothered the other section heads. He would not let them of the hook, even if
it meant just sitting by their desk with his head bowed, waiting patiently until
they acquiesced. He dogs each of the section chiefs, and even the Deputy Mayor.
He will not take no for an answer.
The guests at the wake continue to get drunker and speak more
freely. Kimura recalls how he saw Watanabe in so much pain that he could barely
walk; but walk the corridors he did, pressing his case relentlessly. Out at
the construction site, he falls one day and the women rush to help him up, giving
him water and loving attention. As he turns his face upwards, it catches the
thin sunlight and seems radiant. "His face was glowing," they say.
"Like a grandfather looking at his grandchild."
In one of the great scenes in the movie, a group of thugs--chimpira
or yakuza--who wanted to put in a bar the space being reclaimed for the
park, try to intimidate Watanabe. The hoodlums confront him and tell him to
quit meddling. When Watanabe asks who they are, one of the men tries to get rough
and grabs Watanabe by the collar: "Don't you value your life?" Watanabe
smiles knowingly but almost menacingly, but with light radiating from his eyes; the tough guy steps back, disturbed,
perhaps even frightened by the look in his eyes! There is no threatening a man
who only has a few months to live.
Through memories, people begin to peice things together. "I
can't be angry," Watanabe had told one of them, "I don't have the
time." Another recalls how he marveled at the beauty of a sunset, something
he had not bothered to admire in thirty years. One is reminded of the line in Stray Dog where Murakami and a woman are lying on a roof looking up at the stars and she says something about how she has forgotten what it is like to look up at the stars; she hasn't really looked up at a night sky for twenty years, a reference to the difficult prewar and wartime years! But, once again, Watanabe has no more
time for reveling in natural beauty now.
The wake scene ends with all the drunk employees promising themselves
that they be different tomorrow; they resolve to live their lives more like
Watanabe. and to serve the people better.
Cut back to the office. Ohno now sits in Watanabe's seat, affixing
a seal on paper after paper, just as Watanabe did. A citizen comes with a complaint
about sewage water overflowing. Ohno tells his subordinate to direct them to
the Public Works section, just as it all began with the Kuroe-cho ladies. Business
as usual. Kimura, the sensitive one--but also dubbed "Mr. Gelatin"
by Miss Odagiri--stands up, outraged. He looks at everyone and seems on the
verge of saying or DOING something. But he does not. So much for all the resolve
they expressed in their drunken fervor at the end of the wake.
A final wipe to a shot of Mr. Kimura on the bridge looking down
into the new park, a solitary figure. He stands in the same spot Watanabe had
looked up at when he was admiring the sunset. The strains of "Life is Short"
play as Kimura walks away, head down.
Despite this rather grim look at human nature. the overall conclusion is life affirming, to be sure, and unforgettable
as well. But it is also critical and unflinching in how it portrays the dehumanizing
effects of government bureaucracy and all the other humdrum forces that conspire
to reduce our lives to colorless days, and deadly dull existences. Rare is the
person who wakes up and realizes the preciousness of life, the film tells us.
And even these men, who were so moved by Watanabe's example, go right back to
living as they were, stuck in the same behavioral ruts. The film speaks to us
about how we can live, how we can come alive and actually BE in our life. Very good to know
but extremely difficult to put into practice.
The above commentary is mostly by Ron Loftus, but it incorporates a small portion of the review found at: http://www.reelmoviecritic.com/20036q/id1878.htm
[The Reel Movie Critic in this review mistakenly refers to Watanabe as "Ikiru" as though that were a name and not an exhortation about life and living.]
Akira Kurosawa is the most popular and critically acclaimed Japanese
director in the west. He was also the first Japanese director to cross over
in the west with his film, "Rashomon." This may be because his work
is accessible and it is very influenced by American film in general, and John
Ford's works in particular. Some in his native Japan prefer the works of his
peers, Yasujiro Ozu or Kenji Mizoguchi because they have more of a "Japanese
The highly respected star of Ikiru, Takashi Shimura, was one of Kurosawa's
favorite actors. They worked together in "Rashomon," "The Seven
Samuraii," "Throne of Blood," "The Hidden Fortress,"
and virtually all of Kurosawa's early works. Shimura also played the altruistic
doctor who martyrs himself in "Godzilla: King of the Monsters."
Ikiru is one of the most accomplished films by one of Japan's best directors.
It is mandatory viewing for anyone with even a passing interest in Asian film.
It's also a perfect gateway film for international film novices.