“Sometimes I think of my death,” Kurosawa has written: “I think of ceasing to be . . . and it is from these thoughts that Ikiru came.” The story of a man who knows he is going to die, the film is a search for affirmation. The affirmation is found in the moral message of the film, which, in turn, is contained in the title: Ikiru is the intransitive verb meaning “to live.” This is the affirmation: existence is enough. But the art of simple existence is one of the most difficult to master. When one lives, one must live entirely––and that is the lesson learned by Kanji Watanabe, the petty official whose life and death give the meaning to the film.
As with The Drunken Angel and High and Low, Kurosawa chose to break Ikiru in half. In the 1948 film, the reason was that he was tracing a parallel between doctor and gangster; in the 1963 picture, he was concerned with practice and theory (and illusion and reality) on a very large scale. In Ikiru it is important that the second half becomes posthumous, because much of the irony of the film results from a (wrong) assessment of Watanabe’s actions made by others after his death. Or, to put it another way, we have seen what is real—Watanabe and his reactions to his approaching death. In the second half, we see illusion—the reactions of others, their excuses, their accidental stumblings on the truth, their final rejection of both the truth and of Watanabe.
Perhaps for this reason Kurosawa insists so much upon the “reality” of the first half, and uses all cinematic techniques to make certain that we become absolutely convinced of this reality. Not that he insists upon the literal, far from it. He, along with the writer whom Watanabe meets, knows that “art is not direct.” Rather he uses a variety of styles (expressionistic, impressionistic, etc.) in conjunction with almost all of the techniques of which the camera is capable.
The picture begins with plain lettering, white on black (a bit like that of Citizen Kane, which this film in more than one way resembles but which Kurosawa had not yet seen) and under it is what becomes the main musical theme of the film. It is a fugue or, to be more precise, a ricercare. Whether this (ricercare means to search for again, to hunt for, or to follow) was intentional or not, it was certainly a happy thought because this, after all, is what the film is about. The first scene is a close-up of an x-ray. We are thus shown Watanabe’s inside before we are shown his outside, and we are shown the cancer (literally) as defining the man. In the same way, throughout the first half of the film, we are shown his body and what he does; in the second half the body has disappeared and we are shown––through the conversation of others—his soul, what remains of him.
Like Sartre’s Roquent, like Camus’ “foreigner” (who also knows he is going to die), like Kafka’s Gregor and Doestoevsky’s Prince Myushkin, Watanabe discovers what it means to exist, to be—and the pain is so exquisite that it drives him, it inspires him. He conceives the plan that will save him, though in the simplest of terms it is a form of insurance against having “lived in vain.” He rescues the petition from certain oblivion and turns wasteland into a park. He has flung himself onto this one thing that will keep him afloat. He forces the park into being.
The meaning is that Watanabe has discovered himself through doing. Perhaps without even grasping the profound truth he was acting out, he behaved as though he believed that it is action alone that matters; that a man is not his thoughts, nor his wishes, nor his intentions, but is simply what he does. Watanabe discovered a way to be responsible for others, he found a way to vindicate his death and, more important, his life. He found out what it means to live.
The office-workers (at least when drunk at the wake) seem to believe this. They are loud in their sobs of repentance and their praise of the dead (this wake is not in the slightest overdone—Japanese wakes are always like this: drunk, full of back-biting toward the deceased, to end in an orgy of praise and fellow-feeling around dawn) but––sober––they have forgotten their moment of truth. Only one—the one who first spoke up for Watanabe at the wake—remembers. He is reprimanded. He sits down, and Kurosawa has so placed the camera that he disappears behind his piles of papers as though he were being buried alive. He has—in his way—become Watanabe. And the final scene also suggests this. This clerk is on his way home. It is evening. Below the bridge where he stands is the park that Watanabe made. He stops and looks at the sunset just as Watanabe has in an earlier scene when he stopped, at the same place, looked, and said: “Oh, how lovely––I haven’t seen a sunset for thirty years.” It is as though this single clerk might remember Watanabe’s lesson—a man is what he does.
On the other hand, it is quite possible that Kurosawa would disagree with this interpretation of his picture. He certainly did not think of himself as an existentialist. Still, throughout his films there runs a moral assumption that has much in common with the existential thesis. The same thing occurs in Dostoevsky, a disaffiliate whom the existentialists have claimed, and it is telling that the Russian author should be the director’s favorite.
Of course, one of the fine things about Ikiru is that, like other great films, it is a moral document and part of its greatness lies in the various ways in which it may be interpreted. Here, as in the novels of Dostoevsky, we see layer after layer peeled away until man stands alone––though what the layers mean and what the standing man means may vary with the interpretation. Personally (as I have indicated) I think it means that man is alone, responsible for himself, and responsible to the choice that forever renews itself. This interpretation has never been better put than by Richard Brown, when he wrote:
Ikiru is a cinematic expression of modern existentialist thought. It consists of a restrained affirmation within the context of a giant negation. What it says in starkly lucid terms is that ‘life’ is meaningless when everything is said and done; at the same time one man’s life can acquire meaning when he undertakes to perform some task that to him is meaningful. What everyone else thinks about that man’s life is utterly beside the point, even ludicrous. The meaning of his life is what he commits the meaning of his life to be. There is nothing else.
This piece was originally published in Donald Richie’s The Films of Akira Kurosawa, ©1996 University of California Press. This excerpt reprinted by permission of the author and the publisher.
Donald Richie is the author of numerous books on Japanese cinema, including A Hundred Years of Japanese Film (Kodansha International) and The Films of Akira Kurosawa and Ozu (both published by the University of California Press).
See also this short review that compares Ikiru with Frank Capra's It's a Wonerful Life:
"It’s a wonderful death"
Kurosawa’s Ikiru is the ultimate tearjerker
BY CHRIS FUJIWARA
Directed by Akira Kurosawa. Written by Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, and Hideo Oguni. With Takashi Shimura, Miki Odagiri, Nobuo Kaneko, Kumeko Urabe, Kamatari Fujiwara, and Nobuo Nakamura. In Japanese with English subtitles. A Cowboy Pictures re-release (143 minutes).
DOING SOMETHING: it's in transforming an insalubrious lot into a children's playground that Watanabe comes to life.
The season may impose it, but the comparison’s worth making anyway. Ikiru, Akira Kurosawa’s moving 1952 masterpiece, is, among other things, an alternate version of Frank Capra’s Christmas classic, It’s a Wonderful Life. The ideology is different (Ikiru represents the reformist idealism of postwar Japan, just as It’s a Wonderful Life expresses postwar America’s longing for continuity with the past), but the similarities are striking. Above all, both films hinge on a crucial moment of vision, in which a man confronts his own annihilation as a possibility. But Capra’s movie flirts with the dread of nonexistence only to banish it from its realm. In Ikiru, death is embraced.
Near the beginning of Ikiru, Watanabe (Takashi Shimura), a section chief in a city government, learns that he will soon die of cancer. He resolves to seek value in his wasted life. This second chance is the equivalent of that granted to Capra’s George Bailey, who’s tempted to throw away his existence as worthless and then saved by the sight of what his small town would be like had he never been born. But in Ikiru, everything we see, are told, or can infer about Watanabe’s career corroborates his own judgment on it: for 30 years he’s been like a dead person.
For his co-workers, his son, and his son’s wife, he barely exists: he’s already a ghost, a "mummy" — the nickname given him by a co-worker (Miki Odagiri). The death sentence he receives at the hospital merely confirms it. And for the first days after this sentence, Watanabe lives more than ever as if he were already dead. He vanishes from his office, leaving behind an empty workspace surrounded by accumulating paperwork (for which no one is waiting too impatiently, it seems). He tries but fails to make contact with the son for whom, in his own mind, he has sacrificed everything. We see Watanabe paralyzed, withdrawn from the world: frozen on the stairs leading to his son’s room, huddled weeping under a blanket.
His wild night out with a chance acquaintance ends in an exhausted stalemate with the unfamiliar world of good times. He seeks the company of the girl from the office, trying to buy her youth; she’s frightened and repelled by his need. But she inadvertently gives him the hint — "Do something" — that makes him finally come to life.
At this point — a little more than halfway into the film — Kurosawa takes Watanabe away from us, by a narrative ellipsis whose audacity astonishes no matter how many times you’ve seen the film. "Five months later," the narrator says, "the hero of this story died." It’s crucial that once Watanabe chooses the mission that will define his life (transforming an insalubrious lot into a children’s playground), we should lose direct knowledge of him. From that point on, everything we know of him will come through the reports of the people at his wake (in the second long section of the two-part film), and Watanabe will appear only in the short flashbacks illustrating what they tell of him.
Kurosawa’s strategy here is double. He asks whether Watanabe can serve as a positive value not just through the consequences of his act, but in his example to his survivors (us included). And he suggests that the authentic life can’t be represented, that it’s deeply private. The tension between the representable and the private is the source of the immense pathos of Ikiru. It can be felt most strongly at moments when Kurosawa’s sentimentality — a word I see no point in avoiding — meets his love of striking visual contrast. In a nightclub filled with dancing young couples, Watanabe softly sings an old song called "Life Is So Short" while the camera, lingering behind a swaying beaded curtain, shows the dancers’ faces as they realize they’re in the presence of a deep sadness. Among Ikiru’s other indelible images: the mute excitement with which Watanabe, seeing the vacant lot for the first time during a rain shower, steps out from under the umbrellas of his entourage to explore it. Or the electric close-up of him drinking from a pan of water whose reflections flash on his cheek.
All these moments rely on the slow, sad, and amazed face of the marvelous Takashi Shimura. His Watanabe is a sublime creation, around whom Kurosawa constructs a film of commensurate beauty and strength.