The film starts with an X-ray of a man’s stomach while the narrator announces that our protagonist is dying of stomach cancer. There is no traditional suspense. We don’t get that in life either. This is not a question of whether our hero will live or die. This is the story about whether he’ll be able to actually live for the first time in his life.
Kanji: How beautiful! Truly beautiful. A sunset. I don’t think I’ve really looked at one in 30 years.
You might have heard about Akira Kurosawa‘s Seven Samurai, Rashomon or Yojimbo, but when I first watched Kurosawa, the movie that got me completely overwhelmed was a simple story about life and death called Ikiru, meaning “to live”. Inspired by Leo Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich, the film portrays the struggle of a terminally ill bureaucrat Kanji Watanabe who tries to find some meaning in his dull repetitive life. Picturing the utter incompetence and absurdity of the bureaucracy, we see desperate parents referred from one department to another when they try to build a playground in the neighborhood. After learning he had less than a year to live due to stomach cancer, he refuses to tell his son and daughter-in-law, who only care about his pension. Kanji soon encounters a young female friend Toyo. By observing the way she lives her life without any worries, he tries to spend as much time as possible with her to experience life through young eyes and make something significant in his life. Kanji Watanabe decides to make the playground wish happen.
Kurosawa is the most Western of Japanese directors. Like Billy Wilder, he considered the story as the foundation of everything, and even had a team called the Kurosawa group. These members would sit around a table in a hot-springs resort and work on the story together, without any distractions from the outside world. Kurosawa both directed and edited most of his films, day by day, stating that editing of a film is the most important part of the whole process. One of the most iconic cinematic techniques is the so-called wipe, that was created through an optical printer. A line moves across the screen. Previous image is being wiped and the next image is simultaneously being revealed. Such as silent-movie remnant is present here, showing us different points of view in the bureaucratic apparatus with the same camera and character setup, and telling us that it is the same story all over again.
Kurosawa gets rid of the dramatic suspense whether our character will die or not. He will. And the film does not end here. We get to see people talking about Watanabe at his wake. They are misinterpreting his actions. They are questioning his role in the playground process. They are talking about him, even though no one noticed him while he was alive. In the beginning of the film, the narrator had warned us: “in fact, this man has been dead for more than twenty years now”.
Kanji: All these 30 years – what have I been doing there? I can’t remember no matter how I try. All I remember – is just being busy – and even then I was bored.
Some striptease. Playing pachinko. A bar. Watanabe tries to find a distraction. But he is still alone. In the middle of a bar, he sings Gondola no Uta. Everybody falls still and listen to a choked falsetto taking over the piano player. Young people around Watanabe are aware that their youthfulness and happiness will ultimately fade. A Kurosawa wipe is needed here to show us that we will all take this man’s place sooner or later. As the song states, for there is no such thing as tomorrow, after all.
Kanji: What have I been living for all these years?
Goodwin, James (1993). Akira Kurosawa and Intertextual Cinema. The Johns Hopkins University Press.
Goodwin, James (1994). Perspectives on Akira Kurosawa. G. K. Hall & Co.
Kaufman, Aryeh (2009). A Study of Kurosawa’s Ikiru. Offscreen.com.
Thomas, Dylan (2011). “Looking for Meaning in All the Wrong Places: Ikiru (To Live)”. Thinking Through Film: Doing Philosophy, Watching Movies. Wiley-Blackwell.
Very good review. I agree that Ikiru is a powerful and inspirational movie. I actually reviewed it on one of my blogs, too!