Ikiru - Meaning of Life Through The Exploration of Death

                        Akira Kurosawa's popularity has been based primarily on his samurai and period films. Despite the championship of many critics, his contemporary dramas are relatively neglected. Ikiru ("To Live") is the major exception to this rule. Its reputation rested initially on the seriousness of its subject, its humanism, its social criticism, and the power and directness of its appeal. 

                     Could a 62 year-old Japanese film about a dying old man be one of the best films ever made? Well, if you are wise, observant viewer then this will be a soulful art film. To watch 'Ikiru' is like, profoundly affected by a work of art. Whatever the feeling, this is a gift that isn't often given. It is actually extremely rare, truly precious. If Kurosawa's Rashomon is a sort of mental chess game, then Ikiru is a spike to the heart.

                   Often heavy-handed but never less than heartfelt, Ikiru is universal in its thrust and startlingly shrewd in its narrative structure.

The movie centers on Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura), a civil servant laboring in the city bureaucracy for thirty years, a widower who never remarried, and the father of an ungrateful son. When Watanabe is told he has terminal cancer, he tells nobody but finds that he is really alone and estranged from his family. He suddenly sees that his life has been dull and useless, wasted in an office from which he has not been absent in 30 years. 

          He draws out his money and goes out into the Tokyo night. He meets a deadbeat poet in whom he confides. They go out on the town. He goes home where his uncomprehending son reproaches him. Meeting one of his office girls  he finds her new job, that of making toys for children, and gives himself a sudden goal. 

          He pushes a needed children's park through all the bureaucratic red tape. Watanabe decides to become highly assertive in the construction of a park in his city. Half of the film is told in the third person and half is his sacrifice as seen through the eyes of guests at his funeral. 

                Takashi Shimura as Watanabe give a deep and exhaustive notion of a man tormented by frustration and the dread of approaching death. It is easy to see why he is one of Kurosawa's favorite actors. We watch him go through a series of rather ordinary experiences - an escapist night on the town, a dinner with a young woman from his office. But as he goes through these motions, he is remembering his life, the turns it took, the things that didn't happen. There are some flashbacks,  but, most of all, there are thoughts and feelings as they scroll across the actor's face.

             Without preaching, Kurosawa plainly teaches lessons. He does so with dry humor. Classic Japanese bureaucracy comes into  play (Very much like our Indian government officials) -- the people are sent from department to department: Parks, Hygiene, Health, Pipes, Environment, Insects, City Planning, Roads, Education, and to the City Council. Every department claims that its hands are tied and refers the group to another department in a ceaseless bureaucratic procedure. Can anyone make such an efficient system work on  a project, when each department determines to do nothing but shift papers and responsibilities elsewhere? 

              Asked by a colleague how he can put up with the act of a selfish and insensitive bureaucrat, Watanabe responds, "I can't be angry with anyone. I haven't the time."  With that Kurosawa takes a potent shots at the hypocrisy of the power brokers. The structure of the film is fascinating. In the film's first half, we watch Watanabe's response to the news of his impending mortality, and he is not exactly gracious in acknowledging this defeat. He is at turns morose, pitiful, and angry.  

             However, the film takes an interesting turn upon Watanabe's death at the half-way mark. Somewhat surprisingly, we learn, through a series of flashbacks, that our hero enjoyed a change of heart and dedicated himself to a cause. In the end, Watanabe finds meaning not by indulging his grief, but by moving outside of the personal into the political, and the communal sides. In lesser hands, Ikiru would have descended into sentimental melodrama. But master director Akira Kurosawa ensures that Takashi Shimura's dying bureaucrat never becomes an object of pity. 

              Ikiru is a meticulously constructed, poignant movie. Roger Ebert said in his review of Ikiru, "I think this is one of the few movies that might actually be able to inspire someone to lead their life a little differently." It's that sort of film, really.


Ikiru - IMDb


FolkTalesUrbanLegends said...

Interesting, have just watched Seven Samurai and Rashomon, this should be something different. Have to get hold of Criterion Edition though.

Jayashree Srivatsan said...

Seems interesting

Arun Kumar said...

@Sandeep, Thanks for the comment. Yeah, its a different movie, when compared to Kurosawa's Samurai movies.

@jaish_vats, yeah it's a interesting movie, and do watch it.