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.
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 - IMDb