Drama

Mr Watanabe’s Life-Fulfilling Project

Mr Watanabe (___) swings in a park that he built. Image: The Guardian
Mr Watanabe (Takashi Shimura) swings in the park he built. Image: The Guardian

“[T]his is one of the few movies that might actually be able to inspire someone to lead their life a little differently,” writes movie critic Roger Ebert.

Ebert is speaking of the award-winning Japanese film Ikiru (1952), a haunting story about the meaning of one man’s life. Ikiru, in Japanese, means “to live”.

The film is about a civic government bureaucrat, Mr Watanabe (played by Takashi Shimura), who is Public Affairs Section Chief for the city. He spends his days stamping papers and moving them from one desk to another. In this way, he accomplishes nothing, which is how a person protects his job.

Outside of the office, Mr Watanabe lives a quiet, simple life with his son and daughter-in-law. The couple barely tolerate him and cannot wait to claim their inheritance so they can live the life they want to live – sans the old man. Mr Watanabe, it appears, has no friends, no hobbies, no outside interests.

However, when he is diagnosed with stomach cancer, suddenly Mr Watanabe realizes he has cheated himself. He has done nothing but work and save for the past 30 long and empty years. For what purpose?

Now that he’s aware of how little time he has left, and how precious that time is, he starts asking the Big Questions of life. This leads to a life-changing transformation in which he decides to do one great, selfless thing before he dies.

Mr Watanabe (dkfj d, right) mourns for the life he did not have. Image: laksdjf d
Mr Watanabe mourns for the life he did not live. Image: Slant Magazine

Here is the one great thing Mr Watanabe does: He builds a city park for children.

The idea starts at the beginning of the film when a group of women approach Mr Watanabe’s department seeking repairs for a damaged culvert in their neighbourhood. Even though the culvert is leaking sewage, the department is uninterested. The women are told to visit a different department, then are subsequently directed to another department, and another… You know how it goes.

We are struck by these women. They are not a wealthy, impressive-looking group, but they are determined. We notice there are no men in their midst, and this absence reminds us that WWII was not so long ago.

Surely these women represent some of the most vulnerable people in a country that lost nearly three million military and civilian lives during WWII. The war left over nine million people homeless and, for the remainder of the 1940s, over 100,00 people died from tuberculosis each year. WWII had left Japan in a bad economic situation, with food and material shortages, so there were a lot of places valuable public funds could be spent.

In this post-war atmosphere, it would be easy – and politically justifiable – for bureaucrats to dismiss these women. They are voiceless, powerless mothers from a poor neighborhood, subject to the whims of civic bureaucrats. But this is precisely why Mr Watanabe’s life transformation is so remarkable. He is going to help people who could never repay him.

Mr Watanabe, flanked by his staff, surveys a damaged culvert. Image: kdsjf dksfj
Mr Watanabe, flanked by his assistants, surveys a damaged culvert. Image: m00ch’s m00vies

The story of Mr Watanabe’s life transformation is told in two parts. The first part of the film shows the events leading up to his transformation, told from Mr Watanabe’s point of view. The second part of the film shows the events after the transformation, from the point of view of his peers and staff.

It’s powerful way to tell a story. Director Akira Kurosawa does not rush through either part of the film; he tells the story at a measured pace which allows us to fully absorb Mr Watanabe’s life-changing decision.

In an essay on the Criterion website, film reviewer Alexander Sesonske writes:

Kurosawa’s stature in the West stems primarily from our response to his samurai films, from Rashomon to Ran, filled by exotic characters with familiar emotions, action and conflict and dazzling passages of masterful cinematic creation. By contrast Ikiru is quiet and contemplative, and surely less entertaining. Yet critics both East and West have called it Kurosawa’s greatest achievement…

Director Kurosawa trained as a painter early in life and, after he became a film director, he painted the storyboards for his films. You can see this influence in the way his scenes are framed in Ikiru. One scene in particular, a funeral scene, has a composition that is reminiscent of  Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper.

Ikiru is not an easy film, but it is worth it. We feel a person ought to watch it because, like Roger Ebert says, it could prompt you to lead your life a little differently.

Ikiru: starring Takashi Shimura, Nobuo Kaneko, Shin’ichi Himori. Directed by Akira Kurosawa. Written by Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, Hideo Oguni. Toho Co. Ltd., 1952, B&W, 143 mins.

About the Criterion Supplements:

Ikiru‘s Criterion disc features include a reprint from critic Donald Richie’s 1965 book The Films of Akira Kurosawa. Richie’s beautifully-written excerpt discusses Ikiru as cinematic existentialism. “He [Mr Watanabe] conceives [a] plan that will save him, though in the simplest terms,” writes Richie, “it is a form of insurance against having ‘lived in vain.'”

The set also includes an essay by critic and travel writer Pico Iyer, who discusses how “un-Japanese” the film is. “Of course, at a remove of sixty years,” he writes, “one can also see now how Kurosawa was catching something essential to the Japanese postwar predicament, as his culture began wavering between its Buddhist roots and a new, imported American optimism.”

Two documentaries are included. The first is A Message from Akira Kurosawa: For Beautiful Movies (2000), that documents Kurosawa’s family and childhood. “ookng back on the environment in which Kurosawa grew up,” says the narrator, “you could say he matured as film evolved, and his entire life was dedicated to creating movies.”

The second documentary is Ikiru, created as part of the Toho Masterworks series Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create! (2003). This film features interviews with many filmmakers who worked with Kurosawa, as well as an exploration of the director’s goals, taken from his own notes. It’s also a fascinating look at the process of making movies.

Ikiru itself is a beautifully restored 4K digital transfer, and has updated English subtitles. Audio commentary is provided by Stephen Prince, author of The Warrior’s Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa.

This post is part of the Criterion Blogation hosted by Criterion Blues, Speakeasy and yours truly. Click HERE to see the list of today’s fab entries.

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43 thoughts on “Mr Watanabe’s Life-Fulfilling Project

  1. An amazing tale of Mr. Watanabe. What I like about the way the director choose to tell the story is from the two perspectives that sounds as though it captures the essence of this man and what lead up to the amazing transformation. A movie worth finding ~

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  2. I am a civic government bureaucrat, and I endorse this movie and this review. Seriously, though. Obviously, we all have different tastes, but there are a few movies that, should someone tell me they doesn’t like, I have to wonder for a second whether it’s going to be possible for me to be friends with them after that. Ikiru is on that list.

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  3. I’m not at all familiar with this film but I’ve a feeling it would be one to watch on a blustery afternoon. Luckily, I foresee a few of those in my near future. Time to check out Netflix.

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  4. Wonderful, have to see this! Art with this message (your time here is short so do/be something more) can be so powerful and memorable anyway let alone in the hands of such a great director and set in a country where they had to come back from such hardship. Thanks for reminding me to see this, we are having such a great time discovering all these “new” movies during this blogathon, no? 🙂

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  5. I haven’t seen Ikiru but that takes nothing away from my enjoyment of your thoughtful and articulate review of what is clearly a powerful film. Now I MUST see it.

    Sadly, it seems that most of us don’t understand until later in life, if at all, that it’s much more fulfilling to do something meaningful with our lives than to focus on (what seems) self-protection.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree with you. Sometimes finding a meaningful life doesn’t come until (almost) too late. I hope you have the chance to see this film. I think it needs the Lady Eve’s Reel Life treatment! (Hint Hint)
      P.S. Thanks for your nice comment. 🙂

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  6. Oh, Ruth, this movie made me sob, and so did your review!! Greater praise isn’t possible! I love how you describe Kurosawa’s approach. He was always associated with “big” films but knew when to pull back and let the audience in more intimately, and not to “trumpet” “big” moments. I LOVE this movie and am so glad you gave it the attention and the wonderful write-up it deserves. I absolutely fell in love with this man and his story. Thank you so much!!

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  7. Funny how often you try to warn people that it is “slow.” Methodical and purposeful is more how I would put it. We are really allowed time to slide into this story and character and really live his transformation with him. It’s been two years since I last watched this and will be popping in the new bluray next week when it arrives. Thank you for a thoughtful perspective on a beautiful piece of art.

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  8. Ruth… this review brought me to tears. The story sounds like such a heart breaking, sobering, & realistic story of alienation and social movement in a time not long ago and quite directly connected to our most current world. A beautiful film, I will absolutely need to see ASAP and will assuredly make me feel even more contemplative than I already am… wonderful piece! Thank you for writing about Kurosawa’s poignant jewel.

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  9. Excellent post. I’ve seen Ikiru two or three times now (it’s my favorite Kurosawa, and it’s definitely a movie that can change a person’s life), but I’ve never thought about the post-war context, so I’m glad you highlighted that. Time for another viewing, clearly. Great work!

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  10. Excellent piece, I’ll definitely see this soon. It sounds very moving. I need to see more Japanese films! Sadly, like all Criterion titles, this DVD/blu-ray isn’t available in the UK. But there are various releases of this film over here, including a BFI one which should be a good print though it doesn’t have the Criterion extras, so I’ve added it to my list at the DVD club I belong to.

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    1. The main reason I subscribe to Hulu is access to a large number of criterion titles. iTunes has some as well, and you can filter by availability via these services on the Criterion site.

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  11. This definitely sounds like one I want to see. Not so much for entertainment, but for perspective. I don’t mind slower movies if they have a great message and develop the characters which it sounds like this has both. Thanks so much for bringing it to my attention, Ruth. I appreciated all of the background on the time in history that it takes place, too.

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