“[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.
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.
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.