Akira Kurosawa | 2hr 23min
Death has come slowly for government worker Kanji Watanabe, settling over his monotonous life long before he receives his stomach cancer diagnosis. To his younger co-worker, Toyo, he is known as “the Mummy,” plodding through familiar routines like a tired, thoughtless creature reluctantly tied to the mortal world. After briefly taking offence, he accepts the accuracy of the metaphor. It has been a long time since he felt the vitality that comes with innovation, altruism, and human connection – thirty years, to be exact, as that is when he began working in the Public Affairs division at City Hall. A prison built from endless stacks of paper wrap around his office desk in an oppressive display of mise-en-scène, and from a reverse shot Akira Kurosawa brings careful precision to his blocking of colleagues on either side of him like guards. Ikiru is far from the samurai films he is most known for, and yet the Japanese auteur brings the same formal grandeur to this existential search for life’s meaning as he does in his sprawling historical epics.
For such a pensive character study, Kurosawa keeps us at an unusual distance from Watanabe’s first-hand experience. We are led into this story by an omniscient voiceover informing us of his tumour before even he finds out, which itself pays homage to Ikiru’s literary roots in Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich. For a time though, we do disappear into his own subjective memories of the past, reflecting on his failures as a single father following his wife’s death.
The sight of a baseball bat triggers a flashback to a game his son, Mitsuo, played in as a young boy and struck out on. Kurosawa’s match cut back to the present via a pair of close-ups reveal a man who once felt disappointment in his son, and yet is now overcome with remorse. So too does he recall his abandonment of Mitsuo the day of his appendicitis surgery, prioritising “other things” he had to do. It is telling how little the details of those distractions have stuck around in his memory. Ikiru’s third-person narration is savage in its judgement, declaring that this lonely father has been so caught up in “the minutia of the bureaucratic machine and the meaningless busyness it breeds” that “in reality, he does nothing at all.”
Only when Watanabe sees the final months of his life slipping away does his silent discontent start to worm its way out of his subconscious, and assert itself at the forefront of his mind. Kurosawa has always drawn magnificent performances out of his actors, and Takashi Shimura is no exception here, whose existential anxiety is etched into the lines on his ageing face, now visibly haunted by his own impending demise. His eyes widen with terror, as if cutting through time to see the truth of his wasted past and future, and desperately searching for some way he can change his legacy.
His encounters with two separate figures of wisdom shine a light forward. The first is a quirky novelist he meets in a pub who resolves to become a beneficent Mephistopheles – the demonic wish-granter of the Faust legend – though one who won’t ask for his soul in return. Their journey through the urban nightlife begins Watanabe’s solemn awakening, and Kurosawa brings a delicate beauty to these scenes, passing city lights across car windows and gently ascending his camera up to the top storey of a club. There, he invokes a magical silence among its patrons with a simple song request to the pianist. As ‘Gondola no Uta’ plays, he quietly sings of life’s beauty and brevity, and tears spring to his eyes. There are few scenes in film history that are so purely moving as this melancholy musical rendition, which may only be beaten by its reprise later in the film.
When the sun rises, he happens upon his second guide, Toyo, who is handing in her resignation with the resolution that life is too short to waste in such a soul-sucking bureaucracy. After begging her for the secret to her enthusiasm, the answer is revealed to be quite simple – she spends her free time making children’s toys. Therein lies the inspiration he needs to change his entire trajectory.
Kurosawa is incredibly efficient in his storytelling, as a scene we can only have assumed early on is pure exposition returns later as a major plot point. A proposal for clearing out a cesspool and replacing it with a park makes the rounds at City Hall, with each department passing off responsibility onto another and thereby leaving it on a constant loop of inaction. In this montage of endless wipe transitions, it is almost comical just how frustrating the situation is, though this is not some isolated demonstration of the government’s incompetence. The construction of this park becomes Watanabe’s life goal in his remaining months, seeing it through to its end – and then after a time jump forward to its completion at about the 90-minute mark, he passes away.
It is an audacious shift in narrative that Kurosawa implements here, and an incredibly inspired one at that. Much like the opening narration, we are placed in the hands of a party observing Watanabe’s life from the outside, though these voices are far from objective. At his funeral, colleagues congregate and ponder what brought about his sudden shift in disposition, and in the formal piecing together of their personal memories, Ikiru effectively transforms into a Citizen Kane-like study of man’s depth and unknowability.
Quite notably, Watanabe had never told anyone of his illness. He was found frozen to death in the park he built, and only when an autopsy was conducted did it become publicly known that he had cancer, leaving everyone to wonder whether even he was aware of his illness. Surely he did, some reason, given his reinvigoration. In these flashbacks, we notice a slouch gradually take hold of his weakened shoulders, but no longer is his face turned downwards in a permanent pout. He is more persistent than ever, physically chasing down colleagues in hallways about deadlines until they are deliberately avoiding him.
“Only his work was keeping him alive,” one man claims, recalling how hands-on Watanabe was on the park project from start to finish. Even on a rainy day, he went out there with the women who first put forward the proposal, huddling beneath umbrellas to see his vision spring to life. Kurosawa uses the weather to illustrate the uphill journey from here, as later someone else recalls how he paused while out on a walk to look at the sunset for “the first time in thirty years.” The transcendence of the moment is matched with an elegant low angle, slowly tracking the camera forward on the pair of silhouettes gazing into the distance.
This is the sort of crisp, perfectly composed imagery that one can expect from Kurosawa during his fruitful 1950s period, infusing his cinematography with a rich depth of field which emphasises his intricately layered blocking, and yet it shouldn’t be taken for granted in Ikiru. Even the film’s most minor players are characterised by their staging, staggered across layers of the frame. Meanwhile, this deep focus also renders Watanabe’s existential journey with melancholy detail, at one point contrasting it against a joyous birthday party in the background.
Perhaps the most profound use of this ambitious technique though is that shot which arrives towards the film’s end, playing out as the flashback recounted by one policeman who spotted him sitting on the park’s swing set a few hours before he passed away. Slowly, the camera tracks to the side, gazing through a grid of climbing bars where frames within frames funnel down to the lonely figure sitting on the other end. Once again he croons ‘Gondola no Uta’ to himself, though this time with no accompaniment, and with far more contentment than his previous rendition. Watanabe is not letting the cancer take him, but rather chooses to go out on his own terms, and on the site of his enduring legacy no less.
As those mourning men at his funeral bring their contemplations to a close, many of them claim that they would have done the same in the same situation. As one of them suggests though, they could die at any time. A direct translation of Ikiru to English is ‘To Live’, and it is in formally binding Watanabe’s spiritual revitalisation so closely to this ideal that Kurosawa gracefully transforms his introspective study of mortality into a broader consideration of life’s subjective yet highly intrinsic purpose.
Ikiru is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel.