I’ve almost seen all the BIG Kurosawa films at this point. I think the only two essentials I’m missing are Ran and High and Low. Though I did watch part of High and Low in a class once—I saw the Low part. My takeaway from the Kurosawa films I have seen is that Kurosawa is a filmmaker that tells stories about characters with a lot of grit. Nine times out of ten those characters are played by Toshiro Mifune. If you’re not familiar with Mifune he’s the ultimate badass. Sometimes he’s a Man with No Name-type samurai. Sometimes he’s an overburdened cop desperate for resolution. Sometimes he’s insane. The bigger the better. But Takashi Shimura in Kurosawa’s 1952 drama Ikiru is a different kind of character.
Ikiru isn’t about a samurai or a cop or a king. It’s about a mid-level bureaucrat named Kanji Watanabe (Shimura), a man living such an insignificant life that it’s addressed from the top by the narrator. Actually, even before we meet Watanabe we are introduced to an X-ray of his stomach. The narration points out that Watanabe has stomach cancer and will die in six months. A grim fate told with Kurosawa’s trademark dark humor.
I was afraid to watch this film. I have a hard time watching sad movies. They are sad! But Ikiru is special. It puts that sadness in perspective with both its unusual structure and honesty. The film is never too somber nor too saccharine. In an alternate universe, there’s a worse version of this film by Frank Capra. Not to bash Capra. I like that guy. But Kurosawa isn’t an overly sentimental filmmaker. He tells it as it is. Which makes the film more relatable. I think we’ve all had that question, “If I were to die SOON what would I do with my life?” Or even “What is my life?” The title of the film “Ikiru” even translates to “To Live.” What does that mean for Watanabe? For any of us?
It’s a tough break for Watanabe. It always has been. His wife died. He has a bad relationship with his son. His job sucks. Even when he gets cancer he doesn’t hear it from the doctor, but rather someone else in the waiting room. He sinks into depression but makes efforts to make amends with his son. After that is fruitless, Watanabe decides he’s going to hide his illness from those that know him well. Later, he finds himself awash in the Tokyo nightlife and observes those around him as they experience the highs and lows of life… See what I did there?
The film has that Lost Weekend feel for a portion until Watanabe is inspired by a young female employee named Toyo (Miki Odagiri). Toyo informs Watanabe that she’s leaving her position to go make toys. A job that fulfills her creativity and in turn helps children. This gives Watanabe the epiphany to fix up an old park that is highlighted earlier in a comedic montage of numerous bureaucrats ignoring the restoration project.
Earlier I mentioned the film’s unique structure. Going in I had no idea Watanabe was going to die 3/4’s of the way into the film with the last portion depicting his funeral and the people he knew reflecting on his life. The power of this is none of these people knew that Watanabe knew he was sick. Some believe he knew but others have their doubts. Regardless that inspires them to enrich their lives… which they don’t. Only Watanabe makes the change. That may sound like a bummer but you have to admire the truth of that. Only when faced with death can we truly reflect.
The film’s closing flashback, which is also the film’s most iconic shot might be one of the most powerful scenes that Kurosawa ever shot. We see that Watanabe has built his park and enjoys a ride on the swing set while singing a song in the snow. It’s a remarkable contrast from the version of Watanabe we see earlier in the film. Earlier, Watanabe is hunched over, miserable and cramped in his sweltering office. And we close with him upright in the cold snow with a song in his heart. A profound piece of filmmaking. Sure, he doesn’t shoot anyone or chop anyone in half, but he exits this mortal plain with courage and fulfillment. Now that’s grit.