Rewatching “Ikiru”Posted: May 11, 2012
Every few years or so, I rewatch the Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 film Ikiru. There is no obvious reason I submit to this biyearly penance. It’s a movie with no violence or nudity. It contains no great love story and says little about liberals or conservatives or the validity of this or that gun law. I rewatch it simply because it is one of the few movies that forces me like a reflecting mirror to face the unavoidability of my death. As Stanley Elkin once said, “I would never write about someone who is not at the end of his rope.” Similarly, I find it hard to rewatch anything unless it is about people at the end of their rope.
Ikiru tells the tale of Watanabe, an old man who learns he has stomach cancer and only has a year to live. The discovery comes as a shock and causes him to reflect on how he has wasted his life. He has worked for 30 years as a middle-management bureaucrat in Tokyo’s City Hall, but those years of service provide little comfort now. There is a devastating scene early in the movie where Watanabe cries himself to sleep as the camera slowly pans up to an award for 25 years of loyal service.
Ikiru follows Watanabe as he tries to find some meaning in his last days. His first attempt is carousing, finding comfort in booze and women, a solution I know many of the DUFL Press writers find familiar. The booze is a temporary salve but provides little comfort for his emptiness. The woman helps temporarily too, providing Watanabe with his only comfort in the face of his coming death. But soon that abandons him too.
Eventually Watanabe finds his solution: he uses his position in city government to turn a rotting cesspool into a new park for a neighborhood. A group of woman, who are shown early in the movie, have been previously ignored in their attempts to build the park. Watanabe becomes a madman in his attempts to build the park for them, personally going from bureaucrat to bureaucrat’s office, determined to see that the children’s park is built before he dies. It leads to the movie’s climax, one of the great closing shots in cinema history (see the above picture).
After rewatching Ikiru, there were many simple joys that I had forgotten. Take Watanabe’s new ostentatious hat, a metaphor for his change in spirit. Or the lyrics to the song Watanabe sings in a bar after a long night of drinking:
Life is so short
Fall in love, dear maiden
While your lips are still red
And before you are cold,
For there will be no tomorrow.
Life is so short
Fall in love, dear maiden
While your hair is still black
And before the fire in your heart dies down
For today will never come again.
But the big themes are joyful too. As I have gotten older and life has become more demanding and difficult, as I have suffered more and recovered ever so slowly, I see more of myself in Watanabe than I did as 22-year-old first watching the movie.
What strikes me most about Watanabe’s story is the modesty of his purpose. It’s very easy to see someone’s life and assume they are happy and living a life they think is important. It’s automatically assumed by many, myself included, that money and sex and having every pleasure at one’s disposal leads to a life that one finds meaningful and worth living.
But Watanabe, in the face of his waking death, searches for something much humbler to finally give his life meaning. It has little to do with accomplishment, as he dies before the park is fully used. It has everything to do with finally acting from a sense what is important to him, from not letting fear, pain, or despair overcome him and to finally act, even if it’s just once, out of a sense what he believes is right.
It’s a sentimental, and some would say, hokey theme. But in the hands of Kurosawa, it’s compassionate and beautiful. Roger Ebert wrote about this film, “I think this is one of the few movies that might actually be able to inspire someone to lead their life a little differently.” After watching this movie for the fifth or sixth time, it is hard to disagree. When I was 22, this story seemed to be the story of a pitiable old man who never lived. As I get older and older, I have come to realize it is really about all of us, the light, and dredges of humanity.